Different philosophies about the “culinary arts” can push chefs in wildly different directions. Some want to be the next big thing, become rich and famous, and find themselves hosting game shows on the Food Network. Others see cooking as pure creativity—an expression of themselves and their culture heritage, so they use their dishes to tell stories.
But Kuniko Yagi, the chef and owner of Pikunico at ROW DTLA, has a totally different perspective.
“It’s not me trying to be an artist. It’s me wanting to nourish people,” said Yagi on why she cooks. “Nourishing people, taking care of people with the food I cook. That’s different from ‘this food is my art.’”
But that shouldn’t take anything away from Yagi’s fascinating, nonlinear journey before opening up Pikunico, her own casual picnic-style karaage (Japanese fried chicken) restaurant. Her creativity came through naturally as she navigated difficult situations and constantly learned new skills.
Years ago, when she entered the workforce after college, she got a job as a banker in her native Tokyo. But almost immediately, she realized a life of bland corporate humdrum wasn’t for her. So, she went to her father to express her unhappiness. He answered with an ultimatum: She could leave after three years. Yagi counted down the days.
“‘Understood, three years,’ I said. I’m counting right now. But I never imagined I would live in the United States. I was just working in the middle of Tokyo. My boyfriend at the time was from LA, and that made me come here,” Yagi said. “I had never been here.”
Unfortunately, Yagi’s relationship ended after about a year, and she found herself alone, stranded in a foreign land. She barely spoke English and only had the skills to work a job she hated. So, she took the lead of thousands of LA transplants before her and looked to the restaurant industry. She worked for a while as a waitress in a Japanese restaurant.
As Yagi grew comfortable in her new environment, she spent more time with the cooks and more time thinking about the very real career prospects for chefs. Still, she had reservations. Back in Japan boys train with culinary masters starting at age 16 to become any kind of professional in the restaurant world. But she realized she left behind so many of her cultural expectations when she moved across the Pacific and decided to look for kitchen jobs around LA.
“(People working in kitchens) can get a job anywhere in the world. I’ll have a job if I’m a chef. Everyone needs to eat and be fed,” said Yagi. “(But) it was never starting from ‘I wanted to be a chef since 3 years old.’ When I told my best friends in Japan I’m becoming a chef they couldn’t understand.”
After advice from a regular customer at her waitressing job, she scoured Zagat guides for good restaurants in need of kitchen staff. In a wild turn of fate, she applied to work at Sona, one of Los Angeles’ only Michelin-starred restaurants at the time. Amazingly, one of her other regular customers was David Myers, Sona’s head chef. After what she described as an awkward interview, she managed to get herself a position in one of LA’s top kitchens without ever setting foot in a culinary school. At Sona, she quickly learned the intensity of working in a high-level professional kitchen, along with constant creativity that Myers uniquely demanded from the entire kitchen staff.
“A lot of Michelin restaurants will restrict everyone from creating anything because they want consistency,” Yagi said. “Sona was the only place that was against that. The owner-chef took a chance to be a vanguard and totally different from everyone else. Every week we had a meeting with the entire team and everyone had to bring their own ideas.
“We were on the edge, reading, researching and studying every single night.”
Yagi hit the ground running, learning culinary fundamentals (and a whole lot more English) as she fumbled her way through this new world. She managed to adjust and soon became an essential chef in the Sona kitchen. Not long afterward, she even opened a new restaurant alongside Myers called Hanoki and the Bird. But a deeper conviction about her life’s work nagged at her the whole time.
“I always wanted to be my own boss, ever since I was working in a corporate company after college. I never fit in just listening to what somebody says,” Yagi said.
Finally, after years establishing herself under head chefs, Yagi opened Pikunico—her own restaurant. The Japanese fried kitchen shop, named by combining Yagi’s first name Kuniko and “picnic,” is a casual affair meant to provide a genuinely welcoming space to all kinds of hungry customers.
The idea for Pikunico came from two places. First, the decision to serve fried chicken came from Yagi’s fond childhood memories of eating karaage with her grandmother in Japan. She also realized American fried chicken, made with its signature thick batter, could never really be gluten free like its Japanese counterpart.
Second, the choice to start a casual restaurant after her years in fine dining was inspired by a memory from her time as a banker. Once a week a woman with a cart would come to her building and serve delicious, fresh food to the office workers—a welcome break from the processed sandwiches in a nearby 7-Eleven.
“I don’t want truffles, I don’t want foie gras, I’m done with that,” said Yagi about her decision to open Pikunico. “Cooking at a fine dining restaurant is wonderful, you learn a lot, but I was always thinking I wanted to be a chef who can cook for a majority of people. Who is going to be like everyone’s mom feeding kids. It was important for me who I was feeding. Not every chef thinks about that.”
Now, as Pikunico weathers the COVID-19 pandemic, Yagi is looking ahead to the state of the culinary world from her comfortable position at the head of her own restaurant.
“It’s tough, it’s really tough for them,” she said. “But I know people need restaurants, and people need to dine. Pikunico can feed people regularly, but there are restaurants that need to make it memorable. All that stuff is their effort, great service, great food, great atmosphere. People won’t forget that, and people will come back for that.
“It’s like sifting flour. Coronavirus is the sift. If you really want to stay in your business as you are, you can. It’s how you take it. You need to have a really strong will and say, ‘I’m going to come back and figure it out.’”