Yummy writer Charlotte Beauvoisin visits Yujo Restaurant in Nakasero, a traditional Japanese restaurant with a Californian twist and had a chat with Chef Jeffrey Pandolfe.
Today, I am intrigued to find out what an American Chef is doing in Kampala making Japanese food. Not only is this afternoon’s Top Chef interview an opportunity to learn Chef Jeff’s story, it also gives me a chance to educate myself about Japanese cuisine. I’ve seen and heard the Yujo name many times, but it’s my first visit.
I sense that this reformed vegetarian’s proclamation of ‘I’m not sure if I like sushi’ is just the kind of challenge Chef Jeff likes. It certainly doesn’t diminish his cheerful, enthusiastic welcome.
It’s late afternoon and the restaurant is filled with bright sunshine. Yujo Restaurant is open on two sides, with a large veranda that overlooks a small green garden. Up-tempo music fills the air and the wooden floor bounces gently as the waitresses walk between the kitchen and the customers seated at small square tables.
Just two weeks in-country, Chef Jeff has thrown himself into the deep end and is already reporting positive results from his kitchen colleagues. “I want to learn, Chef,” they tell him.
“I’m very excited about exploring Uganda’s fresh ingredients. The sesame seeds here are so fresh! They make the most delicious dipping sauce. Yellowfin tuna that is found here in Kampala is of a superior quality compared to what we have in the States”. Yujo has personal fishers on the Kenyan coast who catch tuna and snapper and truck it to the restaurant immediately. In a bid to try and be as organic as possible, the farm to table philosophy is very important to them as an establishment.
Chef Jeff’s career spans several continents. This self-taught chef, who once traded washing the dishes for cooking lessons, has been a chef to many celebrities, including actor Joe Pesci, artist Justin Bieber and DJ David Guetta.
Chef Jeff Pandolfe was born in New Jersey and brought up in California. “Like many chefs, my mum’s cooking made me fall in love with food. She taught me how to cook Italian food.”
After High School, a trip to Alaska (to see where his mum and dad first met) was to change his life forever. He lived in Homer, Alaska’s biggest fishing port and “fished all day, and cooked at night.”
“I turned down Fulbright Scholarships to travel. On my trips to Europe, I traced my roots to Napoli (Naples) in Italy. I would offer to clean the dishes for free in exchange for being taught a restaurant’s most popular dish.” Back in the US, Chef Jeff ran seasonal seafood restaurants on the New Jersey coast and ‘put a sushi bar in every restaurant I worked in.’
His internship at Morimoto in New York found Jeff, the only non-Japanese, “in the basement cooking rice for three months before they realised I could cut fish better than most of them.” They were impressed and took him on full-time. Masaharu Morimoto , owner of six restaurants in the US, is best known for being an Iron Chef on the Japanese TV cooking show, which was filmed at Food Network, right next door to Morimoto.
Next, Chef Jeff joined Nobu, which according to him is the world’s most recognised Japanese restaurant and is known for its celebrity guest list. He opened up a restaurant for Nobu in the Bahamas. “I love the Caribbean and had my own sushi bar in Jamaica. I met my wife in St. Martin. She is of Dutch Caribbean descent. She and our two children will be joining me in Kampala soon.”
Next stop Uganda! “This is my first time in Africa. I take a whim and I just go.” You can sense that Chef Jeff is very pleasantly surprised “although there is a lot more traffic in Kampala than I had imagined!”
As for his advice to young people considering a career as a chef, he says “just jump in and do it. Hands-on experience is essential. It’s good to learn certain techniques but I’ve sacked a lot of Cordon Bleu chefs!”
It is clear that Chef Jeff loves fish. He loves kanpachi and hamachi and is looking forward to twinning goat’s cheese with sakes and preparing smoked Nile Perch maki rolls. He will also be introducing table-smoked tuna and freshly smoked, raw fish. He is planning a Chef’s Table, which will be a 12 or 14 course meal. The multi-course menu experience will be a showcase of the chef’s cuisine.
There’s much more to Japanese food than sushi of course… there’s sake! House sake, or Japanese rice wine, is sold in small or large carafes. The restaurant also has a different ‘feature sake’ on the menu every week. Adjacent to the restaurant is Yujo’s grocery store which is stocked with imported Japanese ingredients and Asian flavours. “It sells the widest selection of Japanese beers and whiskeys I’ve ever seen outside Japan,” Jeff tells me.
Chef Jeff talks me through the history of sushi and how, over the course of centuries, it has evolved from a peasant food. Learning the history gives you a deeper appreciation of what you are eating. As our interview draws to a close, Chef Jeff serves us sushi: maki rolls, of rice, seaweed and tuna. I immerse myself in the experience, chopsticks at the ready. It seems I even love the fiery wasabi!
Next, Jeff sets a giant cocktail glass on our table. “Wow!” It’s pretty as a picture, heaped with cubes of raw red-coloured tuna and pink salmon, highlighted by tiny spherical balls of bright orange fish eggs. Long strings of finely shredded white Japanese radish provide a contrasting backdrop and a sharp tang. I’m blown away by the elegant presentation, enough to make me reach for my chopsticks again. I enjoy the contrasting textures and the fresh taste.
Chef Jeff explains the three-dimensional display in front of me. “A plate should be like a mountain, the Japanese say.” He points to the mountains, valleys and rivers that draw the eye (and the tastebuds) to the dish.
I sample everything that is put in front of me. I like to think I haven’t disappointed Chef Jeff. I know I have only scratched the surface of Japanese cuisine but I sense a return visit (especially now I have found where Yujo Restaurant is hidden!)