Ever since founding Rookie Chef in 2013, it’s been a goal of ours to talk with and learn from the veterans in the business — the actual chefs and professionals who make the culinary world their life.
In our inaugural interview, we spoke with Joshua M. Smith — the owner of SATO, a modern Japanese restaurant and sake bar in the heart of the Elmwood Village in Buffalo. Also a Certified Sake Sommelier with SSI (the Sake Service Institute in Japan) and the SSA (Sake School of America), Smith spoke to us about Buffalo’s culinary revolution, drawing inspiration for dishes and advice for fellow Rookie Chefs.
How did SATO come to be?
When we moved back from living in Japan together for 13 years we evaluated the scene in Buffalo and realized that although there were legitimate sushi restaurants there weren’t any authentic restaurants featuring many of the other styles of Japanese cuisine. No one was doing any homestyle soul food type of cooking or Japanese noodles like ramen and soba.
We started first in a different location and eventually found the perfect space and neighborhood in the Elmwood Village for what we were trying to do.
Buffalo is sort of experiencing a culinary/cultural revolution and we thought that now is the perfect time to be a part of that and offer the people of Buffalo something a little different.
Tell us about your background in the culinary world, starting in Japan.
It began in Japan where I got to experience a lot of top-notch international cuisines as well as daily farm-to-table dinners as well as Michelin starred restaurants. Japan is a smaller country which is very mountainous as well as surrounded by oceans so the cuisine is very regionally oriented and seasonal.
I learned a lot about Japanese ingredients from growing the family’s vegetables and herbs on our small farm in Nara prefecture, just outside of Osaka city. I also underwent training at a Buddhist temple in our town in Nara and was introduced to Shojin Ryori, traditional vegetarian temple cuisine, in which I was able to help prepare from time-to-time.
My wife Satomi has a more solid upbringing having been raised in a restaurant family where she helped out from a very young age.
Where does Chef Satomi draw inspiration from to create dishes at SATO?
From travelling all throughout Japan I think we have both experienced a variety of traditional regional dishes.
We’ve also visited many different countries and at times I think she can see comparisons with some of the different ingredients, cooking techniques and flavors that she may lead her to play around with. I think she subtly stays in line with nature and the seasons, letting it be a base for experimentation.
Although she herself will say she is no artist or isn’t a very creative person, I think her developed palate ultimately guides her creativity. Inspiration may come from the memories of growing up in Fukui, a city with a very surrounding rural presence, and all of the culinary experiences she has grown up.
Do you have a favorite menu item at SATO?
I would probably say that my go-to dish is the SATO Ramen. It is very similar to her father’s recipe at “Ichi-Ryu” in Japan. It is a great blend of pork and chicken stock simmered for hours that makes for a soup that is balanced and can be appreciated in the dead of winter and a scorching summer day as well.
I think the Ahi-tuna salad and the avocado salad are great summertime dishes. I probably lean toward what’s on the monthly specials list because it’s a window into where she is at right now, what local ingredient or seasonal ingredient we could find to combine with a traditional Japanese ingredient.
It’s not just fusion for fusion’s sake, it’s her take on a traditional dish or an experiment with new ingredients. It comes down to what tastes best.
In addition to being the owner of SATO, you’re also a certified Sake Sommelier. Pretty impressive.
My sake drinking began in Japan a long time ago, but it wasn’t until more recently that I began to analyze and sort of categorize what I was enjoying. We lived near a few famous sake breweries and frequently visited breweries and distilleries for fun when we were travelling to different areas of Japan.
When I got back here I got connected with Tim Sullivan, a world famous sake sommelier living in New York City. He has sort of been a mentor for me and I eventually studied, took classes in NYC, and became a Sake Advisor and now a Sake Sommelier through the Sake School of America and the Sake Service Institute of Japan.
I enjoy doing demonstrations, sake and food pairings, and coming up with seasonal sake flights regularly at SATO.
How does spirituality and music play into your passion for the culinary world as well?
I think all three of those things are connected by nature and simplicity. Music and the culinary arts are at times either overt expressions of onesself or mere reflections. My shakuhachi bamboo flute music comes from my breath, which is a reflection of my physical, mental, and spiritual state at one particular moment in time.
It is fleeting and will never be heard or played the same way again. The same can be said about food. No two are ever going to be exactly the same.
Even in a ramen bowl where consistancy is the key, the exact same amount and variety of bones used, time simmered, time plated, room temperature, customer’s attitude, will never all be the same twice. It’s nature; “Ichi-go, Ichi-E” is a “one time, one meeting” experience that will never be replicated again. Each moment is always once-in-a-lifetime.
What has been your favorite part about owning and managing a restaurant in Buffalo and WNY?
There are a lot of new places opening up now with chef’s trying different things, smaller menus with more concepts. It’s a very energetic place to be and great to see the people of Western New York exploring different dishes and cuisine more.
Being a part of that is really being a part of something that’s exciting, living and changing daily. It’s a lot of work but it’s never monotonous.
Having traveled the world, what was the best meal or dish that you’ve ever had?
One meal, actually several at the same place, always seems to stick in my mind. In our rural area of Nara there was this place called Magaggino’s basically in the middle of some rice fields and farms. When you go in there the chef has this huge kiln where all of the fresh vegetables and fish are roasted in.
It’s and Italian place but the chef had studied nd won awards in Naples and returned to the countryside to open his restaurant. There are pictures on the walls of his family helping out on the family farm, collecting all of the days vegetables they will use.
The extreme freshness of everything, delicious crispy roasted vegetables and meats, and intercultural connection that is displayed is really overwhelming. I get lost in the dishes as to whether they are Italian or Japanese, but my mouth is pleasantly happy about that.
I also think that an emotional level is built up as well, because you can see where the food is coming from, literally from the vegetable fields and farms where you parked your car, and the people putting so much energy into pleasing you and bringing out the essence of each ingredient. I think I love those meals because I can see and taste the connection of everything.
What kind of advice do you have for budding Rookie Chefs?
I would suggest that you explore all different kinds of international cuisines. If you are drawn to a particular one, really investigate what it is that people from that culture value and appreciate in their flavors. Look at the climate and how those dishes emerged over time.
When you begin to see it from their point of veiw and eventually naturally merge your point of view with that, then I think you can create original dishes that simply taste good and aren’t just contrived. When you embrace something and it becomes a part of you, you are still being true to yourself, which is never static anyways.
The day you say, “This is who I am,” is the day you stop experimenting and seeing it though other people’s eyes. The self is an everchanging thing, never loose your childhood curiosity to explore.
Photos courtesy of SATO Instagram.