In a city like Manhattan that's frayed by sensory overload, rush hours, and the constant tunnel vision of focusing only on what lies ahead, we could use a place to simply get away from it all - to relax, reflect, and enjoy ourselves in the moment. With a background in both art and hospitality, Maiko Kyogoku has created just that at her restaurant, Bessou, which literally and physically embodies the concept of a cozy "getaway home" that we could all use a healthy dose of every so often. At Bessou, she and executive chef Emily Yuen create Japanese dishes reminiscent of her mother's home cooking while breaking free of traditional constraints to explore and embrace the flavors of New York City that Maiko also grew up with. We were invited into this truly warm "home away from home", where we chatted with Maiko and Emily to learn more about the concept, aesthetic, and cuisine behind Bessou.
What was the culinary inspiration behind Bessou?
M: In Japanese, the term "bessou" means “getaway home” or “home away from home”, and I've wanted to turn that into a restaurant concept for a while. The essence of many dishes at Bessou are drawn from my mother's Japanese home cooking that I grew up with. Being born and raised here, her meals were a way for me to connect with and learn about my Japanese heritage. But I also didn't want to ignore all the other flavors I was exposed to. Having grown up in New York City, I wanted to incorporate the diversity of local cultures and cuisines into our menu, and add a reinvented touch to classic Japanese dishes. And I thought Emily would be the perfect chef to execute that culinary vision. We met at Boulud Sud, where she was a sous chef and I was doing private dining. We worked really well together, and she’s incredibly talented in terms of her knowledge and experience in the kitchen. I knew Emily's execution of Western flavors would bring that special touch to elevate the food, and that she'd be able to layer many nuanced flavors on top of Japanese base flavors.
What drove your artistic vision for the restaurant's aesthetic?
M: I’ve always been interested in art and interior design – I previously worked as a project manager for the Japanese artist Murakami, managing his collaboration projects and coordinating the opening events for his retrospectives at museums around the world. My mother was an interior designer and an architect, so I’ve always had an appreciation for Japanese aesthetics. A lot of the choices I made in the design here are a nod to minimalist Japanese architecture, and the wood is meant to add a warm ambience. As an homage to “bessou”, I wanted it to have the comfort of a getaway home but with a Japanese flair, and I hope that’s also reflected in the food.
How do you two collaborate your skills and ideas when it comes to the menu?
E: The inspiration always comes first from Maiko. She often cooks the original dish so that we can taste it together and talk about it. We discuss what makes that dish authentic and what base flavors we need to preserve, and how to develop it further from there. There are always many conversations about each dish before it finally makes its way to the menu.
M: Sometimes we hit the mark from the beginning, and other times we need to keep improving and re-doing it, so there is a lot of trial and error, testing it out, and talking about it over and over.
How do you add your "twist" to Japanese comfort classics without losing too much of the underlying traditional flavors?
E: For someone who’s Japanese, the food should remind them of a traditional dish they’ve had before, but we'll add more seasonal ingredients that might not seem as familiar. I think there needs to be a combination of flavors that trigger some nostalgia along with flavors that they wouldn’t normally associate with that dish.
M: A big part of it is making sure the food touches on a memory for someone who is Japanese – that they immediately recall a traditional dish as kakuni or tempura udon, but also get to enjoy an unconventional approach to its preparation. For instance, we double-fry chicken thighs for our karaage the way it’s traditionally done, but we use Moroccan spices in the batter and serve it with a shiso tzatziki dip. Both Emily and I like to push the bar a bit when it comes to experimenting with our food. It’s really important that we aren’t tied down by the way things are traditionally cooked, and we like to have fun with different ingredients and flavors.
Chef Emily prepares the sake steamed clams, using little neck clams, bamboo shoots and dollops of saffron aoili, served in its own broth.
Maiko, your father is a sushi chef. Does he ever give you feedback about the restaurant?
M: All the time! As a Japanese male sushi chef, he’s really rigid about following the rules, so he definitely likes to put in his two cents. But for the most part, he’s amazed that this kind of cuisine exists – he never would’ve fathomed a restaurant concept like this thirty years ago. Nonetheless, he has played a large role in the restaurant – he makes a lot of the basic sauces, and he comes into prep a lot of the time.
E: Haha, he always has something to say! But in all seriousness, he’s been incredibly supportive in letting us do our own thing and understands our need to do that.
Chef Emily prepares the duck soba bowl, served with green tea soba noodles in a yuzu ginger broth, topped with applewood-smoked duck and spring onions.
Emily, were there a lot of new techniques you had to learn for Bessou?
E: A lot of Japanese techniques are new and so different from all the training I’ve had in the past ten years. I’ve learned a lot from Maiko’s father – like how to air dry and salt cure fish. Maiko also teaches me a lot as well about Japanese techniques and culture. It’s also a lot of reading, and some is self-taught.
M: Emily also befriended a lot of people in the culinary world in New York before we opened Bessou. She staged at Kajitsu and Nare. People in the community were super supportive and were happy to teach her all the basics.
E: Kajitsu is vegan, so it was a different side of Japanese cuisine that was so different from anything I’ve done before. Everything from the way they take care of vegetables and the way they think about food is very special, and their techniques are very different.
Tell us about your plateware and glassware collections.
M: The plateware is a mix of Jono Pandolfi and Korin. I went to Jono’s studio in Union City maybe 5 or 6 times before opening to collect his seconds. It’s a lot of mix-and-match, reminiscent of the way plate collections often are at home. Our sake glass collection was inspired by sake culture in Japan. There, local bars and pubs often let you choose your own sake glass, or will label a bottle of sake with your name on masking tape so that whenever you go back, you know which one is yours. I wanted to bring in a little bit of that personalization, so I like to let people choose their own sake glass, to make them feel like it’s theirs, to make them feel like they’re in the comfort of their home.
In what ways do you culivate your lifestyles?
M: I love cooking with leftovers. My boyfriend always jokes that he wants me to do a “Chopped”-themed dinner. His fridge is really limited so a lot of times that’s what I feel like I'm doing anyway! For me, cooking is therapy, so I love to cook even on my days off and I try to use leftovers whenever I can. We try to practice the Japanese philosophy of “mottainai” (“don’t waste”) at our family meals here too – that’s a really big part of Japanese food culture. That’s why sometimes you’ll see a fish head’s clear broth soup at the end of your sushi meal, or pickles made out of daikon radish skin. It’s important to appreciate where food comes from, and we want to use all parts of it whenever we can. We try to instill that philosophy in the kitchen here.
E: I try to dine out a lot to get exposed to and inspired by different types of cuisines. I also love collaborating with different chefs and artists. Seeing someone else’s perspective definitely inspires us to push the bar and try new things.
M: A few months ago we collaborated with Mickalene Thomas, a contemporary artist who loves food, cooking and entertaining. That was more like food meets art, and we put our own twist on her signature dishes that she likes to serve at her dinner parties. The dishes turned out to represent a little piece of her home at Bessou. For instance, she likes to cook lamb meatballs, so we did tsukune using lamb meat on skewers; she also always serves orange slices with olive oil and salt at the end of a meal, so we did an olive oil gelato using different citruses. We hope to do more collaborations like that in the future with people of different industries, it's really enlightening and inspiring.
Kitchen Snapshot – Maiko Kyogoku
Go-to homemade meal: Mapo tofu. The Japanese version uses miso and tobanjan (seasoned chili sauce) instead of Szechuan peppercorns. I love ground meat – it’s the basis of so many comfort foods, and I just think it’s the best invention ever.
Culinary Quirk: Whenever Emily and I cook together, I tend to open up everything and leaves all the ingredients out – I think it drives her a little nuts. I cook like I’m at home – I don’t have a mise en place station!
Favorite Kitchen Tool: I love my pressure cooker. You can make such great meals out of a pressure cooker in a fraction of the time it would take otherwise. It makes everything taste so much better too.
Favorite serving piece: I have a porcelain charcuterie platter that I got in Portugal when I was in college. It’s a very classic blue and white Portuguese design and has thankfully never chipped – it’s a prized possession of mine.
Kitchen Snapshot – Emily Yuen
Go-to homemade meal: I always love a really good roast chicken. Maiko taught me to do a miso marinade roast chicken – you just rub it, throw it in the fridge for a couple days and throw it in the oven when you’re ready, and serve it with simple vegetables on the side.
Culinary Quirk: Maiko likes to tease me that I’m always really gentle and romantic when it comes to handling fish. And it’s true! I do have a love affair with seafood – I have so much respect for it. I need to be in a really good mood when handling fish, otherwise I feel like I’m going to mess it up.
Favorite kitchen tool: Chopsticks. I think they’re so versatile. I’d never cooked with chopsticks before Bessou, but now I think they’re just the perfect tool to plate and grab anything.
Favorite serving piece: none... I’m a lot more into kitchen tools!
Photography by Anne Z. Chen