What made you decide to be in the culinary industry and how did you start cooking?
I used to watch my mother cook. She would sing while she cooked when I was a little boy and I used to admire her knife skills.  As a child you don’t really think that cutting without looking down is possible. But I used to watch her chop things up and food became a really important part of our relationship. So it was something that fit me very well.

By the time I was twelve years old or so I was making a mess in the kitchen. And I remember my mother would be so upset because she would come home and as much as I loved to cook I guess I didn’t like to clean. I would really make a mess of things, trying to replicate the things that she had made.

Who or what inspires you to create new dishes?
The customers. The reason that we love the foods that we love is because they are so personal. I have to interpret the food that I make for my guests. Just because you make the most authentic food doesn’t necessarily mean people will be able to appreciate it. For example, there are so many Latinos here in Miami, and they don’t have any concept of cold noodles in their culture. When I asked someone what do you think of cold noodles, they said it sounds like Italian leftovers, because they don’t eat cold noodles. Crossing that bridge and trying to make that connection between cultures is at the core of what I try to do. I try to understand the consciousness and the heritage of my guests, and see where I can strike a chord with them. We have a few restaurants, and they are all moving differently because of the customers. My restaurant Juvia is very celebratory. Customers come in for their anniversaries and they expect certain things and the service and the food have to be on point. Then we have a Japanese restaurant where the customers are more local. People are coming in three or four times a week and it is the heartiness of the food that brings them back. So it’s about the client base and finding what the customers want.

What is your favorite food memory?
I think this is probably true for a lot of Asians growing up in this country, but the first time that I ever started being creative with food was probably ramen. I love ramen. I love every aspect of it. With my Korean background, I started adding spam or rice cake or kimchi to it. I was probably ten or eleven years old when I started coming home from school and making something for myself to eat. And there was always a pack of ramen. I think that’s why ramen restaurants are so difficult, people have so many memories attached to it. So many people grew up eating it.

Do you have a favorite knife? What knives do you recommend to your chefs?
I love the Nenox Red Handle knives, the Nenox Corian Handle, the Nenox Wa-Gyuto and I also have a Nenohi Yanagi. I am in the world of knives and over the years I have really come to appreciate them. It’s important to pay attention to what you are working with and how you use them. I like Masamoto and Suisin as well. Suisin is always easiest for me when I have to bust out something because it’s very quick to sharpen up.

I have been in the restaurant business for over thirty years now. It took so many years for me to understand, but it’s not simply about what you want. Just because you want a knife does mean it fits you. You have to choose something to match your working style and your character. I like to use the analogy of a car. Just because you want a Ferrari doesn’t mean that a Ferrari fits your lifestyle. Even if you can fork out all the money, it doesn’t mean you are going to be able to take care of it. Knives are very similar. Maybe the knife that fits you is a Suisin where the steel is very soft and it sharpens very easily, and whenever you need it you can just throw it on the stone and it will sharpen up very quickly. Or maybe it’s the Nenohi where the steel is so hard that if you get that edge it is so wonderful, but once you lose the edge then it takes so much time to bring it back out. Despite the fact that we aspire to be chefs and be creative, once you get to a certain level you spend less time in the kitchen and more time at a desk then you want to. That is why I have grown to appreciate Nenox. Nenox knives, with their sharp blade and long-lasting edge, fit that lifestyle and that is why they are what I use. I also love that they are stain-resistant, that makes things very easy for me and that is why they are my knives of choice. You have to understand your style and what fits you best.

What do you think about the growing popularity of Japanese cuisine and do you use Japanese ingredients in your own dishes?
Of course! My background in cooking is Japanese.  Over the years I have crossed over from Japanese to Chinese, I’ve been involved with Italian food and everything else in between. I love the simplicity of Japanese food. I think it’s something that chefs will come to understand more and more. A lot of chefs still think more is more and they don’t realize that less is more. It’s really about the ingredients. I love that Japanese food has come so far. We just opened a Japanese restaurant and it has been 100 days now. Before, I used to work at Nobu, but it has been five years since I left and started Juvia. We use a lot of Japanese ingredients and Japanese products there and I wanted to make sure that our sashimi dishes and crudos stand on the par with high quality Japanese restaurants. Now all the popular chefs are integrating Japanese ingredients into their dishes and I think it’s so cool. I think it’s going to keep growing.

Do you have a favorite Japanese ingredient that you find yourself using a lot?
Right now I am using a lot of togarashi, I think it can be used for a lot more things than it is traditionally used for. We have been playing around with it as an overall seasoning and it’s very fun. It’s something that the young kids can get a kick out of because there is hemp seed it.

Do you have any fond memories with any of your knives and what do they mean to you?
I used to joke around with people that knives have been with me longer than my relationships, and it’s the truth. I have knives that have been with me for twenty years, that have stood the test of time and been there.  Each one has a memory attached to it. I have an understanding that when I buy a new knife I am going to cut myself with it. The first cut is about the bond between the chef and the knife. It becomes my knife then. I hope that I don’t cut myself badly, but every knife has cut me. Every knife. And each one has a memory- from when I became an executive chef at Nobu to when I opened Juvia. They all represent a benchmark in my life. I tell new cooks and chefs that you can’t really borrow someone’s knife. It is like borrowing a part of someone, asking someone to use their hand, it just doesn’t make sense. Even down to the way the knife is sharpened, every chef has their own knife that fits them. My number one chef is left-handed and we sharpen our knives one sided. If I ever have to use his knife, his knife physically pulls away from me.

What is your favorite kitchen tool that is not a knife?
My moribashi (metal chopsticks). I use them at all of my restaurants. If I am standing in the line, I have them in my hand. I find it funny that the world has chosen tweezers to work with. I have used moribashi before tweezers even became popular. It is a tool that can do anything. If you are capable of using them properly you can pick up a sesame seed off of a plate, you can move one piece of micro-cilantro into place. That is by far my favorite tool that is not a knife.

What is your goal for your profession?
Longevity. The restaurant industry is a business and people tend to forget that. I don’t believe that there is good food and bad food and I wish people would stop saying that. There is only food that you like or you don’t like. There are plenty of restaurants out there that I am not a fan of that are very popular and that people have fond memories of. At the end of the day, the only thing that will prove that you are doing it well is longevity. If you can withstand the test of time and have clients that come back and like what you do, it doesn’t matter what anyone says. That’s my inspiration for all my restaurants- to never forget my clients, to understand what they want and to try to lead them to try new things. I love taking food and giving it to guests that wouldn’t eat it normally. I have a dish right now where I used konbu to add that umami flavor that really helps to fill it out, and I think that if you told the guests that is was there they wouldn’t like the idea of it. But when you can make someone like something, it’s very rewarding. If you can serve lamb to someone who says ‘I hate lamb’ and have them like it, that is the biggest success that you could have.

What advice do you have for aspiring restaurateurs? What do you think is the difference between a chef and a cook?
To the restaurateurs and young chefs, never forget. There should never be a time when you think that you have made it. The moment that you think you have arrived somewhere is when you realize you are about to lose it. I have seen it over and over, when people open their restaurants they spend a lot of money and time and effort, they put their whole heart into it, and after they open they think they have made it, so they let it go. A year will go by, and I will go back and think, what happened to this restaurant? It was so nice when I first when here.

Only in the movies is it all inspiring every day. It’s important to have more good days than bad days, but maybe today is just a day that you go to work and do your job. You can push a little more and maybe next week will be a good week or next month will be a good month. But never forget.

What defines a chef?
Anyone can cook. But a chef understands how to run and operate a professional kitchen. It’s not just about understanding flavors and making recipes. A chef understands how to manipulate a recipe, how to take a recipe and bring it where he wants to bring it.  He has to be able to manage to put it together and execute it in a professional kitchen, at a proper food cost, with a proper labor percentage. And even though it seems soulless to talk about all these numbers, there is the business aspect of it. You can be the most popular restaurant in the industry, but you still have to close the doors if those numbers aren’t right.

What’s your philosophy towards hospitality?

The hospitality industry is getting crazy with Yelp reviews and everything else, and I don’t think it’s fair to anyone. The hospitality industry as a whole can’t be defined by one standard and people don’t understand that. French cuisine has stood as a benchmark in fine dining in this country going back to the 70s and 80s. It was the standard that everyone emulated. But the problem now is that there is too much room for interpretation. Miami is a great example. We have a great restaurant in St Barts and the first time I went there they explained to me that in France and in Europe, you place an order and the waiter will make sure that they bring out your order on time and that’s it. They are not there to entertain you, to talk to you, or to be your friend. And in America, customers want friendly servers, and everyone is different. In Miami we have the added challenge of people from lots of different cultures, and we have to understand our guests in order to treat them the way they want to be treated. Our approach to hospitality is evolving every.

2017 Korin Knife Catalog