Chef Brandon Kida has returned to his hometown to helm the kitchen at the acclaimed Hinoki & the Bird. The restaurant, inconspicuously tucked into Los Angeles' Century City business district, opened in December 2012 as an "imaginative dining concept" by the growing restaurant group Culinary Lab. Raised by his Japanese-American parents in the heart of Los Angeles' Koreatown, Kida is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He's cooked in the kitchens of L'Orangerie in Los Angeles and in New York City, at Lutèce, Asiate at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Smörgås Chef Restaurant Group's Blenheim Hill Farm and, most recently, Clement at The Peninsula Hotel.
FE&S: How do you combine your Japanese-American heritage with your exposure to Korean culture and classical French culinary training?
BK: Being in Los Angeles this is something that came naturally. In L.A., you have so many different options as far as cuisine, and growing up in the middle of the city in Koreatown and the fact that my father was from Tokyo has had a huge influence, not only on the food we ate at home, but also in my cooking career. This type of cooking comes naturally to me, and given the style of the restaurant it was a natural fit for me and why this was an easy move from New York. I feel very comfortable here, and I knew that the strengths of my background would work well at the restaurant.
FE&S: I know plating is important to you and the restaurant. How do you work with tabletop to showcase your dishes?
BK: A lot of the dishes we do are simple and straightforward in terms of the visual side, but once you eat them, they get more complex. So we take a very Japanese-inspired, minimalist approach to plating, though we don't just rely on the standard white plates. We like to use a lot of different shapes and shades, from blues to grays to blacks that will fit how the customer might eat that dish or what feeling it might create. Lately, I've been working with a
local potter to develop some dishes for me.
FE&S: That's front of the house, but now I have to ask — what is your favorite equipment in the kitchen?
BK: I really enjoy combi ovens because they offer so much flexibility. We mainly use them for the controlled steaming, especially given all the seafood dishes we do. If I want to put a piece of fish in the combi, I can steam it at as low as 135 degrees F so we can cook the fish gently and to the point where it's just barely coagulating. Then, we can back off and even hold the fish for a few minutes, which is great when we are busy because we don't have to worry about it overcooking during service. We also use the combi for cooking vegetables, which is great for large parties when we have pre-portioned the cooked product and just want to blast it to retherm quickly. To have that flexibility and not rely on a conventional oven that generally can dry things out is great. Even in a combi you can have dry heat, but still add 20 or 30 percent of moisture.
FE&S: As a high-end, independent restaurant what are the biggest challenges you face?
BK: A restaurant is like having a child — you worry about every little thing. And not just about the food costs, which are a real concern, or about staying relevant, but it's everything combined. You either love it and you're in it, or you're not. The biggest challenge for restaurants I would say is hiring and retaining quality line cooks, and staff and servers — with Los Angeles growing so quickly in terms of the food industry, just the amount of people needed to staff a restaurant of our size is extremely hard to keep up with. Just like many people want to dine in new restaurants, food industry people also want to work in them.
FE&S: Many chefs use local products and work with farmers in their area. Are you also driven to this style of cooking?
BK: When I worked on the East Coast I worked with a lot of farms and in that style of cuisine. I hate to say "farm to table," but it is what it is. But I really worked hand-in-hand with local producers and tried to understand that old world style of cooking and why it is so important. I wondered, is it just a fad or is there something more important to it? I know now that the quality of ingredients you get from farmers and in building those relationships, you can really see the benefits, especially in the taste. The price point is higher, but in terms of what you pay for, you understand the reasons why you do it. I studied every aspect of cooking locally — from knowing the breed of animal to even what their feed is and understanding the vision of the farmers. Hinoki is not a farm-to-table restaurant, per se, but you don't have to be one to have quality ingredients. So I have been trying to build those same relationships with local farmers and fisheries and other producers here.
FE&S: How important are special events for the restaurant?
BK: Parties are huge for us. We have a great space at the back of the restaurant with a glassed-in ceiling so it feels like you're outside but it's covered from the elements. We can seat 30 to 45 people there, and there are also dividers so we can expand for larger parties or create more intimate special dinners. Combined with the main dining room we can seat about 280 people, and we run about 250 to 400 covers on the weekends.
FE&S: Hinoki is known to be a place for a relaxing, not rushed dinner because there might be a lot of courses or sampling of dishes. Given that scenario, what is your kitchen design like?
BK: We have an open kitchen that opens up into the main dining room across from the bar. There is a lot of energy in that dining room, and it is very interactive with the chefs, with guests sitting only 10 feet away. There are also no barriers in the kitchen so people can fully see the chefs working at a centrally located island cooktop with different stations.
FE&S: The bar is extremely important these days to restaurants. How do you work with your bar manager?
BK: I wouldn't say we collaborate on every cocktail, but we certainly go to the market together and will pick up amazing peaches, say, and the bartender will work with those to create an amazing cocktail. He'll come back to the kitchen and say, taste this, and appreciates the feedback.
FE&S: Given that you work with seasonal ingredients, how often do you change your menu?
BK: For our special dinners and events, we might change the menu twice a week. For our regular menu, we change it seasonally, which means a minimum of four times a year and of course keep our signature dishes on the menu, like the black cod. But menu writing is an ever-evolving and continually changing process. I hand-write
it every day depending on the new things we find.
FE&S: Where do you want to take Hinoki in the future? What's your vision for the restaurant?
BK: I like to use ingredients and create dishes that speak to people and that tell a story about where we are in Los Angeles or the world. I want to guide the restaurant in a way that still stays within the concept of more global, Asian-inspired cuisine, but at the same time plays to the strengths of California and Los Angeles and that showcases so much of what we have here.