“What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?” It’s a question we receive, as travelers, as foodies, from time to time. It’s a question that makes you reach back into the crevices of mental and stomach memory to recall what truly makes an incredible meal, what made an unforgettable experience. You feel blessed when you happen upon a meal that introduces you to new flavors, or that brings up old memories. A bite of food has the power to connect our present with our past; food is a bridge between realities. When I make spaghetti bolognese from scratch, I’m back in my teacher’s classroom in Florence, Italy. I remember him adding sea salt to the water, the smell of pancetta frying in olive oil.
Food doesn’t only bring memories to the surface; it also breaks apart barriers that can exist between strangers. It can open up blockages between loved ones. A discomfort between friends can dissipate over French onion soup in a small cafe in New York City. The glasses of Malbec also help. The breaking of barriers, the bonding of strangers, the ability to remember—these are all reasons why cultures have revered the act of making and tasting food for millenia. Recently, I had a dining experience in Cuenca, Ecuador, that worked its way into my top five meals. It was unexpected—intimate and gourmet at the same time—and it’s something that begs to be shared with the minds, and bellies, of others. I sat down, along with seven others, at the Chef’s Table at Yasu’s House.
Yasu, a Japanese chef, restaurant-owner, and waiter among other various jobs, came to America when he was 18. He never learned to cook in a fancy school; the buzz of NYC was his culinary institution. His older sister had taught him how to cook, and when Yasu arrived in New York, he came without a plan but with the belief that everything would be alright. He found work in a restaurant as a waiter, and thus began his career. He worked for years as a waiter, practicing the ability to connect with customers.
Waiters, Yasu believes, are the ones who can really make a meal. The chef is back in the kitchen, and doesn’t really know what is going on. But a waiter is the presenter, the connector between the idea behind the food and the first bite.
Yasu fondly talks about some of the regulars he served. There was one couple who would come every now and then. They’d sit at the same table, pull out their individual crossword puzzles, order, and eat in silence, while their minds turned through pages of memorized vocabulary. Yasu paid attention. He learned what they liked; he remembered when they went on vacation. The three of them all started talking more; the couple started to come more often. With time, the crossword puzzles disappeared from the tabletop and the couple talked over warm plates of steamed dumplings and spoonfuls of belly-warming miso soup. A custom was rewritten.
During these first few years in NYC, Yasu says he spent all of his money on food. He had a lucky living situation, where he paid next to nothing, and so everything he made he reinvested in his culinary education by eating at the best, most innovative restaurants in New York. His palette was pristine; he was able to deduce flavors and configure techniques that were used on the dishes he ordered. It didn’t take long before he was completing training to enter the kitchen himself and that process was also sprinkled with the same luck that seems to have accompanied Yasu for most of his life.
On his first night as a sous chef, an apprentice in charge of chopping and dicing among many other skills, nobody else in the kitchen showed up. The head chef and the majority of the staff had quit in a kitchen coup. The manager, left alone, looked at Yasu and immediately promoted him to head chef. Within a day, he was managing a new kitchen staff. The vote of confidence paid off; he created new dishes that clients loved, and he finally had a space where he could bring his culinary ideas to life. But in the quick transition, he had missed a few important steps. He could create a chicken liver mousse from scratch, but he couldn’t debone a fish or skin a chicken, the things that sous chefs learn by practicing. Thankfully, the sous chefs didn’t mind their creative boss watching them skin chickens.
Yasu’s humility is palpable, both in the stories of his past and his present situation. He admits when he doesn’t know something; a lack of knowledge doesn’t deter him but rather engages and excites him. It’s a mark of true growth-mindedness. He progressed forward from that restaurant to others, experimenting with new flavors and textures. Whether he was working at a gourmet fast food restaurant or a higher-end dining experience, he bottled up every piece of wisdom, every small success, and used it to fuel the next adventure.
It was his love for traveling that eventually brought him to Ecuador. In search of new culinary ideas, Yasu decided to travel through Asia and Western Europe first, sampling his way through the cultures. He eventually came down to South America. About his travel, Yasu says those journeys were fundamental to his success. He remembers the best moments. The first bite of sourdough bread in San Francisco was “life-changing.” The cheese and breads in France. Every country has its own particular flavor; he wanted to understand that.
Eventually, he settled in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. He opened up a restaurant and started cooking with the ample local ingredients available. He lived there for a few years, regular customers and travelers frequenting the restaurant. He says that he changed the menu of his restaurant every single week. He never likes to repeat a meal.
Moving to Cuenca presented an opportunity to be a bit closer to his wife’s family in Guayaquil, and it also had more opportunities for Yasu to create something a touch different—he could use his experience as a chef and share it, his love for food and the experience, from his own kitchen. That’s how the concept of Yasu’s Table was created.
When you walk up to Yasu’s house, you second guess yourself. Is this really it? It’s like every other house on the block. Not that I was expecting a giant sculpture of a fork in the front yard, but a little indication of the culinary genius inside would be helpful. The black gate slides back, the cream walls and wooden door are exceptionally normal. But inside, in his kitchen and living room, I found myself in different world.
I first noticed the beautiful stone fireplace. There are a few small tables, and a long wooden table. The table decorations the night I went were exquisite. It was as if someone had asked a fairy to come beforehand and design the tabletops however she wanted. The fairy’s name is Lynn. Small pebbles were scattered across the middle plank of the long table, and a deep stone bowl with water and flower petals sat in the center. There were miniature sculptures of leaves and sticks twisted into tufts, and alien-looking eggs, painted silver and covered with moss patches, which I came to learn later were painted potatoes. Little paper houses held name cards and a menu with what we’d be eating for the evening.
Eight of us gathered to preview some of Yasu’s favorite plates. It was a menu he had never done, in entirety, before, and one he will never replicate. Five courses were extended into seven, just because he felt like it: curry flavored beet walnut cornet stuffed with red pepper hummus, cucumber, and apple-basil gelee. That was the first plate. Each time Yasu introduced the plate, he explained it in a few words; he’s not the type to use words to express himself. The food speaks for itself. Other plates throughout the evening included pumpkin agnolotti with pumpkin seed, celery pesto, parmesan broth, chips and foam. Another was wine-braised oxtail ragu with handmade cavatelli and vegetables and crostini with liver mousse.
To say each plate was artfully decorated is also an understatement; the plates were exquisite. One of the guests at the table shared with us that he preferred not to see photos of how the plates will be presented beforehand. Part of the magic is when the plate first comes out, seeing how the chef chose to present the food, anticipating the flavors before the first bite. We stayed for hours. Pair by pair, the others at the table left. It had been the ideal amount of food.
Sometimes at a great meal, we eat so much that we feel like our stomachs become the stuffed raviolis; too much food is overwhelming, nearly numbing, to the senses. Rather than talk and enjoy after a large meal, we just want to take a Pepcid and lie down. But part of the art of Yasu’s cooking is that he knows exactly how the flavors will work together, and how filling the courses will be. I was full, pleasantly so, not painfully so. And that level of satisfaction is what contributed to three of us entering the post-food stupor of wonderful conversation.
Yasu stayed with us and told us more stories about his restaurant experiences in NYC and his life in Vilcabamba. He offered us coffee, and extra tastes of food. We couldn’t stop talking; stories and advice and human empathy all passed across the table. When we finally looked at the time, we realized two more hours had passed. Shocked, we stood and told Yasu we would leave immediately; we offered apologies for hanging around in his home, his life, for so long. And he just looked at us, smiled, and said “It was not a problem at all. This is why I do what I do.” It felt like the culmination of a grand plan: he had laid out every plate and flavor and cup of coffee in perfect succession so that we would ultimately end up here, open. We had shared more than a meal; we shared ourselves in an experience.
Chef’s Table at Yasu’s House
Details: Every week, Yasu sends out the menu for his weekly meal. Reservations are required. To be on his email list to receive the weekly menu and make reservations, contact him at:
Phone: 098 181 2049
Cost: $18 for a 5 course meal (wine not included, but you can bring your own bottle and he does not charge a corking fee)
Address: Ricardo Darquea Granda 292 (Manuel Garvez)