Craig Koketsu’s first memory of cooking was learning to make “Norwegian Apple Cake,” a simple concoction of bread, butter and sugar caramelized over low heat and topped with apple sauce. It became the first-grader’s signature dish, foreshadowing a culinary life that didn’t re-emerge until he was in college.
Today Koketsu, a third-generation Japanese American, is chef-partner at Fourth Wall, the restaurant group that includes the seasonally changing Park Avenue, Quality Meats, Hurricane Club, Maloney & Porcelli, the Post House and Smith and Wollensky. He created a classic-yet-inventive menu for Quality Meats in 2006, and in 2007 transformed Park Avenue Café into Park Avenue Summer. Today, as chef-partner, he oversees the food in all Fourth Wall restaurants and serves as executive chef at Quality Meats. “I’m in at least three restaurants a day,” he says, adding, “Now it’s much more about getting in and focusing on things that need to be changed or improved.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Koketsu didn’t go the culinary school route. Classes as a rhetoric major at UC Berkeley didn’t inspire him, but a visit with his sister, who was enrolled at the local community college culinary school, did: Koketsu realized that he wanted to be in a kitchen, too. But he’d worked his way through college and couldn’t afford more schooling. Instead, he lucked into a job with “an incredible teacher,” Chinese American chef Steve Chan at the Silicon Valley French- and Asian-influenced Martha’s Restaurant. There, Koketsu absorbed the fundamentals of cooking during grueling 15-hour days that “flew by,” he says, “because I loved it so much and knew I was doing the right thing.” One night on the line at Jeremiah Tower’s Oakland Stars, he had a light-bulb moment. Koketsu asked Tower what the key to his success was. Tower’s answer: “I don’t separate my personal from my professional life.” It made sense to me, Koketsu recalls. “When you’re completely absorbed in something, it becomes your life.”
Koketsu followed his college girlfriend and now wife, fashion designer Juliana Cho (they are partners in Cho’s West Village boutique Annelore), to New York, where Lespinasse’s Gray Kunz took a flyer on the relatively untested chef. Koketsu rose rapidly through the ranks, and continued his on-the-job education under Christian Delouvrier when Delouvrier replaced Kunz at Lespinasse. The two masters, says Koketsu, were “polar opposites” in their cooking styles: Kunz refined and strongly Asian-influenced, and Delouvrier an upholder of the classic, rustic cuisine of Gascony.
Koketsu’s parting words of advice to aspiring chefs? “Culinary school is comprehensive but introductory, and it exists in a vacuum,” he says, unlike the real world of restaurants “where so much can go wrong. If you can find a good chef willing to mentor you, I don’t think anything can beat that.”