The question Bar Basque chef Yuhi Fujinaga, 31, is asked most frequently is “How did a Japanese-born chef end up cooking Basque food in New York City?” The answer is complicated, but it begins with his grandmother Noriko, who lived in Brazil for over a decade and absorbed the foodways of South America. She reared her grandson on Japanese dishes with a Latin twist, including her sardine tempura marinated, escabeche style, in a sauce of oil, mirin and rice wine vinegar.
Years later when Fujinaga — who grew up in Honolulu and honed his classic French cooking techniques at several four-star New York restaurants — felt himself drawn to the cooking of Spain, something clicked: he realized he had been tutored in these gutsy, sour and sweet flavors under the cover of his adored grandmother’s non-traditional Japanese food. Today the chef honors his grandmother by serving a tempura inspired by hers at Bar Basque. “The liquid soaks into the tempura and it gets a little soft and mushy, but all the flavors just penetrate through,” he says. “I served it as my amuse last night.”
It was the worldly Noriko who encouraged Fujinaga to think big, too. “She taught me that I can’t just stay on this tiny little island and call it a day,” he says. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of the Pacific, Fujinaga found a mentor in Hiroyuki Sakai (best known as Iron Chef France) while working for Sakai’s Honolulu wedding banquet facility. In 2002 the young chef set out for New York, where he touched down at Lespinasse, then Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. It was during a stint at The Sea Grill that Fujinaga met visiting chefs Francis Paniego and Pepe Solla and had his Spanish food epiphany. Fujinaga quit his job in 2005 and, living off his tax refund, spent three months working in the Galicia and Basque regions with Paniego and Solla, as well as avant-garde Bilbao chef Aitor Elizegui.
At Bar Basque (devoted to the region where the modernist revolution in Spanish cooking began) Fujinaga marries classic French technique with Basque flavors and the region’s emphasis on freshness and seasonality. He tries to straddle the line between the truly authentic Basque cuisine, which delights Spanish patrons, and slightly lighter versions that better suit American palates. The chef’s popular plancha-grilled Chatham cod with pil pil, for example, had to be toned down slightly from its original incarnation.
Although critics have taken issue with the restaurant’s bright red, super-modern décor, Fujinaga feels it nicely echoes Bilbao’s cutting edge design and food. The chef’s long-term goal is to own and cook at his own restaurant. In an age when Harold Dieterle cooks Thai and he serves up Basque food, says Fujinaga, chefs need no longer be tied to the food of their ethnic heritage.
Just like his grandmother, though, whatever Fujinaga cooks, there will be a Japanese element to it, making it “just a little cleaner, with a little more finesse.”
Note: Since the publication of this profile, Yuji Fujinaga is no longer at Bar Basque, which closed in April 2012. Fujinaga is now executive chef at The Sea Grill at Rockefeller Center, New York City.