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Yet in spite of such health benefits and Yamamoto's obvious genius for preparing such super-exotic fare, his methods are unlawful, distasteful, excessive, and, at times, leave you wondering about the chef's sanity.
In defiance of Arizona state law, Yamamoto regularly chain-saws old-growth saguaros, both on private and public property, for the Southwestern salads like the one he served for my meal at the Wrigley Mansion. This I know because I've witnessed him do it, taking down what may have been a century-old cactus, to judge from its thickness. When I query him about the Special Enforcement Division of the Arizona Department of Agriculture that exists solely to apprehend saguaro poachers, or about saguaro conservationists who would regard him as a deranged vandal, Yamamoto scoffs at the idea that saguaros require this sort of protection.
"There are so many saguaro out there," he snorts. "Go look in desert. You cannot count them, there are so many. Is only plant. Why you care so much about plant? That stupid. Arizona have cactus police force. Waste of tax money."
Then there's the way Yamamoto obtained spider monkeys and sea lions.
"The Phoenix zoo have lot of monkey," shrugs Yamamoto. "Sometime they lose one. Maybe they think it escape. Maybe they should pay their employee better. For guard on night shift, $500 is lot of money. Same for sea lion at SeaWorld. If sea lion not perform in show, sea lion go bye-bye."
If the employees he's bribed at SeaWorld can't come through for him on the sea lion tip, Yamamoto always has the fallback of driving up to San Francisco's Pier 39 with a refrigerated truck, waiting until the wee hours of morning with two assistants, and plugging a sea lion in the skull using a night-vision laser-scope, and a silencer on his high-powered rifle. The sea lions are wild, and come and go as they please from the docks. According to the Marine Mammal center in Sausalito, California, an organization dedicated to the rescue and study of sea mammals, the high count of sea lions at Pier 39 was 1,139 on September 3, 2001. With those kinds of numbers, it's easy to see how one fewer sea lion perched on the Frisco docks is not missed. Like whales, dolphins, manatees, and other aquatic mammals, sea lions are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. But that doesn't stop Yamamoto, who prizes sea lions for their blubber-bound musculature, which he asserts makes for the ultimate in pot roasts.
He's so foolhardy and headstrong, I wonder how long it will be before Yamamoto finally becomes a target for law enforcement, whether it's Arizona Game and Fish, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the FBI, or any of another half a dozen state, local and federal agencies who might take an interest in this felonious Bobby Flay. Yamamoto says he keeps his and his girlfriend Alexis' passports current, and they both have packed bags and one-way tickets to Zurich, where they could rent a chalet and have access to Yamamoto's Swiss bank account. He brags of a clandestine network of informants here who will tip him off should the law come gunning for him.
But why did he talk to me for this story? Why give the authorities a heads-up in print, which is what this article will inevitably do? Certainly, what property he holds locally is under fake names, and a phony shell corporation with an offshore mailbox serves as his corporate address. But it's not exactly as if Arizona is overloaded with Asian males, and his face will be published on thousands of New Times covers. There are two answers (besides, of course, his lust for recognition). The first is that Yamamoto may already be planning to set up shop in Europe, where regulations are more lax. And the second is that Yamamoto and I already have a history, having met in Los Angeles, close to five years ago.
The first time I saw Kaz Yamamoto, he was three sheets to the wind, a half-bottle of Cutty Sark (the only Scotch he could afford at the time) in front of him as he sat at the bar at Musso & Frank, one of L.A.'s oldest eateries. A rather happy drunk, he was trying to coach the bartender on the finer points of singing the "Sukiyaki" song in Japanese, much to the old chap's annoyance. When I interrupted Yamamoto to introduce myself, he greeted me like a long-lost friend.
"Lemon-san, I so happy you come! Now I can finally have drink with Fat Man," he intoned in a spray of whiskey breath, then thumping the bar top with one hand. "A drink for Fat Man! A drink for Fat Man!"
The ancient barkeep in red jacket and black tie took my order with a snarl. Though I had slightly less girth then, Yamamoto was not referring to my waistline, but rather to a food column I penned for the now-defunct New Times Los Angeles titled "The Fat Man." It was written through the guise of my alter ego, a Sydney Greenstreet-like character not too far removed from the person I actually am. I had just visited the Japanese-French fusion restaurant Chaya Brasserie in Beverly Hills and given its executive chef Shigefumi Tachibe a thorough verbal bashing in print. Yamamoto was elated. He had been a line cook for Tachibe for the last three months and hated his employer with a passionate intensity.