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"That film kinda boring, but idea good," related Yamamoto, sucking back a single-malt Glenlivet, an improvement over the Cutty of days past. "I know I can do this. In Japan and Asia, we eat lot of crazy shit. Here in U.S., you don't eat too much crazy shit. Big problem is money for first meal. But I figure this one out, too."
Yamamoto partnered with a Brentwood wine merchant to do a tasting involving exotic meats. Nothing too crazy, or even illegal. Just antelope, zebra, and hippo, all of which, according to the FDA, are legal to import -- as long as the animals were raised on African farms and not in the wild. These meats weren't cheap, but Yamamoto borrowed money from a Century City loan shark, procured the viands and produced a stellar menu for the tasting, one that included ravioli stuffed with ground antelope, hippo rillettes, and tournedos of zebra wrapped in hippo bacon.
The tasting was a hit. Yamamoto handed out his cards, and told the vino-swillers he was available for private functions. He and the wine merchant planned another event, and when Yamamoto's loan shark learned of what the cash had been for, he forgave the 100 percent interest in return for an invite to the next tasting. By the time that rolled around, the phone calls were pouring in to Yamamoto's answering service. Le Menu was born.
As the parties became more and more extravagant, Yamamoto felt the pressure to outdo past repasts. He kept upping the ante, moving into riskier territory, with endangered species and shady, black-market suppliers. His staff grew to 14, and he began hunting some of the animals himself to ensure the quality of what he was receiving. He devised an ingenious, self-cooling "black box" wherein he could ship some meats overnight to his upscale new home in Encino after butchering them on the spot. FedEx was none the wiser.
However, things were getting out of hand, and Yamamoto's business venture was growing too fast for him to keep up with it. He barely had time to breathe, with all of Le Menu's banquets and cocktail parties, booked several months in advance. Yamamoto turned to cocaine to continue the frenetic pace, and was soon doing an eightball every day. Then there was a series of close shaves. He was stopped at the U.S.-Mexican border with a suitcase containing a dozen live chinchillas from the Peruvian Andes, and was forced to relinquish them to customs agents. He had planned to roast them like suckling pigs for a backyard barbecue at the estate of film producer Harvey Weinstein. Fortunately, the customs agents believed him when he told them he had intended the priceless, endangered rodents as pets for his 6-year-old daughter, terminally sick with leukemia, and he was not arrested.
But when he returned chinchilla-less to La-La Land, Miramax mogul Weinstein was livid, and threatened to rat him out to the feds if his guests weren't wowed. Thankfully, Yamamoto had half a gorilla left in his freezer and placated Weinstein by roasting it alfresco on a spit for him. That night after the cookout, Yamamoto suffered a mild heart attack, brought on by the excessive use of nose candy and his nonstop schedule. Doctors warned him it would happen again if he didn't curtail his drug abuse, and ease his work load.
These factors, along with the risk that he had become too well-known for his illegal spreads in the media capital of the universe, made him decide to move to Arizona. He was already rich beyond his dreams, and his accumulated loot would go much further in the desert. Moreover, he could maintain his Hollywood client base, as Phoenix is only an hour's flight from Los Angeles International Airport. Also, Phoenix is sleepier, less high-profile. At least the move would buy him some time in his newfound career, and perhaps lead to a healthier lifestyle as well.
The past three years have been a boon to Yamamoto. He's stayed away from the drugs, and has a much bigger house than he could ever afford in expensive Los Angeles. A year and a half ago, he met the alluring Alexis, who has a head for business; she keeps the books for him and helps him with service during more intimate soirees. They seem truly devoted to each other, and Alexis is convinced of Yamamoto's brilliance in regard to all things alimentary.
"I'd follow Kaz to the ends of the Earth," she explains to me. "He's the man I want to have babies with. I want him to have the acclaim he deserves, but if America rejects him, there are other countries that will be more hospitable to a man of his talents."
In fact, like some East Coast La Cosa Nostra don who's moved his operation to the desert, that Damocles sword of the law is always hanging over Yamamoto. Could it be that at the tender age of 28, Arizona's most talented and least-known chef is ready for a career move, one that takes him to an international stage?
"In France they eat horse meat, and in all Europe, it is legal to eat any kind of game at restaurant," Yamamoto tells me. "Sometime, on menu, they warn you to watch out for buckshot when you eat game. They more sophisticated in Europe. Like Japanese or Chinese."