Whether it's immoral or illegal, I can attest to the fact that Yamamoto does know how to cook a penguin. He leads me back to his immense, gleaming kitchen, pulls a defrosted carcass from the refrigerator and goes to work, using several knives, first one with a three-inch blade, then a series of smaller ones. It's a tad unnerving witnessing this beautiful Antarctic bird being dismembered before me. But soon Yamamoto is frying up its walnut-size brain in a Japanese omelet with shiitake mushrooms and heirloom tomatoes. The aroma soon has my tummy growling, and when the result is plated, I dig into it with relish. Magnificent! The stringy, penguin gray matter has the same texture of sliced, pickled chanterelles.
"Penguin is so deleeshus," states the chef. "And they so many penguin in South Pole. You go with me next time. I show you."
Quickly, the Nipponese cook is back in action, sautéing a breast of penguin in Grand Marnier, and adding assorted micro-greens and a drizzle of jus from his pan. We share this delicacy, literally neither fish nor fowl, which tastes to me a bit like frogs' legs, though I dare not make this comment to the chef, especially with knives about. By his estimation, what we're noshing is worth its weight in precious stones. Normally, he would prepare less generous pieces for the swells at his exclusive dinner parties. I'm sure Yamamoto is spoiling me because I'm writing a story about him. I confess I'm both flattered and a little taken aback. As a professionally adventurous eater, I'm ready and willing to try anything new and exotic. And yet penguins are such endearing animals that it's hard not to feel a little sad over seeing one so quickly dissected and fried up like a common barnyard hen.
As you might imagine, Yamamoto has a massive ego. Most of the Valley's great chefs are well-known, and attached to restaurants acclaimed in the local and national press: Elements' chef Beau MacMillan; Vincent Guerithault of Vincent's on Camelback; Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant; Tarbell's Mark Tarbell, to name the most famous. But the secrecy that has shrouded Yamamoto's activities has denied him the glory he so obviously craves. He makes no bones about it; this is why he gave New Times access to his world for this story.
"Christopher Gross, I wouldn't let him sous for me," sneers Yamamoto. "Tarbell not cook his own food in years. MacMillan is Iron Chef on TV?! Give me break. He never cook seal, I tell you."
The Squaw Peak-size chip on Yamamoto's shoulder is one major reason he's consented to this unprecedented access. The simple fact that he has created outrageous gourmet banquets for Arab princes, movie stars and captains of industry, and yet his name is nonexistent in American culinary media, irks him to distraction.
"Angelina Jolie and Mr. Brad Pitt love my giraffe tongue," he huffs, working himself into a lather, pacing the linoleum floor of his kitchen as he recalls the dish. "Giraffe tongue very tough. I marinate for four day in red wine and garlic before braising with leeks, shallot and carrot. I also make them monkey meat tartare, with caper and cornichon. Mr. Pitt go bananas over monkey. Even lick plate. You don't believe? I show you photo Jolie give me."
(As stated above, giraffe can be imported legally. Most species of monkey, though, are off limits.)
Yamamoto vanishes, then reappears to proudly show off a framed, autographed photo of the star of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider dedicated to "Yammi, the greatest chef I know."
Somehow, I'm not surprised. After all, Jolie's known for her wacky behavior and pronouncements, everything from French-kissing her brother at the Oscars to wearing a vial of former hubby Billy Bob Thornton's blood around her neck. The tattooed, bubble-lipped beauty even once bragged in jest that she ate nothing but meat, and her penchant for leather goods is well-known. She's been quoted as stating, "When other little girls wanted to be ballet dancers, I kind of wanted to be a vampire," and, "Before I die, I wanna taste everyone in the world." Feasting on giraffe tongue and monkey tartare seems well within the realm of possibility for Miss Jolie.
Yamamoto suddenly chimes in, "I cook for Ruth Reichl, too." He refers to the influential editor of Gourmet magazine and former New York Times food critic. "I fix her penguin liver pâté, with peppercorn and Armagnac. She stay with me the night and we make love for 15 hour, she love pâté so much. I love her long time. This before I have girlfriend. She say I too controversy to write about. Too controversy!"
The chef lets fly a torrent of Japanese invective that would surely sting my ears if I understood much of it. He stamps the ground and kicks cabinets with his feet in a temper tantrum that lasts several minutes. As his fury subsides, a smile creeps across his face, and he beckons me to follow him into his meat locker, where he stores an array of butchered carcasses that would bewilder the most brilliant of zoologists. It's a sight he's never shared with anyone other than his inner circle. To the rear of the kitchen, behind a thick steel door with keypad lock, is a long, refrigerated room several yards deep and wide, lined with sheet metal. On either side of a pathway down the middle are hung reddish-blue slabs of flesh, everything from bison and mountain lion to gazelle, zebra, gorilla and huge sides of pachyderm. Yamamoto rubs his hands over one slab, gazing upon it as a groom might study his bride in their marriage bed.