Xtreme Cuisine

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From that night forward, a strange relationship developed between us. An uneasy, one-sided not-quite friendship in which Yamamoto would call me up to go carousing with him until he was so plastered that I had to stick him in a cab and send him on his way. It was almost as if he knew I would write about him one day. That, and I suppose I was the only sympathetic ear he had at the time.

Half-kiddingly, Yamamoto called himself "Koreanese": He was born in Osaka to a Korean father and a Japanese mother, a combination so taboo in Japan that to this day the offspring of such couplings are discriminated against in all aspects of Japanese society. Yamamoto's father had escaped North Korea with the help of his mother who was a volunteer with an international aid organization, one allowed on infrequent and highly restricted tours of the Stalinist police state in the mid-'70s. Yamamoto's dad was a lieutenant in the North Korean army, fluent in Japanese, assigned to chaperone Yamamoto's mother and her delegation so that they did not speak to any North Korean citizens unobserved.

A love affair ensued, and Yamamoto's father defected to Japan and married Yamamoto's mother. As is Japanese law and custom, the twentysomething former military man Chang-Su Park adopted a Japanese name, Ryoji Yamamoto, and Kaz's mother Misako also took that last name. Ryoji became a consultant with the Japanese self-defense force, otherwise known as the JDA, or the Japanese Defense Agency. Misako kept house at home, and soon became pregnant with the couple's only child in 1978, a boy they named Kazuki, meaning "First Hope" in Japanese.

Keeping his half-Korean lineage a secret was impossible for Kaz in the insular world of Japanese grade school. When his father walked Kazuki to school one morning, the suspicions of his classmates were confirmed by his dad's heavy Korean accent, one the children mocked and imitated with a guttural "chok-chok-chok." Kazuki fought his first fistfight that day, one of many schoolyard scuffles he would endure for years to come.

"They call me 'hafu' or 'banchopari,'" explained Kazuki once. "Hafu mean 'half,' and 'banchopari' mean half-Korean/half-Japanese, like calling Mexican guy 'wetback.' Whenever those kids say 'banchopari,' I hit biggest guy in face and they shut up. I learn to use my fist very, very good."

Though Kaz's test scores were above average, his prospects following graduation from secondary school were dim. His penchant for pugilism, justified though it may have been, followed him in his permanent record, as did an arrest for joyriding a motorcycle when he was 16. The Japanese university system frowned on such behavior, and the fact that Kaz's father was Korean probably didn't help matters. But his dad's connections with the JDA got him accepted into the JMSDF, the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force, the only "navy" allowed the Japanese following the American occupation of Japan after World War II. Kaz signed on to the AEGIS destroyer Kongo as a seaman, third-class, and volunteered for the galley. He took to the kitchen like a baby octopus to salt water, and two years later, he was seaman first-class in charge of all baked goods on board.

"In the navy, I decide I want to be great chef," Kaz tells me. "All really great chef are French, so I decide to go to France."

After being honorably discharged following three years of service, the young Yamamoto bought a Japanese-French phrase-book and a one-way ticket to Paris, City of Light. He had learned a little English in the navy, enough to befriend a Brit expat from Liverpool who ran a small hotel on the Left Bank, and rented him a room at half the going rate. Eventually, he applied and was accepted into Le Cordon Bleu Paris, the most prestigious culinary academy in the world. By day he learned the art of chocolate, patisserie, haute cuisine and French and regional cooking. Late into the night, he washed dishes at a bistro nearby his flat to help pay the tuition. His parents wired him Japanese yen from Osaka, which converted at a profitable rate into francs. And he had a little savings left over from his time as a sailor. He was poor, but determined to graduate with honors.

After nine months of intensive schooling, he was awarded Le Cordon Bleu's Le Grand Diplôme, the school's highest honor, certifying that the recipient has had the most comprehensive training in classic French cuisine and pastry techniques available. Yamamoto wanted to remain in his adopted city, and had several leads on positions in Parisian restaurants. But his father had been diagnosed with cancer, and he felt obligated to return to Osaka.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons