For almost 30 years, Jimi Yui has designed kitchens for chefs like Mario Batali, Eric Ripert and Masaharu Morimoto. "I think any decent designer will tell you that what we really do is listen really, really hard," he says.
Francis Lam: I think so much of design is really about listening. One of the hardest things for a designer is knowing what a client really wants. A lot of it is really about getting to know your client, getting into their head and imagining you're them so you can start to intuit what it is that they need and what it is they want. When you're working with chefs, how do you do that? What's the first thing you do when you start talking to a chef about their dream kitchen?
Jimi Yui: That's actually spot-on. I think any decent designer will tell you that what we really do is listen really, really hard -- intuit is a good word. We really have to get into their head and understand the nuances of what they're actually trying to articulate.
Lucky for me, we always start out with chefs saying, "You have to come to the restaurant, sit down, eat my food. Then next hang around the kitchen, watch service for as long and as many services as you can muster."
It's very, very important because, in eating their food, they're actually trying to show you what their soul is about, what their product is about, what their art is about. It's really, really important.
The second part of it is the execution. Watching the cooks in a kitchen -- I like to think of it as very much a dance that occurs with a chef being a conductor in front of an orchestra. Watching the movement is really, really important because you need to understand what kind of motion is necessary to produce the art that they're trying to produce.
FL: Is it helpful if the kitchen designer actually knows how to cook?
JY: I think it's paramount. I'm not entirely sure how, if you didn't know how to cook at all, if you weren't interested in food, if you weren't excited about learning about what the chef is doing, I can't imagine how one would go about finessing some of these details. In our world it's very, very important to pursue those ideas sometimes to minuscule detail.
Ultimately I will have chefs that will say, "Where do I put my tongs? Where is this garnish? Where is the plate? In a perfect world, I get to do all of those things standing in one place. I don't really want to take more than a step." You can imagine if you have a large menu, all of a sudden your station gets pretty dense. But that's what we try to accomplish.
FL: It's funny. When you ask, "What do you want in your home kitchen?" the irony is all a lot of people want is big. I just want a big counter, big stove, big refrigerator. But in restaurants, it's almost like, "How small can we make it?"
JY: It's really true. I actually kind of hate most people's kitchens. Nobody ever says that the stove, sink and the refrigerator being a 20-foot triangle is a terrible thing. Just because you have a triangle doesn't mean that it's particularly efficient.
But it goes back to just as chefs and cooks in professional kitchens concentrate on mise en place, you and I, if we were going to do a dinner together, the first thing you and I would do is think about the menu. We would spend the first many, many hours actually doing all the prep work. We would chop, organize and have containers of all the components, have all the tools lined up. Then the outcome, the plates and the platters, would have to be organized at the other end. Then you start.
That's essentially what professional cooks do, day in and day out. Their mise en place is so important because you and I both want to show up at a restaurant at 7 p.m. along with the 1,000 other people who want to do the same thing. You all sit down and everybody lines up ordering essentially at the same time.
The order printer in the kitchen starts spitting out four-tops times 20 all at once. The guys on the line are trying to prioritize, looking at the conductor, the chef, who is giving them instructions on what to do first.
If you think about it that way, you can imagine doing a really, really complicated dinner party at home. Multiply that by 100, and needing to do that perfectly over and over and over again without fail. That's what my clients do.
FL: Can you tell us about a particular kitchen problem that you had to solve?
JY: Once upon a time, some years ago, I had been hired to do a kitchen for chef Gray Kunz at the Time Warner building. He was pretty late in taking the space, so the space that we wound up with was actually a triangle. The hypotenuse of the triangle was the glazed curtain wall looking at Columbus Circle, the view that everybody wants.
The trouble is that this was like an isosceles triangle that's skinny and long, with the hypotenuse looking at the fountain, and the smallest point being the connection to the mall. That was the entrance.
In fact, that was the public entrance as well as the receiving end of the building. We had the problem of saying, "If product is coming in and out at the tip of the triangle, as well as trash leaving at the tip of the triangle, and customers are coming in and out at the tip of the triangle, then you have a real spatial problem of orientation."
Normally, one would put the kitchen in the back of the space and leave the nicest view to the customer. In this instance, as hard as we could try, because of the shape of the space being a narrow triangle, the only rational way we could solve the problem was to put the kitchen on the curtain-wall side.
We struggled with it until Gray Kunz said, "We could have an open kitchen and the customers could be raised so that they're looking through the kitchen at Columbus Circle." That's how that problem got solved.
In the media people thought it was a crazy, crazy idea. Every time somebody said that, I wish I could say, "Listen, it's not like we went out of our way to take away the window seat. It's simply that if we had done it the way you would think you want to do it, the customers, the trash and the product would wind up crossing at the tip of the triangle, which would be untenable."
FL: To your point about chefs being artists, the other rationale I always heard for that was chef Kunz really believed in his cooks and believed his cooks should have inspiration while they worked. He wanted them to have the view.
JY: Yes. I would say that came after the fact that we could solve the problem no other way. We try to solve these puzzles the best way the space allows us to. I often tell my clients that spaces -- whether they are a triangle, trapezoidal or look like an amoeba -- they all in the end have a special solution just because of the proportion of the space, the orientation of the space.
There's a way that the puzzle wants to be solved. You can either go with it, like in chef Kunz's case putting the kitchen against the window, or you can fight it. You can usually tell the spaces that have been fought against because there's something fundamentally wrong like you're walking by the bathroom at the wrong place, the kitchen door is next to the entrance, or the coatroom is nowhere to be found. Those are all fundamental things that occur when you're fighting a space and it really didn't want to be what it is. You wind up with stuff all over the place and places that you really can't work with.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.