Here’s what Jon Yao and Mei Lin are cooking the L.A. Times Dinner Series
Jon Yao, the 29-year-old chef behind Kato, and Mei Lin, the 32-year-old chef of Nightshade, first connected in late 2016, during a $88.88 “Money Cat” pop-up dinner at Kato — an event billed by organizers as a celebration of Asian American cooking and “prosperity and good fortune in the new year to come.” After cooking together and swapping a few stories, the two chefs struck up an immediate friendship.
“We’re both Chinese Americans that are trying to find our way through food, I think,” Yao said. “It’s part of that second-generation Asian American experience, where you’re stuck in between two worlds, and you’re letting that perspective come through in how you cook.”
For Yao and Lin, the years that followed that 2016 dinner would indeed bring good fortune. Kato would be awarded a Michelin star and named No. 1 on The Times’ Best Restaurants list in 2019, while Nightshade, which opened at the end of 2018, exhilarated critics and earned a spot on several national “Best New Restaurant” lists. But then, as they say, the pandemic happened.
As the restaurant industry has been pushed to the brink of collapse, Yao and Lin have been forced to redefine their fine-dining restaurants in order to survive. After briefly offering takeout service in March, Lin temporarily closed Nightshade. She’s currently focusing on a new casual fried-chicken concept called Daybird, which is slated to open for takeout and delivery next month in Silver Lake. At Kato, Yao recently launched Kato-Go, a casual menu of noodle bowls and scallion pancake wraps designed for takeout or delivery.
Though Lin has spent the majority of her career in fine-dining kitchens, she has always gravitated toward the comforting, nostalgic flavors she grew up with as the daughter of Chinese immigrants.
“Any fine-dining dish I serve, it’s always based on something that is more casual,” she said. “The presentation might be different but the same flavors are there.”
Yao feels the same. “Some people might think, ‘Oh, what you’re doing now is a simpler type of food,’ but we’re still putting the effort and detail into every little thing we do. It’s just in a different format than before.”
Even before the pandemic, Yao and Lin would text each other nearly every day, sharing thoughts on cooking and the restaurant industry along with the occasional inside joke. These days, though, the messages are as much about encouragement and support as they are food.
“It’s hard to be open right now, just because you have to reimagine how you operate while not really knowing about the future,” Yao said. “We’re basically figuring out everything as we go.”
Yao said that despite the long hours and current stress of keeping Kato open, he was excited to collaborate with Lin on an upcoming dinner, the first of the Los Angeles Times Dinner Series, on Sept. 5. “She and Brandon Go [of Hayato] are the two chefs I’ll always make time to cook with,” he said.
In developing the three-course menu for the dinner, Yao and Lin collaborated via text, drawing elements from their own restaurant menus for each dish. For the first course, Yao plans to gently smoke fresh kapanchi, or yellowtail, which will pair with an intensely flavored charred scallion oil that Lin calls a “super umami bomb.”
The second course will be a bowl of congee, a hearty rice porridge that both Kato and Nightshade have featured on their menus. Yao prepares his with slices of poached abalone while Lin loads up the dish at Nightshade with pork floss, XO sauce, crispy shallot and an oozing soft-poached egg. For this dinner, the rice will be cooked down to a velvety consistency using a broth made from dried scallops, then topped with sweet summer tomatoes and shacha, a deeply savory Chinese condiment made with dried shrimp, garlic and chiles.
The chefs will end the meal with tender slabs of pork belly glazed in sticky fish sauce caramel, meant to be wrapped with herbs and lettuce and eaten ssam-style.
“The way I really love eating a big roast or cut of meat is wrapping it in lettuce, just because you can eat a lot more without getting full too, too fast and the flavors are lighter and fresher. I think it’s something that Jon and I are both drawn to in our food,” Lin said.
As for the future of fine dining? Both chefs believe that while the current restaurant model needs to be redefined postpandemic, the ability of places like Kato and Nightshade to express and share culture through food remains as vital as ever.
“I think the kind of Taiwanese and Chinese cooking we do raises the value of our culture, which is important in itself,” Yao said. “So out of naivete I would say, yes, I do want to continue with fine dining but maybe in a way that changes how people define it.”
Tickets for the Kato x Nightshade Dinner, on Sept. 5, are $175 per person and available at events.latimes.com/dinners.
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