Earlier this year, Korin released it's newest knife catalog after 7 years and as many of you know I was one of the writer/researcher/main interviewer. I had the wonderful opportunity to speak to over 20+ highly recognized chefs around the United States (primarily NY due to accessibility). They were all absolutely inspiring.
Today I would like to share one particular interview that really stuck out to me for a few reasons. First of which was that when we asked to interview her, she agreed under the condition that we come eat and be her guests. Second was the things she said and how she closed the interview with "I'm sorry my story doesn't necessarily have this intense passion from the start." She was kind and genuine, and her story soothed some anxiety I had about my own future.
I hope you enjoy this very sweet interview as much as I did.
Little disclaimer: Of course as Korin, we love everyone in this amazing hospitality industry, and by no means is this post meant to promote one particular chef. I just wanted to share my favorite interview in this catalog.
Chika Tillman was born in Tokyo and trained at the French Culinary Institute. She has assisted as opening staff at Gramercy Tavern, Danny Meyer, the Ritz-Carlton, and Seegerís. In 2003 she opened ChikaLicious Dessert Bar with her husband, Don Tillman. Her delicate Japanese sensibilities and emphasis on the purity of ingredients quickly won her international acclaim. Since its opening, the restaurant remains ensconced as New Yorkís premier dessert destination.
What made you want to be a chef?
Oddly enough, I never thought about being a chef. When I was a child I dreamed of being a pastry chef, but when you grow up and reality catches up to you, you completely forget all of those dreams. My old dreams sparked my interests again when attended a food seminar in culinary school. Just when I graduated, Gramercy Tavern opened and my teacher told me to go. I initially declined my teacherís offer, because I already had a job working at a bank but the teacher insisted that I at least go visit. When I went, the kitchen was simply extraordinary. I thought, ďThis is a sport. I am watching a basketball tournament.Ē It was exactly like basketball players running around, passing the ball and scoring points as beautiful dishes appeared. It was amazing, and made me want to try it out for maybe a year or two... Then from there I somehow I couldnít escape and now here I am.
Do you have a mentor or chef who particularly inspired you?
Definitely the very first chef I worked with at Gramercy Tavern, Tom Colicchio. The way he combined flavors, used herbs, and plated such colorful dishes left such an impression on me. While working with him, I decided to move to Atlanta with my husband for his work. When I was leaving Chef Colicchio told me that he had already spoken to Chef Guenter Seeger in Atlanta before I could make a decision. I ended up working with Chef Seeger for seven years. From him, I learned the importance of loving the natural flavors of ingredients and to not just focus on techniques. I still keep in contact with the cooks I worked with there. Even if they have all left and now are all big chefs, many of them still think about working with him again, because they loved making his food.
What is the most important aspect of cooking?
To let the ingredients talk and bring out the natural flavors to their fullest potential. I believe that the human senses remembers flavors the most, and not flavors that have been seasoned or tampered with, but the natural flavors. When people taste certain ingredients they feel nostalgic, and I think those dishes taste the best. A customer might walk in out of curiosity once then never return, but if you tickle a nostalgic memory theyíll come back with their friends, parents, and grandparents. In short, apples have to taste like apples and strawberries have to taste like strawberries. I just like to present these flavors in a different form.
What inspires you to cook and create new recipes?
I eat a lot, sometimes it is a little ridiculous. I get inspired when Iím eating a whole bunch of different things, and oddly enough it is usually not when Iím eating desserts. Dining out and tasting dishes from many different people is what inspires me. Once Iím inspired, Iíll reintroduce the flavor in my own Chikalicious way.
(It tastes like a cheesecake made out of clouds and angels.)
Did you always intend on opening a dessert bar?
Before I opened here I wanted to open a tempura place, not a dessert bar. I went to Korin to look for a tempura pot and to ask if I could order stoves with smoke extractors built in. But tempura requires at least 10 years of training to properly fry and I didnít have enough money to recruit someone from Japan eitherÖ So I ended up opening a dessert bar. Now I realize though, that the most important aspect was the counter. I wanted to look over and stand at the counter while interacting with customers.
What do your knives mean to you?
My knife is like my child. I purchased this Misono knife 10 years ago when I first opened. I love how fruits donít change colors after I cut them. Even though the hard steel is a little difficult to sharpen, it stays sharp for a long time. When I get to a point where I canít sharpen it anymore, I feel like my son became a delinquent and I want to tell it to just go away. I have to send it to the Korin boot camp to clean it up and make it a good child again. Having a sharp knife is extremely important for me because once it dulls I donít want to work anymore.
Chikalicious does not use much plain white tableware, is there a reason for this?
It really feels like youíre at a restaurant when youíre eating off of a white plate, so I like to use colorful plates for a warmer feel. I want my guests to feel at home.
What is your goal for your profession?
Itís very difficult to continue something for a long time. Iíve continued what Iím doing for 10 years with this passion, and I think it would be wonderful if I could simply keep going.
What is your advice for aspiring chefs?
Please eat and try everything! Eat a lot of different chefís dishes. Even if you donít like a dish, figure out why and what you can do to never make the same mistake. No matter how much skill you have it all comes down to taste. If you donít develop your taste buds, then you have nothing to believe in.
Thank you for reading!