Cooking With: Yama’s new head chef Jeff Pandolfe |

Cooking With: Yama’s new head chef Jeff Pandolfe

Yama's new head chef Jeff Pandolfe.
Matt Stensland |

To fully experience a sushi restaurant, just say the word “Omakase” — a word that translates to “chef’s choice” in Japanese.

“People like surprises,” said Jeff Pandolfe, the new sushi chef at Yama Kawa in downtown Steamboat Springs. “The correct etiquette is to put a tip in the tip jar and say, ‘Chef, take care of me.’ You don’t even have to look at the menu because the meal will be customized to your likes and dislikes. I want people to have a sushi experience here.”

With a career that spans across several continents from Alaska to the Carribean and even Africa, Pandolfe is a self-taught chef who has worked the gamut of restaurants, some his own, and he’s been a chef to celebrities including Shania Twain, Lenny Kravitz, Joe Pesci, Justin Bieber and David Guetta.

“What really made me turn to sushi was the creativity component,” Pandolfe said. “When you’re in a kitchen cooking the same dishes over and over, it kind of puts a damper on you. But at a sushi bar, every customer who walks through the door is different.”

This month, he moved to Steamboat with his family to be the new head chef at Yama Kawa’s new location at 11th and Yampa streets.

A new sushi menu will be released Monday with items inspired by a combination of Pandolfe’s past menus and experience under the watchful eye of renowned Masaharu Morimoto, a Japanese chef, known as an Iron Chef on the TV cooking show “Iron Chef America.” Morimoto also opened Nobu, the most popular chain of Japanese restaurants on the West Coast, with co-owner Robert De Niro.

“I love feeding people,” said Pandolfe, who was born in New Jersey, raised in California and learned how to cook from his Italian mother. “I’m Italian ethnically, and I like family-style dishes. It makes me feel good to do that one little thing for a customer or to make something special just for them.”

Soon after high school, Pandolfe passed on two full-ride football scholarships to pursue a life in Homer, Alaska. There he lived on a fishing boat for months at a time, fishing all day and cooking at night.

“That’s how I got my foot in the door with cooking,” he said. “I started at the bottom and worked my way to the top.”

But it wasn’t easy. After 12 years working as a chef and then an executive sushi chef on the Jersey Shore and also in Los Angeles, he then interned with Morimoto.

“I got to work and learn from the best and see the best fish in the world come in and how to handle it,” Pandolfe said.

“I was in the basement for three months just washing rice before they realized I could cut fish better than most of them,” Pandolfe said of his time under Morimoto’s tutelage. “They didn’t want to show me their techniques at first because they were afraid of the fact that I wasn’t Japanese. But that made me want it more and to show them that I could do it even better than them.”

Pandolfe said he has always loved fresh fish and vegetables for a lighter fare and likes a more traditional sushi with a taste that is not drowned out with sauces.

“The vision for Yama is to have mountain-friendly food where you can find a great sushi bar but also a variety of steak and seafood options that are locally sourced as well,” he said.

The new menu will feature 12 different options of fish compared to the previous four. While he kept a few of the popular rolls like the Red Dragon, Pandolfe added a few new ones.

“My rolls really specialize in the fish,” said Pandolfe about newer rolls like the “Alaskan King” with salmon, “Wicked Tuna” with a spicy tuna and the “Steamboat Mobster” with a yellowtail Hamachi whitefish.

Yama will also offer a 12-course meal, the “Sushimon Omakasa,” at the sushi bar that will feature small plate items like soups, salads, rolls and a variety of tasting specialties. This option allows patrons to have a customized, surprise dinner. In which it will be customized to each customer’s likes and dislikes.

“My hope was to bring my worldly tastes and cuisines along with my fresh approach to ingredients and the culinary experience to this mountain town,” Pandolfe said.

To reach Audrey Dwyer, call 970-871-4229, email or follow her on Twitter @Audrey_Dwyer1.

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