VIDEO: Sake2U’s new chef offers wisdom of Japanese food to Steamboat
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When John Ames was growing up in Minnesota in the ’90s, he could have counted the number of Japanese restaurants in his area on one hand.
“People just didn’t know about Japanese food then,” he said.
Ames had always known he wanted to be a chef. He attended culinary school in Minneapolis and got a degree in American French food. It wasn’t until after he completed the culinary program in 1996 that Ames — who was born in Korea and came to the U.S. with his American family at age 7 — was introduced to Japanese food by his American mother.
“I got hooked on Japanese food. I thought it was an amazing art,” said Ames, who also uses his Korean name, John Sungtae.
Deciding to forego his culinary training in American French food for what was basically an apprenticeship in Japanese food was, according to Ames, a risky choice.
“Back in the day, (chefs of Japanese restaurants) didn’t care if you went to culinary school. It’s zero to them,” Ames said.
He’d have to work his way up from the very bottom — and he did. Twice.
Most chefs of Japanese cuisine are trained in either sushi, or “edomae” style, the more traditional, formal option, which includes learning to cure and preserve fish, or in “izakaya,” or “kitchen,” style, generally small, hot plates in casual eateries.
“I knew I needed to learn both,” Ames said.
After training in Japanese restaurants in Minnesota for eight years, Ames decided to explore more of the United States while continuing his studies of Japanese cuisine.
His next stop was Aspen, where he worked at the city’s first Japanese restaurant, Takah Sushi, for five years. Takah Sushi, which opened in the early 1980’s, before sushi was trendy between the coasts, was one of the oldest Japanese restaurants in the state before it closed in 2015.
“I got to meet a lot of celebrities who ate there,” Ames noted.
Ames then picked up and moved to San Francisco to work at Omakase, which earned a Michelin star in 2016. When Omakase’s owners expanded to a sister restaurant, Okane, in 2017, Ames became Okane’s head chef.
After five years in San Francisco, Ames made his way back to Colorado to be executive chef at Yama; his time there lasted three-and-a-half months before the restaurant closed.
A month-and-a-half ago, Ames joined Sake2U. Ames and Sake2U head sushi chef Koji-San have more than 40 years of combined experience in Japanese food.
“I don’t want to be judgmental to small towns, but this was an opportunity to bring quality Japanese food to Steamboat’s community,” Ames explained. “When people see new food, they’re curious about it.”
At Sake2U, Ames aims to introduce people to styles of Japanese cuisine they’ve never tried before. His vision for his food is subtle, not too spicy, not too rich and very clean, with many details in the flavors.
Ames has spent 15 years building connections in international supply chains of fish and, now, can use that to his advantage. He sources many of his fish from Nishiki Market, a famous fish market near Kyoto, Japan — a network that generally only accepts and works with restaurateurs who’ve been involved with the suppliers for a long time, according to Ames.
“They know what I can do with the fish,” he said.
Ames’ orders depart the fish market and are flown directly to Denver. A truck picks up the load, drops some orders off in Vail, then delivers the rest to Steamboat Springs.
Ames also makes his own soy sauce and uses real horseradish wasabi.
As part of adapting his food to the mountain town palette, he developed a new happy hour menu, having observed that Steamboat enjoys happy hour.
In addition to being Sake2U’s executive chef, Ames will also serve as the restaurant’s general manager until he finds the right person for the job. As the general manager, Ames is working to structure staff training and service.
It’s rare to act as both executive chef and general manager, but Ames isn’t phased by a double workload.
“Whether you’re in the food world or not, you have to have passion if you’re going to succeed,” Ames said.
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