It’s the first day of staff training at the new Kato location when I phone Jon Yao in mid-January, a few weeks away from its February opening at The Row in downtown Los’s arts district. Angeles. I quietly knock on my wooden desk as he says everything is going pretty well so far, hoping not to bring him bad luck. In my notebook, I dubbed the space Kato 2.0, although the title is a misnomer – it’s not so much a sequel to the original 960 square foot mall as it’s a next step for Yao with his partners Ryan Bailey and Nikki Reginaldo.
Kato opened in June 2016 in West Los Angeles, next to Sawtelle. The first evolution of his menu was a fixed price of around $40, which slowly grew into the larger menu he is known for today. The dining room seats 26 and according to Bailey the rate at which they would have had to turn tables to make 60 covers per night was “aggressive”. The place didn’t have a liquor license either, and often Reginaldo was the only one working in front of the house. On paper, the constraints of the space were overwhelming, but something special was born from these parameters.
Los Angeles: Taiwanese cuisine
Kato’s serving style, led by general manager Reginaldo, began somewhat out of necessity due to these constraints. “I don’t like to say that I was forced to be intimate with every person, but this kind of style that I have for hospitality took shape in this small space just because I had to touch every table” , said Reginaldo. “I like to explain that my service style is a bit like having people in my living room.”
Reginaldo has known Yao since they attended the rival San Gabriel Valley high schools, and she began working with Kato just months after it opened. Gatherings were a mainstay of her upbringing as a Filipina American and is something she attributes to her interest in the hospitality industry. “Filipinos notoriously throw big, fun parties — lots of karaoke, lots of food, lots of friends and family,” she says. “My home was always one that welcomed. Having that feeling of bringing people together was always something I grew up with and knew I wanted to keep in my life.”
After about a year and a half of commissioning at the West Los Angeles site, it became clear that Kato had outgrown its original home. So, about three and a half years ago, Yao contacted Bailey and they met, somewhat fatally, at The Row. Reginaldo and Yao first met Bailey at a collaborative charity event where he was the sommelier. Bailey and Yao then held a series of charity events and pop-ups together and realized that their skills complemented each other. Over time, they became friends and when Yao was looking for someone to bring to Kato to help the restaurant grow, Bailey fit the bill.
They discussed what a partnership might look like for them, though at the time Bailey was focused on writing wine, starting a business, consulting and other endeavors. Committing to working with a restaurant long-term wasn’t on his radar, but Yao changed his mind.
Bailey told Yao that he would come on board and do everything in his power to take Kato to the next level. And he kept his word by being part of the team that allowed Kato to open in the former Mr. Georgina space. “That’s all we could have asked for,” Yao says of their new home.
Where the West LA location could only accommodate 26 people, the new location can accommodate 100 people – although they can currently accommodate 50 people at a time. Gone is the hermetic and closed kitchen that separated Yao and his team from the guests, replaced by an open kitchen that offers an experience comparable to a chef’s table. And now that a liquor license is in place, a new beverage program is being developed to accompany the menu, with alcoholic and non-alcoholic options and an extensive wine selection. The tea program will also be expanded and a new coffee program will be introduced.
“There’s a lot of intention in every little detail that we’ve put forth in the space,” remarks Bailey. The restaurant’s furniture was custom-made with input from the team, and the art collection hanging on the walls includes pieces painted by Yao’s grandfather. In working with suppliers and purchasing products for Kato, there is also a conscious effort to support Asian American businesses.
The team is also growing – from six to 18 – with eight people dedicated to front-of-house operations. Kato will also continue its practice of charging an 18.5% service charge on bills instead of offering tip service. “We believe it’s not fair to give customers the ability to rate the experience and dictate the income of our employees,” Bailey says. Service fees allow Kato to offer employees higher wages and benefits, including health insurance and a 401(k). The menu will also undergo a heavy overhaul with classics like boniato yam dessert, tapioca pearls and steamed fish notably absent. “The menu is pretty much entirely new,” Yao says.
What will remain the same are the team’s intentions for Kato. “First of all, [we want] to really tell the story of Asian American nostalgia in terms of how we grew up in Southern California and how our food grew up in the San Gabriel Valley,” Reginaldo says.[We want to tell] this story and really let people who grew up in this lifestyle feel seen, because it’s something that me and Jon lived and sought out in the old space.”
Raised in the San Gabriel Valley, food – and using it as a means of connection – has always been central to Yao’s life. He remembers his mother cooking when he was a child, making sure that every time they went out to eat it was a special experience, even if it wasn’t for a specific occasion. “Growing up with immigrant parents, we certainly weren’t rich or anything, so food was the easiest way to celebrate,” Yao says. “My family isn’t big on material things, but whenever there’s a birthday or something, we have to sit down and eat together.” He describes his mother as an “incredible chef” and says she makes spring rolls like anything he’s ever had, with a sticky center that oozes.
Yao remembers enjoying cooking for his friends when he was in high school, which he often did. Once in college, he took a job at a hot pot restaurant, serving tables, washing dishes, and doing prep work while pursuing a bachelor of science degree in anthropology. A path to becoming a lawyer was in his sights. Yao intentionally chose a major to help with her critical thinking and LSAT performance.
At the time, Los Angeles was seeing its first wave of markets like the 626 Night Market, and Yao, along with his friends, decided to try selling food at one and see if they could make a profit. Until then, he hadn’t considered pursuing a career in hospitality, but the experience sparked an interest in an internship in restaurants after graduation.
When Yao first opened Kato, the menus consisted mostly of foods he wanted to eat. “It was a bit crazy,” he admits. They were eventually composed to include mostly Taiwanese offerings, but have now expanded to draw influences from a wider range of Asian American foods. “[Now] it’s very Californian, Angeleno’s food,” Yao says. “It’s a bit of my heritage and it’s a bit of other people’s heritage in the team. These are things that we experienced in the city growing up, and things that we experience in the city now.”
For Yao, food symbolizes something both personal and mundane. “It’s the most recurring theme in all our lives,” he says. “We eat three times a day and I think that’s just the big connector – the big unifier. We all have to eat, we all have to share a meal. It’s beautiful that way.”
While there’s no single way to define restaurant success, although Kato’s Michelin star doesn’t hurt his case, Yao is clear about what success looks like to him. “I really want to be at the point where I can take care of my parents and be able to spend time with them,” he says.
“When you’re younger, you take things at face value and don’t really understand why your parents do certain things,” Yao says. “The older I get, the more I understand what my parents did for me, the sacrifices they had to make and the fact that they are first generation immigrants.”
Kato is only the beginning of the long-awaited recognition of Asian American cuisine as part of fine dining, but Yao is already thinking far beyond its own four walls. “The dream is to give Asians the space to speak up and express themselves,” he says. “Our medium is food, and we’re really able to pursue that at a high level, and I hope other people see us doing that and decide to do that in their own areas.”
With Kato reopening, Yao – alongside Reginaldo, Bailey and the rest of the team – continues to lead the way towards that dream.