30 years ago, Japan native Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani met while working in the kitchen at Wolfgang Puck’s original Spago on the Sunset Strip. In 1988, the couple opened Terra near the train tracks in St. Helena. They added Ame to San Francisco’s St. Regis Hotel in 2005. We met on September 6 at the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, and Sone shared several culinary insights.
Was it a given you would become a chef, or did you consider other careers?
I like music. I like to play guitar and bass, so when I was a high school student, I really thought I wanted to go to music school and learn more about it. I wanted to be a bassist, and then I thought about it. To be successful in the music business, you have to be almost like a genius. I thought cooking, you can eat. So it was an easy idea. I’m kind of lazy, I guess. I decided to go into something more artistic, so I picked cooking. I went to cooking school instead of music school.
Which culinary school did you go to?
I went to a school in Osaka, Japan, called Tsuji Cooking School.
And you’re from Japan originally?
Yes. I came from a small town in Miyagi Prefecture. It’s northern Japan, about 200 miles north of Tokyo, a small farming town. My parents are farmers. They farmed premium Japanese rice. My father’s 18th generation in the same house. I was supposed to stay a farmer, but I decided to do cooking. My father was really mad.
How long did it take for him to get over your decision?
At first, I started working at a restaurant in Tokyo, and four or five years passed. I had originally come to the United States to learn about the cuisine and what’s happening in Los Angeles. A company hired me to be the chef of Spago in Tokyo. So basically I came to Los Angeles and studied for two months about the so-called California cuisine. At that time, I didn’t have any clue. I really thought American people ate only hot dogs and burgers. I was not educated, but that really opened my eyes. When I discovered this cuisine in the United States, I went back to Tokyo and opened the first California cuisine restaurant in Tokyo. I was there for one-and-a-half years, and I came back to Los Angeles, Spago, and stayed there for four years.
Did your father eat your food when you were in Tokyo?
Yes, he came once, but he was still shaking his head. I said to my father, “I want to move to the United States.” He was really not happy, but he said, “Only one year, I can go.” Now I’m here over 30 years.
Did he ever end up forgiving you?
He’s happy, because rice farming is very tough in Japan. Land is small compared to here and California. I took my father and mother one time to a rice farm here in California. You cannot see the end of the rice field. They had to compete with that. He understood it’s really hard to make a living with small farming. A couple times they visited us here and they understood what I do and I think they are happy with what I chose.
What does a dish have to be to go on your menu at Terra, and how is that different from a dish that goes on your menu at Ame?