At first, Yao couldn’t help but see Kato as an evolution of someone else’s vision — a stopgap before he opened a place that was truly his. But in some ways, that freed him to take risks.
“I was essentially telling myself, ‘Okay, I need to prepare for the next restaurant. I’ll treat this like an incubator,’” he says, of deciding to curate a true Taiwanese menu influenced by the flavors of his childhood. “We had nothing to lose at this point; we’re training for the next step. I might as well do food I believe in.” He started putting more Taiwanese items on the menu, like steamed fish. “I watched my mom steam fish, and it’s a dish that most Chinese households do,” he says. “It represents Chinese food really well, the provenance of the ingredients, the technique.”
While he was busy working on this experiment, in March 2019, he got a call from Michelin letting him know Kato was being inspected, the review process for restaurants short-listed for its award.
“I was like, ‘Okay, we have to put up stuff that’s really true to us, that we feel is perfect,’” he says. “So we put on a very, very, very Taiwanese menu, and I just said, if we don’t win this way, so be it.” He’d later learn that it didn’t matter — the inspectors had already come before that call — and in June, the young chef received his first star.
“My ultimate goal was to be in the Michelin system,” he says, and since Kato’s induction, he’s noticed other finer Taiwanese spots opening up in Southern California. “It’s slowly starting to sink in. When I was younger I didn’t have a Taiwanese fine dining restaurant. Even now, a lot of Taiwanese chefs say, ‘Yeah, you guys are the guiding star. We all look to you to see what you’re going to do next.’”