The Gravy: In the Kitchen with June Yamagishi

The Gravy: In the Kitchen with June Yamagishi. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

The Gravy: In the Kitchen with June Yamagishi. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

“In Japan, we eat the golden-fried pork chop, tonkatsu. I don’t make that. I use a soy sauce base that is fruity and sweet, with apple, ginger and honey. This is the secret: Sake! Makes it sweet; makes meat tender.

When I’m in a restaurant, I always sit at the bar to see the cook and learn. Camellia Grill, they cook inside the counter and I like to sit down and stare.

When you grind your ginger, don’t peel it! With the skin. More flavor. John Gros can cook too! His gumbo is excellent, and we always gather, once every year, at John’s house, and bring a dish. I bring golden curry, curry with rice. Not Indian curry! My curry is Japanese style. More close to stew, with chicken, beef or pork, whatever you like. I don’t put much mushroom. I put onion, carrot and potato. Onion is most important. Cooking the onion first, about 20 minutes, make it caramel brown, kind of make it shrink. I use this sauce mix, Japanese roux, “Golden Curry”, and I put carrot chunks, potato chunks, put the water and boil for one hour. Before that, put seasoning stuff. Salt and pepper, and I use Tony Chachere’s a lot. When I do beef, I fry the beef in butter first. When I add the water, I add the beef back in.

My secret ingredients are this fruit sauce [Bull-Dog Vegetable & Fruit Sauce, Semi-Sweet] and this Japanese version of Worcestershire sauce, with tamarind. You can put it on steak, anything. Give it secret flavor.

Let me tell you my story. I was moving down here in 1995. Around that time, not many Japanese people lived here in New Orleans. I couldn’t find Japanese groceries, this kind of sauce stuff. And I wanted to eat it. I wanted this kind of flavor. I make it! Worcestershire sauce and ketchup, mixed up. That’s close.

When I go back to my home town, there’s a butcher close to my house. I always go there and get the fried beef croquettes. I love it! That’s my favorite. Ground beef with mashed potato, carrot, onion—same as for curry, but chopped up. Put together and put breading, panko, and deep-fry. I’m from a town close to Osaka, and Osaka is the food capital in Japan, like New Orleans. Anything is great, and cheap! I’ve been eating beef croquettes since I was two years old.

I learned to cook from my grand-mère. First time I get here and eat the red beans and rice, it reminds me of my grand-mère’s cooking. She always used the red beans. That’s why I moved down here. Because of my grand-mère’s red beans.

I started cooking when I moved to New Orleans. Makes me feel like cook. I cooked when I lived in Japan, but mostly I cooked New Orleans stuff; gumbo and jambalaya. When I moved down here, I really started cooking for myself: ‘Yeah, let’s cook this!’ But I don’t need to cook gumbo and jambalaya here. I cook in the Japanese style.

My home town Ise is by the sea with a lot of great seafood and special beef. Best beef in Japan, better than Kobe beef. Unbelievable; melt in your mouth. Ise shrimp, Ise ebi, is very good. I always hung out by the sea and the river as a kid. That’s familiar to me.

I like deep-fried shrimp. Shrimp cutlets, like Tiger shrimp. Peel it, open it and stretch out, like tempura, golden-fried with panko. Then I put this sauce, the fruit sauce, with mayo, mixed together.

I like complicated stuff. Complex stuff is crab cream croquettes with the bechamel sauce, your white sauce. That’s very hard to make. I try and try and try—still can’t make it. They’re too soft, they won’t make a chunk. You chill it in the refrigerator to make it more firm, then you cut it and deep-fry in panko. Outside flaky, inside creamy. That’s a problem. Just bechamel sauce and crab meat. Very hard! When I put it in the oil to fry, it breaks. Too soft! I have to guess.

Jason [Mingledorff] wrote a song and we were in Colorado before we cut the second album with Papa Grows Funk. We stayed in a condo, everybody. ‘Yeah, let’s cook something.’ ‘Hey, June, can you cook the yakiniku?’ Like Korean barbecue. ‘I’ll do that. No problem. Bring me to some store.’ But I couldn’t get yakiniku sauce, so I had to make a temporary sauce with soy sauce and sake and sugar. And then Jason said, ‘Hey guys, what do you think about this song’s title?’ I said, ‘What about the yakiniku?’ And that was it. And then I put the ingredients in the liner notes.”


Japanese Pork Chops

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 small apple, grated
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons mirin
4 tablespoons sake
6 tablespoons soy sauce
2 center-cut pork chops
salt, pepper and Tony Chachere’s
1/2 cup flour
2 tablespoons olive oil

In a bowl, stir together ginger, apple, honey, mirin, sake and soy sauce. Set aside. Season pork chops with salt, pepper and Tony Chachere’s on both sides and press into flour in a wide bowl. Fry pork chops on both sides in olive oil over medium heat for about 3 minutes per side, covering pan with a lid after the first minute. Pour sauce over meat and continue to cook for 2 minutes, turning the meat in the sauce.