Tucked away on a discreet street in Lower Manhattan lies a contemporary, cozy refuge with culinary comforts simply awaiting discovery. Beso in Japanese translates to “home away from home” or “holiday village” and it is this concept that lies at the heart of Bessou; the sleek NoHo fusion restaurant specializing in fresh takes on Japanese comfort food. Owner Maiko Kyogoku and executive chef Emily Yuen have teamed up to create a dining experience designed as an extension of Kyogoku’s home; a warm gathering place for people to connect. We were invited to spend the day in this female power duo’s second home and glimpse into their daily routine.
While the typical modern space tends to lack feelings of warmth and comfort, Bessou is distinct for its balance of design sophistication and coziness. The restaurant embraces the fusion concept as it draws design inspiration from both New York and Japanese cultures; exposed brick meets thick wooden floorboards, traditional Japanese indigo-dyed bandanas hang framed on the walls and an elegant paper lantern centers the room. The space is distinctly Japanese in aesthetic with its use of natural woods, indigo blue and simple plants, yet is complimented with comforting American folk music, creating a Zen-meets-Americana atmosphere. With just 20 tables and six barstools at the back bar, the intimate space certainly feels like a second home and the minimalist decor allows Bessou’s vibrant dishes to take center stage.
Combine Yuen’s background working alongside top chefs at fine-dining establishments around the world with Kyogoku’s Japanese home recipes and you have a strikingly innovative dinner and brunch menu. We had the rare opportunity to witness them prepare dishes from both menus. First, a New York brunch staple made with a Japanese twist, the Eggplant Shakshuka; blistered eggplant in Japanese curry with a baked egg, miso tofu labne and thick-cut milk toast. Next up, their newest menu item, Damako; a chicken-based hot pot made with maitake mushrooms, chrysanthemum leaves and homemade mochi-like rice balls called Damako. As Kyogoku and Yuen laboriously roll the rice balls in front of us, Maiko explains how the making of a hot pot is an essential family activity in Japanese culture. She informs us that Damako is the home-cooked version of Kiritanpo, the prized hot pot of Akita, the colder northern region of Japan where her parents were born. After a few hours with Kyogoku and Yuen, it becomes clear that they have built the restaurant as they would their own home, making no choice without sentiment or intention.
In a city where Japanese cuisine often equates to ramen and sushi, Kyogoku and Yuen are carving out space in the industry for authentic Asian-American cuisine. Both were raised in western cultures; Kyogoku in New York City and Yuen in Vancouver, but grew up learning traditional Japanese and Chinese cooking techniques from their parents. Kyogoku was raised in a restaurant family, her father founding a sushi restaurant, Rikyu, on the Upper West Side over 30 years ago. After college, Kyogoku managed collaborations with Louis Vuitton and Kanye West for Takashi Murakami, a contemporary Japanese artist known for using his art as a means to celebrate Japanese culture. Given these early influences, it’s no surprise that Kyogoku has chosen food as the medium to honor her Japanese roots. Kyogoku and Yuen’s multicultural upbringings, refined palates and dedication to the home-cooked meal make Bessou a unique dining retreat from the bustling city.
We joined Yuen and Kyogoku in their home away from home to learn more about their intentions with Bessou, their favorite comfort dishes and their daily inspirations.
What led to the creation of Bessou?
MK: Bessou is an idea that I had been thinking about for some time. I wanted to create a restaurant that embodied the meaning of a bessou, which is the Japanese word for vacation home, or home away from home. It’s become a neighborhood spot, a gathering space for locals and Japanese food lovers alike. We serve Japanese comfort food inspired by my family’s home cooking and updated with local, sustainable ingredients.
How did you two meet and what do you think has been the key to your successful collaboration?
MK: Emily and I worked together when we were both working for Chef Daniel Boulud. She was a sous chef at Boulud Sud at the time; I was the Director of Private Dining for Boulud Sud and Bar Boulud. A year or so after we’d both left the Boulud group, I was looking for a chef to open the restaurant with me. It was great fortunate fate that brought us together!
I think our success can be attributed to our open communication and brutal honesty! We’re constantly talking, sharing ideas, working on dishes together, etc. Often times, I will bring up a popular dish from my childhood or another memory based on Japanese food. We then test out the dish in different ways. Emily brings her technical expertise and her own interpretations of the dish based on personal memories, or background in French cuisine. We’re constantly changing our minds and tweaking. In that way, there’s really no finished dish – just one that we’re always improving!
Take us through your typical work day.
MK: There is no typical day but I am usually typing away on my phone as soon as I wake up. I spend a good amount of time in the morning on social and often send Emily some food photo or recipe as inspiration for a dish we may be working on. We’re currently part of an outdoor market in Greeley Square called Broadway Bites, so one of us are usually running up to midtown to help the lunch rush. If I’m not there during the day, I’m at work doing payroll or going through paperwork. Afternoons are spent in meetings with vendors or working through special dishes. We try to come up with new dishes regularly to keep the menu fresh. Somehow it becomes 4pm before we know it. The front of house staff arrive and then it’s time for dinner service!
How have your individual backgrounds influenced the menu?
MK: Many of the menu items are dishes from my childhood, with creative twists and inspirations from cuisines I’ve encountered growing up in New York and traveling. The most interesting dishes we have on the menu are those that converge dishes from two different cultures that have similar qualities. Take our curry shakshuka, for example. Who doesn’t love shakshuka? To me, it is the ultimate comfort food as it’s saucy, warming and enveloping. It’s my go to dish at home. But so is Japanese curry. Every Japanese kid has some memory of enjoying their mom’s curry growing up. And curry has the same qualities: it’s saucy, warming, and enveloping. The combination of tomato puree and eggs in Japanese curry seemed very natural to me.
You both grew up spending a lot of family time in the kitchen. What lessons from your parents do you carry with you on a daily basis?
MK: Be inspired by what’s in your fridge. It sounds funny but as a restaurant owning family, we were constantly eating out and R&Ding or cooking something at home. We had two big refrigerator and freezer units in our house so there was no shortage! All of those leftovers add up. My father especially is a leftover whiz. He seems to be able to create a feast from taking leftovers and making it into a completely unique second meal! He taught me how to not waste (our daily mantra), but also to be creative. Looking at a fridge and leftovers in this way taught me to think outside the box and try seemingly different flavors together.
Which dish on the menu is closest to your heart and why?
MK: We are introducing damako hotpot to the menu as it gets colder. It is a dish I’ve wanted to include on the menu since opening. The hotpot is chicken stock based with chicken, maitake mushrooms, chrysanthemum leaves, and homemade mochi-like rice balls called damako. I have so many fond memories of pounding rice balls with my sister and mom while making the dish growing up. It’s a laborious task but the rewards are great and I’m so happy that New Yorkers are able to try this special dish at Bessou.
What’s your go-to comfort dish to make at home?
MK: Shakshuka. I always seem to have eggs, tomato sauce, and parsley on hand. Since morning and breakfast time or late night are pretty much the only time I am home, shakshuka is a great comforting dish I can make for myself in no time.
Fusion restaurants are quite popular these days, what sets Bessou apart from the rest?
MK: The word fusion has a bad rep. When people hear it, they tend to think that a dish is inauthentic, non-traditional, or modern. Our flavors are based on actual sauces and flavors that my father made when I was little (many of the base sauces that we use at the restaurant now are still made by my father) so there’s nothing inauthentic about the flavors!
What were your sources of inspiration when designing the restaurant space?
MK: Noguchi, Murakami, my mother, and my childhood best friend’s home.
Bessou has been noted for using secondhand dishes and making efforts to reduce food waste. Why is sustainability so important to you?
MK: This has to do with our philosophy of mottainai, a phrase in Japanese meaning “It’s a waste!” and is meant to be a reminder to value things. I think it comes from the Japanese shinto philosophy that there is a spirit for all things. In the same way, I think there is a spirit in plate ware. Someone put their love and soul in making a dish – we should give it new life and put it to use!
Do you have a daily mantra?
MK: “Mottainai.” It’s a phrase in Japanese meaning “It’s a waste!” and is meant to be a reminder to value ingredients, respect where food comes from, and to that end, to minimize waste whenever possible. We try to use all parts of every ingredient so that we have as little waste and environmental impact as possible.
Photography by Anna Haines