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Kyle Ricks

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Kyle Ricks
Hometown: New York
In Japan: 1.5 years
Identity: Chef/Partner, Serre

When it comes to haute cuisine, New Yorker Kyle Ricks knows his onions. He has worked in top end NYC eateries, alongside famous fusion chefs such as David Bouley, and privately for A-list celebrities such as Jay-Z, Beyonce and Jerry Seinfeld, catering to their sometimes ‘finicky’ requirements. Kyushu’s energy, people, and palm trees first attracted him to Fukuoka, which he finds relaxing compared to the Big Apple. At Serre, his ‘New York Style French’ restaurant in the Nakasu district, diners can enjoy his innovative cooking, such as slow roasted fish with balsamic pumpkin puree and apple, in a natural setting overlooking the river. Serre is French for greenhouse – whilst Kyle enjoys sourcing fresh ingredients at Yanagibashi market or from his friend’s farm in Saga, he has set up his own nursery on site to grow herbs he cannot find. His customers seem to ‘really dig it’ and he sees Fukuoka as an exciting city on the cusp of ‘something great’; in other words, a fertile ground for planting the seeds of new culinary ventures. Serre HP:

WIN! A four-course meal for two at Serre, cooked by Kyle and valued at ¥10,000 (beverages not included) Enter here!

Hi, Kyle. Tell us a bit about Serre, your restaurant in Nishi-Nakasu.
I wanted to bring the style, flavour and presentation of food that I learned in New York to Fukuoka. The restaurant is themed around nature, which is obviously a huge part of food. It’s a serene natural setting where everyone doing the daily grind can relax after work, but also somewhere modern and sleek, where people want to be. Within the restaurant I built a greenhouse, where I grow 80-90% of the small herbs and lettuces, mainly because I can’t get them here.

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What brought you to Fukuoka?
When I was in New York, I never had a real vacation. You get used to not having much time off in restaurants, as someone always gets sick or cuts their finger off and your day off gets pushed back another week. It wasn’t until I was about 27 that I worked for a company where I got paid vacation. I took two weeks, which I’d never done, and went to Japan with a close friend who used to live in Tokyo. It was my first time in Asia and I was instantly calm when I arrived. Then my best friend who I’ve known for about 17 years moved to Karatsu in Saga. I came to visit him and really liked Kyushu’s beaches and energy. People were friendly and patient and Fukuoka seemed like a city on the cusp of something else. Nakasu seemed like a good place to start, with a fixed industry that’s already about style and showing off.


How is the food culture in Fukuoka different to other places you’ve worked?
Compared to New York and Washington DC, in Japan there is so much focus on washoku (Japanese cuisine). Even if the ingredients are French or Italian, there is always a Japanese influence. In New York people eat out almost all the time – sometimes people cook at home, but usually their fridges are just filled with condiments. Japanese restaurants there have moved beyond just sushi – I can think of at least five now serving kaiseki. New York is saturated with restaurants, but there’s not as much choice here. I miss good Thai and Mexican food.

How is American food viewed in Japan?
Large portions, big steaks, fatty fried food – pizzas, hotdogs, big hamburgers. Often customers ask me why my restaurant is ‘New York Style French’. That’s more a reference point than a description, as really I would like to call it ‘New American’, but that makes people think of people driving trucks and eating Taco Bell with 70oz drinks. In major American cities, the food scene is very different and there are lots of great things.

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How are you trying to change this impression with your cooking?
The flavors I use are more delicate than people expect. I recently had some customers who were surprised that the flavours were full, but it was light. I try not to use too much salt, and I like to enunciate the natural flavours by creating a synergy with fresh ingredients. For example, instead of using lots of butter, I’ll roast a carrot in olive oil for four hours, then purée that and fold it into a tomato and saffron sauce. The colour and natural sweetness is there, but it’s a cleaner oil.



Are there Japanese influences in your cooking?
Absolutely, I love Japanese flavours. I find them slightly mineral-y and clean. A typical American lime or lemon has a different taste from a sudachi or yuzu. Most Americans know wasabi paste, but in Kyushu there’s much more yuzukosho, which is salty, spicy, sweet and acidic, with a great floral note. There’s an earthier element which can be used to create so many different flavours. I don’t follow a formula when I put my food together, but trying new things can spark ideas by reminding me of something I did five or ten years ago, or something I ate in a restaurant. People are always suggesting what I should do which is very nice, but I only choose an ingredient if I can use it properly. If I can’t impart it into my style or flavor profiles, I won’t force it just because it’s in season.

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How has the reaction been from your clients?
People seem to really dig it. The plates are always clean and they seem very happy. Depending on how busy I am I try to come to the table at least twice during the meal to meet them and show my appreciation. At the end of the day it’s always about customers.

Tell us a bit about your work in New York.
Some of the people I have worked for privately are high end celebrities, like Jay-Z, Beyonce and Jerry Seinfeld – very wealthy people with lavish homes. Some of them had some very finicky dining styles! I first started in a catering sense, as I was in a culinary program in high school. Going from that to free-standing three star restaurants was a change. Kitchens in Washington DC are different to those in New York. In the latter the energy is much more intense, you have to do more with your mind and make things work – it’s like the difference between driving a Cadillac and a car that somebody built for you and falls apart a lot.


Do you think that there have been any changes in international fine dining over the years?
Asian flavours started seeping into Western food in the 80s. In New York I had exposure to famous fusion chefs like John Georges and David Bouley. I really liked their use of clean acid flavours to balance out the heaviness that French food is associated with. In my food I use lots of fruit and vinegars, which are naturally acidic. Right now I’m doing a dish of brown butter balsamic pumpkin puree with apples and slow roasted fish, which has a sweetness and a winter/fall flavour profile. I like to hit a couple of different notes in my dishes, and to impart a little bit of heat, because it helps your mouth salivate. If you take a butter sauce and finish it right at the end with lemon juice, it cuts the fat, and you won’t walk out feeling so heavy.


Do you have a favourite Japanese dish?
I have favourite ingredients, but not really a favourite dish. I’d rather have sushi than ramen – I like both, but ramen makes me get fat! I eat very healthy. Since I got here so I haven’t gone out nearly as much as I want to, as I’m trying to put everything I have into this place. There’s not much Japanese food I dislike. I try everything at least five times before I say I don’t like it, because there are many slight variations in the way people do the same thing. The Japanese palate is very delicate and people pick up on the differences between ingredients or vinegars. I respect the ability to pick up on those nuances and the craftsmanship of their dishes.

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What are your plans for the future?
I would like to stay in Fukuoka. I think this city is going in the right direction, getting a bit more progressive and opening up to new things. It’s on the cusp of breaking into something really good, especially with the cost of living. It’s an affordable, nice and clean place to live. It’s also much safer than New York, there’s not the same level of threat. We’re not really concerned with accolades or competing with other restaurants; our goal at this restaurant is just to have a good time working. We want that to translate to the food and the experience.

Do you think Fukuoka is a ‘gourmet city’?
I think people in Fukuoka have great pride in their cuisine. Outside the city, everyone just thinks of ramen straight away, but the variety is so rich. Fukuoka is renowned for yakitori too! In New York, I would eat yakitori after work all the time, it’s been a comfort food for me in my career. Whenever I go out with someone to a yatai or izakaya, the people making the food seem to really care. I think Fukuoka definitely has the potential to be called a gourmet city.

Interview by Katie Forster for Fukuoka Now

Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn183, Mar. 2014)


Fukuoka City
Published: Feb 28, 2014 / Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017

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