Scott Malloy

People are always on the move in the restaurant business, and I’ve known plenty of chefs on the way up. But there’s something different about the moves made by a cook named Scott Malloy, who currently works at Momotaro’s izakaya. A Tennessee native, Malloy didn’t have Japanese food till he was nearly an adult, but he’s made up for lost time by being obsessive about it ever since. That’s been reflected in a career driven less by where he could boost his salary and title, and more by where he could learn the next thing about the cuisine he loves. Next year he plans to take his first trip to Japan, with his wife Becky, office manager at Grace, and the couple is working on eventually living there for a time. The ultimate goal is, yes, his own restaurant, but for now he’s more determined to learn everything he can from others than to run the show himself. I met him at Star Lounge (hence the coffee beans in the background) to learn more about how he’s driven his career to satisfy his obsession with Japanese cuisine—and what he plans to do with it someday.

Michael Gebert: So did you always like Japanese food, or were you making cheeseburgers in a bowling alley somewhere when you discovered it?

Scott Malloy: I grew up military, moving around as a kid. I lived in Germany twice, but most of my life was spent in the south. And I think my first experience of the idea of Japanese food was a Chinese buffet with sushi, which was something superexotic. It was kind of a dare—I dare you to eat the raw fish. It was dangerous, there was kind of a stigma around it, especially in southern culture where a lot of people don’t eat fish. A lot of people are really picky eaters, meat and potatoes.

That was my first experience—

When was that?

High school. And probably my next experience was two years after I graduated culinary school. I just remember one of the guys coming in and saying, “Oh, I went to this sushi place in downtown Nashville—you should check it out.” I thought, OK, I’ll give it a shot, I don’t mind raw fish—I’d had crudos and stuff like that, during culinary school.

I went to this place that’s considered to be the best in Nashville. Which, in the grand scheme of things, probably isn’t that good, but at the time it was like—their fish is fresh, I think, and their rice is vinegared, kind of. And the chef was well established in Nashville, had been there for 15 or 20 years in the same location and had a good following. I went in one day and was like, OK, do your thing, omakase. I didn’t know what omakase was, but show me what you have, I’m new to this thing.

He did an omakase for me and my then girlfriend, now wife, and it just blew me away. I went back like twice a week, I would spend stupid money on it because, I have to know about this thing. Every time he’d introduce me to a new fish or a new cooked dish. I was working at what was considered to be one of the top five restaurants in Nashville at the time, and really built a relationship with him. And I said, I have all this kitchen experience, but I think sushi is something I’d really like to do. He reached over the counter and said, “Give me your hands” He touched my hands, and he said, “Your hands are too warm. You’ll cook the fish.”

And at that point I was hooked. Like, how does this guy have that much knowledge and prowess to be able to touch your hands and say they’re too warm for sushi? I’m sure he was really like, you’re a white guy, you’re not gonna make it, but the way that he said it, I was like, I’m hooked, I need to know more about this culture, I need to know more about this food.

Did you find a sushi place where you could get some experience?

I never really pursued it because I came from a fine-dining background and I wanted to keep doing that. Around that same time, I came to Chicago and I did some stages here, one of which was at L2O. At that time, under Laurent [Gras], it was super-Japanese in influence. And that’s where I really went crazy, just seeing all these different soy sauces, beautiful pristine fish being flown in from Japan, the techniques behind some of these dishes being very Japanese influenced—it was very modern, but a lot of, we’re going to keep this simple; it’s going to look very complex, but ultimately this is a very Japanese dish.

One of the dishes that really stuck with me was a play on hiyayakko, chilled tofu, where we got soy milk in from Kyoto, made our own tofu, soft silken tofu, like a miso-dashi broth around her, little shaved bits made of bluefin tuna on top and, like, one little scallion. This supersimple thing that was so Japanese, so refined. And I would ask Laurent about all these really Japanese ingredients and techniques. He could tell that I was superpassionate about it, and he would come to me and say, “Check out this fish.” He would let me watch him butcher hamo, this crazy eel that was $55 a pound. He had one knife that was only used for that. He had such a great respect for Japanese culture and cuisine that it really began to rub off on me.

After he left, I ended up working the station that he worked, which was the sashimi station. The chefs who came in after him noticed I was really into Japanese cuisine, and they kept on teaching me how to butcher, one fish at a time. This is how you do hamachi, this is how you do fluke. I had some butchery experience but not at that level. While I was there, a friend of mine said, you have to go eat at Arami, this new sushi place. So I went there and did an omakase with B.K. [Park], and that was when I was like, OK, I’m going after this.

I saw on Craigslist that they had a position for a sous chef. I had never been a sous chef at that point, I had never cooked Japanese food. But I figured I had a good cooking background, I think this is something I can do.

I did a tasting for them, and initially I didn’t get the job. They chose somebody else. That guy wound up taking a job somewhere else, so they called me back and said, “It’s yours—do you want it?”

I kind of know you were in the background when we did Key Ingredient there. But I didn’t really know you until B.K. left to start what eventually became Juno. And I wrote something for Grub Street that basically said, well, that’s it for Arami, and you contacted me and said, no, listen, we’re changing, but we’re still doing good things. And I checked it out and made a little short film about “Arami 2.0,” when you brought in the robata grill and stuff like that.

Scott Malloy and others in Arami 2.0, from 2012.

We had a lot of freedom there. The owners just let us run wild: “As long as it looks good and tastes good and it follows our vision, go for it.” At first, just coming off of L2O, I was probably going a little out there. As I think a lot of young cooks do—it’s their first time to shine and show what they’re made of, and they go a little crazy.

I think one day it hit me—I was reading some Japanese cookbooks and I said, “Why am I doing all that? Why am I worried about putting dots on the plate and not focusing all that attention on making it more flavorful?”

That was around the time that B.K. left, and we really focused on doing yakitori at that point. I always had a fascination with chickens, a lot of which came from being a southern kid and growing up with uncles who raised chickens. Obviously fried chicken is a staple, but I’d had a lot of badly done fried chicken. So I was like, how do you take chicken and make it something really special? But through Japanese food, yakitori was how you do that. There’s Michelin-starred yakitori, and it’s done with finesse and it’s about what breed the chicken is and where it’s sourced from and what the chef’s sauce is. That was where the focus on tradition really started.

After that I ended up at Yusho, which was really the opposite of what I was doing at Arami—very creative Japanese, loosely Japanese. That was really, really cool, to see another chef who came from a very fine dining background [Charlie Trotter veteran Matthias Merges] go so casual and so opposite of what he was doing. I thought, this is really intriguing, I should see what this is about. Matthias and I had many conversations about how I was very traditional, and I thought traditional techniques could come into what they were doing—or even branch off, and do a ramen shop or these different things.

And then you went to Ceres Table, which is not Japanese. How did that happen?

That opportunity was presented by a friend, Scott Manlin. At that point I really needed to get back into a managerial role and learn more about operations and running a business. I had never done an opening before. So that was very helpful to see all that, for my own goal of eventually having my own restaurant.

The opportunity with Momotaro—I was with Ceres, but ultimately that wasn’t what I was going to do as far as opening my own restaurant one day with the cuisine I was really interested in. I reached out to Kevin Boehm at Boka Group, I said, “I’m really interested in Japanese food and I think I could be helpful to the team.”

At first when I heard what Boka was doing I thought it was going to be like Japonais, a fusiony type thing. Then I heard that Mark Hellyar and Jeff Ramsey were going to be the players, and I said, OK, these guys are the thing. The fish that they get in is better even than what I saw at L2O. The selection is . . . ridiculous, and there’s such a focus on not being huge, not being what everybody thought it was going to be. To me, it’s really, really cool that they did a big restaurant like that—it’s huge—and say, we’re not going to do that [be fusiony].

So you’re aiming to have your own restaurant someday. What does the restaurant in your head look like?

Ultimately, I think my dream would be to go back to Tennessee one day, and—I don’t think it’s ready yet; I think it’s actually a long ways away from it—but to open a little inn, doing Japanese food but with only local stuff. They have so many things that they only grow in one tiny part of the country. So it would be like that, but instead of ayu we’d use baby trout that you catch in a stream, things like that. Using local farmers, but also presenting them with the opportunity to grow a new vegetable. Give them the seeds and say, hey, can you grow this? That’s like a retirement type thing; I’m very young still, but ultimately that would be a really cool thing to raise chickens and hang out in the mountains and have a happy life and cook cool food.

As far as my own restaurant in Chicago—what I think it looks like is small, very small. I think ultimately it’s an izakaya. A very traditional izakaya in that it’s a neighborhood watering hole, but strictly Japanese, no wine, no American beer. Very simple food, not fusion. I kind of just want people to walk in and realize this is Japanese. There’s no mistaking this is Japanese. One thing that I really love when I look at pictures of izakayas is that there’s usually just a bar with a couple chefs behind it, and the guests are sitting there, interacting with the chef, very much like a sushi bar. But it’s fun, you know, every time I see pictures of izakayas it’s, people laughing, people drinking, people hanging out—it’s just their bar.

Small menu, very focused as far as what the season is, what fish are in. Affordable, I think that’s a big thing for me. I’m kind of over the perception that Japanese food has to be expensive—that’s how I saw it for a long time, the Japanese steakhouse that’s a hundred dollars. I don’t think it has to be that; I think a lot of what they do is very affordable. I think that type of place is very common there—there’s 190,000 restaurants in Tokyo and most of them specialize in one thing. They do unagi and that’s it.

Ultimately, I want it to be a husband-and-wife place, a mom and pop. I don’t want there to be a lot of moving parts—it is what it looks like. We’re there and you have your seat. I don’t want it to be about me. I don’t want it to be about ego. I want it to be about a staff, the customers—to be about happy people.