Maiko Kyogoku of Bessou: Finding Her Way Home Through Japanese Home Cooking
While we love taste-testing new food products, we also love learning about how they came to be. We had the chance to hear this first hand about Bessou's pantry essentials (newly available at Pearl River Mart Foods, our Mercato store, and our website) from the founder herself, Maiko Kyogoku. We also learned what it was like for Maiko to grow up in a restaurant family, how she fell in love with her Japanese heritage, and what home cooking means to her.
Tell me about your background. Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
I'm a New Yorker. I was born and raised on the Upper West Side, and my dad still lives there now.
I grew up in a restaurant family. My dad had one of the first sushi restaurants on the Upper West Side [Rikyu], which was in business for about 30 years. I never thought I'd go into restaurants myself although growing up I helped out and really loved the restaurant environment, especially the camaraderie of the staff. I have memories of the staff coming over for a New Year's party at our house every year. It was like 30 or more employees all coming over after their shifts and the ball dropped, and I was this 10-year-old partying the night away with all these grown-ups. [Laughs] So I have these strong memories of how magical restaurant people are.
Still I never really thought I'd go into the business. While in college, I did part-time hostessing gigs here and there, but never seriously thought I'd go into it myself.
What did you do after you graduated from college?
My first job out of college was in children's publishing. I was assistant to the publisher and a licensing assistant for a couple of years at Little, Brown. Then I did licensing work for Takashi Murakami, a well-known contemporary artist. I was his right-hand person traveling around the world with him, organizing exhibition openings and press events. I was getting deeper and deeper into the art world as an event manager and in licensing, but I always had a tug in my heart to restaurants.
When I left working for Murakami, I was pretty burnt out. I was in my mid-20s and feeling like I had spent a lot of time working in the licensing and contract worlds, but really missed the restaurant life. I took a leap of faith and started working at a popular neighborhood restaurant called Momoya. I was the manager and helped the owner open her second location. That led to an opportunity with Thompson Hotels where I was able to combine my event and restaurant management skills. I worked my way up to being the food and beverage director. Throughout all that time, I was just trying to gain experience.
When did you start thinking about opening your own restaurant?
Around the time I was turning 30, I started to think that I wanted to start my own business, but I didn't know exactly what. I thought it might be in restaurants, but I knew how grueling it would be since my dad had done that, and growing up I hardly ever saw him. After my dad was a restaurateur for 30 years, he pivoted to real estate and the biggest piece of advice he had for me was that as an entrepreneur, you really have to know the real estate market. So I got my license and did real estate for a year. I found spaces for Ivan Ramen, April Bloomfield, and some Smorgasburg chefs. I learned a lot working with chefs from the real estate side, and about what it took to find a space and to open a restaurant.
Afterward, I worked for Daniel Boulud for a year and a half as his event director for three of his establishments. It was great to gain experience around fine dining and to work for a restaurant mogul who's at the top of his game. Then in 2016, with a lot of grit and perseverance and luck, I opened Bessou.
Where does the name Bessou come from?
Bessou is a Japanese word that means holiday villa. It can refer to something like a bed and breakfast, a summer house, or a weekend getaway. But its original meaning is "home away from home."
What really drew me to the name and opening this particular kind of restaurant was wanting to share my love of Japanese home cooking. As someone who never lived in Japan, ties to my Japanese heritage have everything to do with family and the food I grew up eating.
My mother was a fantastic cook. She made regional dishes that you would never find in a restaurant. She grew up in a rural part of northern Japan called Akita. You get beautiful stews there, and fish that’s local to that area. It's a really cold and snowy part of Japan. The water is really pure so they have beautiful rice and great sake there too.
I grew up eating really well, and I wanted to share that kind of food with people. That was a huge part of why I wanted to open a restaurant and do Japanese home cooking. The name Bessou really spoke to me. It symbolizes coming home and I wanted to share that kind of homey, comforting, familiar food with others. Ultimately it's my love letter to Japanese culture and the food that made me fall in love with my heritage.
Do you serve any dishes that are inspired by your mother's or father's cooking?
We have a tempura udon with tempura the way my mother made it. And also a grilled romaine with creamy sesame dressing we always had in the fridge. It's a nod to her and the taste of her home cooking.
A lot of the pantry essentials we make are ingredients my family cooks with. The miso marinade is a pantry essential inspired by the version my father makes. And he still makes all the black garlic! He slow roasts it at home in rice cookers in his backyard. The miso marinade is a blend called tama miso. Tama means ball but also egg, like tamago. The original form of the miso contained egg yolk. The way it's made is that you slowly heat up the yolk and miso to make this really sweet blend that's the secret ingredient for so many of our dishes. The Bessou version is vegan, which makes it more shelf stable, but the result is the same: a sweet miso paste with many applications. I love using it as a marinade for fish or meat. At the restaurant, we combine Greek yogurt and the special miso to make a more pliable paste. On fish and meats, it becomes like a Japanese tandoori.
What has it been like as a small business owner during the pandemic?
It's been incredible to see the support from loyal patrons and friends, who are so happy to see us surviving and thriving during the pandemic. It's really encouraging.
In the beginning, we tried to figure out other ways to stay in business and provide for the community. We started off doing lots of relief meals. We were one of the original partners with Heart of Dinner and continue to do that every Wednesday. We also started selling these pantry essentials,and are so happy that Pearl River is carrying them.
How did you decide to sell these pantry essentials?
We started selling them during the pandemic as a way to figure out how to bring Bessou home to people. People weren't dining out at all. It was a dark time. We really needed to figure out how to keep going. We did meal kits. There was a shabu shabu kit with frozen marinated meats that you could cook at home, and a karaage fried chicken meal kit you could finish at home. All of these sold well.
Then we figured people need these pantry essentials to take their meals to the next level, explore different flavors, and expand their pantries a bit. They don't even have to be paired with our dishes. It's seasoning that can be added to everyday cooking.
Do you have memories of Pearl River? Any favorite purchases?
I loved going to Pearl River on Canal Street and getting lost browsing through all of the selections. My favorites were always random paper supplies or decor. Then I’d always stop in at Tai Pan Bakery for a little bun on the way back home.
Speaking of the comfort of home cooking, what's your go-to comfort food?
I love rice, natto, furikake, and a fried egg with soy sauce. Not everyone likes natto, but I do. It’s my ultimate comfort food, my lazy day meal. It's comfort in a bowl.
What would you choose for your last meal on earth?
Rice would have to be part of the meal. I love grilled fish. A really good grilled mackerel and some pickles. I'm not that picky. I just love the simple pleasures.
What's a food city that you've been missing and would like to visit again?
I would love to go back to Mexico City. I went before the pandemic. It felt like such a jolt of life when I was there. I loved all the different flavors — they were so fresh and vibrant.
I also just went to New Orleans for a long weekend. I got to explore the food scene there for the first time, and I was blown away. I would love to return.
What's something you're obsessed with now? Something you tell people you must eat/read/watch/listen to this?
I'm pregnant with a lot of food cravings, and I've been cooking at home a lot more. I'm currently obsessed with coconut cake! I've been testing out different recipes, and I'm about to try the one by Ina Garten. It's highly reviewed and looks involved. But I must. Satisfy. This craving.
Are you craving Bessou pantry essentials now? You can get Bessou's Miso Marinade, Furikake, Papa's Black Garlic, and Rayu Chili Oil at Pearl River Mart Foods, on our Mercato store if you live in the NYC area, and for mail order on our website.