Veteran chefs Jean-Philippe Gaston and Cyrus Caclini are no strangers to the Houston restaurant scene — or each other. The duo have worked together for the local restaurant firm Azuma Group (Azuma, Soma, Kata Robata, and Izakaya) for nearly a decade and a half, Gaston most recently as executive chef at Izakaya, and Caclini was a sous chef at hot spot Kata Robata.
Now, they’re stepping into new roles with the company. Gaston will run the kitchen at Kata Robata, working alongside Chef Manabu “Hori” Horiuchi (CultureMap's Chef of the Year).
Meanwhile, Caclini steps into his first executive chef spot, helming Izakaya.
“Kata is so busy that we need a strong, creative chef in the kitchen,” said Horiuchi in a statement announcing the news. “Jean-Philippe and I have worked together for so many years now — we understand each other’s food, and we know what works together. This opportunity gives Jean-Philippe the opportunity to create. We push the boundaries on the quality and execution of our fish, and I want to further push boundaries in the kitchen, also.”
Lovers of Gaston’s work at Izakaya need not worry: Caclini plans to keep most of his fellow chef’s menu and will gradually add dishes of his own.
“Jean-Philippe has created some incredible dishes that are definitely here to stay,” he says. “I’ll start working through my ideas soon.” Those ideas include bringing more Filipino flavors to Izakaya, and incorporating what he calls a celebration of street food from around the world.
Gaston says he’s happy for his colleague and looking forward to what he does. “Cyrus and I have known each other for a very long time,” he says. “We’ve worked together and grown together. I’m excited for him to come in and apply a new perspective to the food at Izakaya.”
Gaston knows how that perspective works, too, since he plans to bring his own to his role at Kata Robata. Over the last decade, Kata Robata has evolved from a very traditional Japanese restaurant to one that highlights Houston’s diversity with Vietnamese and Indian flavors frequently on the menu alongside Japanese ingredients. Gaston, born in Mexico and raised in France, is looking to see where Japanese and French styles intersect.
“Both styles of cooking are super intricate and driven by passion,” he says. “You use simple ingredients with complex flavors, but there’s no room to cut corners. Proper execution is key. I want Hori to take me to Japan, and I’ll take him to France. We’ll learn from each other.”
The end game behind the chef shuffle is to elevate the flavors and feel of both restaurants. And both chefs look forward to the challenge of stepping up and putting their respective stamps on both Izakaya and Kata Robata, without losing quality or the restaurants’ individual flair.
And, for Caclini, there’s a bit of an extra bit of excitement involved. “This is an opportunity for me to grow as a chef and learn more than just how to cook. I get to learn how to run a restaurant.”