KYU’s Christopher Arellanes is not your typical chef. Growing up in a Buddhist monastery in Junction City, California, he learned the importance of nutritional education from his grandmother who was the community’s chef. The idea of medicinal values and the versatility of plant-based food was instilled in him at a young age, and it influenced his approach to his life in the kitchen thereafter—from sourcing and sustainability to flavor and fun.
At 19 years old, Arellanes moved to Seattle to cook for the NFL’s Seahawks team, where he remained for three years. He then enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu to be classically trained in French cooking, where he graduated at the top of his class. Not long after graduation, he was hired at Thomas Keller’s three-star Michelin restaurant, Per Se, before moving on to work at Eleven Madison Park as its Sous Chef.
Since, he has worked behind the scenes in some of the world’s best kitchens—including John Fraser Restaurants like NIX, Ian Schrager’s EDITION and PUBLIC Hotels, Sunset Beach in the Hamptons, and 15 Kitchen + Bar in Moscow, Russia—and gained accolades like reviews from The New York Times, retaining Michelin stars, and earning the number one spot in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List. All the while, he has remained focused on creating sensation menus with a focus on high-quality plant-based cooking, allowing for both carnivores and vegetarians to enjoy his plates.
In November 2021, Arellanes joined KYU as its Executive Chef. With locations in Miami, Mexico City, and New York City, the Asian restaurant concept has expanded Chef’s focus on local ingredients and sustainable cooking with an eye for what people truly want to eat today. In the nine months since his start, he has created a vegan tasting menu and rejuvenated the hotspot’s menu with plant-based and gluten-free options, as well as solidifying some classics—like Tuna Crispy Rice, with smoked chili; Maitake Mushroom, with smoked pumpkin miso and pepitas; Roasted Cauliflower, with goat cheese, shishito-herb vinaigrette; and Mom’s Coconut Cake, with coconut ice cream.
Curious about his approach to KYU’s different spaces today, and where the restaurant may open next, Whitewall spoke with Arellanes.
WHITEWALL: Dining at KYU NYC is an exciting experience. What kind of vibe do you feel KYU embodies?
CHRIS ARELLANES: KYU is a vibe all about the people and the food. It’s a scene that embodies all different age groups, cultures, and ethnicities. New York is a chic, hip, elevated kind of vibe & Miami is an industrial, casual, hipster vibe.
New York City is its own style, while still carrying the identity, which KYU Miami was built on. As we grow, we are continuing to elevate the brand, without losing the ethos and overall integrity.
WW: You mentioned that a day in the kitchen is like a rollercoaster that never stops. How so?
CA: Every day is different and filled with different challenges and obstacles. From emotional and personal issues with staff to product shortages and having to be proactive and quick on your feet. Singing competitions and dance-offs. The kitchen is filled with laughter and sometimes tears. It’s one of the most difficult environments to work in.
WW: Has the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic impacted the way you thought about being a chef?
CA: Drastically! It gave me a completely different perspective on mental health and wellness. Our industry has been known to be toxic and destructive and it’s time to change that. To build platforms that can help with the betterment of mental health within the hospitality industry. To provide resources to our industry that can help create healthier decisions and the tools to a cleaner and more compassionate environment.
WW: How would you describe your personal approach to food?
CA: I cook with my heart and what sounds good at the time. Seasonally approach different styles of cuisine and techniques. I’m very technical forward and I build my dishes off the five senses and texture.
WW: What do you eat when you’re not in the kitchen?
CA: I enjoy all types of food. I like to try new things, but I’m also a sucker for consistency when it comes to my food. Some of the most consistent food is Japanese. You can find me eating all sorts of Asian cuisine on a weekly basis.
WW: Are you cooking anything over and over at home right now?
CA: [Laughs] Currently, I’m not cooking at home. When I do cook at home, it’s fish, rice, and a vegetable. Usually with soy sauce, sesame oil, and furikake. I also have an amazing partner who cooks for me a lot. She’s diverse and picks all sorts of different dishes.
WW: Does sustainability or seasonality of ingredients impact what you serve at KYU?
CA: To a certain degree. We have roughly five dishes that we serve seasonally. The others are consistent with the brand.
WW: What’s your #1 must-have dish on the menu?
CA: Right now, it’s either the Chicories Salad or the Dry Aged Lamb.
WW: How are you planning to spend the rest of your summer, or upcoming fall? Any upcoming travel you’re looking forward to?
CA: I will be spending my Summer and Fall building two new concepts on the west coast! Super exciting times ahead of us for KYU. As for travel, I am looking to head to Dubai, Egypt, and India in late summer.
WW: Wellness is increasingly becoming a more important industry and focus, especially in high-stress environments. Do you have any rituals to get you in a good head or physical space before or after working in the kitchen?
CA: SOULCYCLE!!! I am a soul cycle junkie! This is a huge part of my sobriety and mental health. I am trying to integrate affordable access to things like this for my staff, along with other opportunities within the health and wellness space.
WW: What are you working on next? Anything you’re looking forward to?
CA: I’m looking forward to expanding the KYU brand to other cities. Most importantly, I’m looking forward to building these said platforms to give back to our industry and build a healthier and more compassionate business model.