Mentors + Motivation with chef Sylvan Brackett

chef sylvan brackett of rintaro

Sylvan Mishima Brackett tends to fly under the radar.

Not because his restaurant, Izakaya Rintaro, isn’t a top pick, award winner, and fan favorite of critics nationwide, but because this guy isn’t a chef seeking the spotlight. He’s one of a rare breed of chef/owners who still cooks in his restaurant, all the time. He can be found at farmers markets seeking out the best product for his seasonal menu, and head-down on the line cutting sashimi like the true pro that he is.

Brackett spent eight years in the early part of his career at Chez Panisse, not cooking in a traditional way, but as both Alice Waters’s assistant and as the restaurant’s creative director. He went on to open Peko Peko, his catering business, which evolved, in 2014, into Rintaro. Born in Kyoto, Japan, Sylvan still travels “home” for inspiration, and that constant curiosity is what keeps his menu fresh and full of surprises as well as classic plates.

When you walk into Rintaro you’re not only greeted with Brackett’s incredible collection of Japanese antique cookware and dishware, but you’re also welcomed with the kind of hospitality you’d find in someone’s home. Sit at the counter, eye Chef Brackett through the smoke wafting off the grill, and keep a keen eye on the outstanding cooks working around him.  He’s clearly crafted a place with a culture of perfection, constant learning, and inspiration.  He values highly the importance of repetition and mastery, and values cooks who want to put in this level of commitment to the craft. Those values stem from his own mentors, and more.

Who is your most influential mentor and why?

I have been fortunate to have a number of important mentors. I worked for years as Alice Waters’s assistant. Having started with her in my early twentie’s, she has had a deep influence on my life.

I’ve also worked, on and off for years, with chef Kanji Nakatani at his country soba restaurant, Soba Ra, north of Tokyo. He cooks in such an amazingly improvisational way. There is always soba and a handful of standard items on the menu, but he makes them slightly differently. Of course, the menu changes with the seasons, but it also changes with his mood and his current interests. He taught me that while the food is important, so is the music and the dishes, and the warmth of the welcome when guests arrive, and the gardens out front and the bathroom, etc. He taught me that a restaurant is a collection of a million choices, and that you have to throw yourself into it in order to do it well.

Now that you are a chef/owner, what is your priority as a mentor to others?

Aside from teaching the technical skills of, say, rolling and cutting udon or cutting beautiful sashimi, I try to help young cooks develop a mind-set about their work. I want my cooks to see the depth in what we do—to understand that it takes a lot of sustained work and attention to truly become good at something. I can show someone the specifics of how to make a dish, but it doesn’t mean a thing unless the cook is able to push themselves to make incremental improvements in their work, day by day, year by year.

I can train an experienced cook on their station in a little over a week. But there are people in Japan who have been, for instance, perfecting their udon over a lifetime, and sometimes even from generation to generation, passing down the subtleties of the work. This is a hard lesson to teach. I have had many cooks who have put up a nice plate and think they know everything there is to know. It can be very frustrating. But if I can convey the importance of mastery, I think it’s a key point for their future success.

As you think beyond Rintaro, is there anything you’d like to share about your next career moves and what informs those moves?

Little by little, we’ve been expanding the business within the confines of the restaurant. It started up with a lunch service where all the food is served Teishoku style: five sides and a main course. We have opened the courtyard for dinner with heaters every night. I have some exciting ideas for how to use our existing space, but I’m not ready to share them yet. I was always impressed by how Alice Waters never opened a second restaurant. She always told me that one was already hard enough to do well.

Any last words of advice for up-and-coming cooks in the business?

There are a lot of new cooks in the Bay Area. There are a lot of restaurants. Find one that you love, and someone who is willing to teach you, and work hard at it. Perfecting something is difficult, and you are lucky if you can find a place where the food allows for continuous incremental improvement.