New Sanno

(New Sanno)

Kevin Connell has 36 years of culinary experience in kitchens in Tokyo, Toronto, Puerto Rico and all over the U.S. Connell was named Executive Chef at the New Sanno in August and is planning new concepts for the hotel’s many restaurants, including Wellington’s, The Emporium and Sunday brunch.

We caught up with Connell and picked his brain about all things culinary and what is in the works for those visiting the New Sanno in 2024.

Q&A with Kevin Connell

Where did you study culinary arts?

I graduated from Scottsdale Culinary Institute in 1996 but worked as a chef in many cities including Tokyo, Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Toronto, NYC, San Juan PR and Santa Clara. These have included restaurants, hotels, convention centers, universities and stadiums, fairly well-rounded in style and volume.

What inspired you to become a chef? I wish I had a glamorous answer, but truthfully I got hired as a dishwasher at 17 and worked my way up. I loved the stress, the heat, the danger. Being a chef was the same type of adrenaline rush as being a musician on stage, and as a young chef, my ego loved it. As I matured, it became much more about mentoring and inspiring young chefs, creating new concepts and seeing plans and people develop to their full potential. Also have to give a nod to my parents, while they would never take credit, they both cook excellently and we ate well.

Can you share a memorable food experience or meal that influenced your cooking style? Wow, so many, impossible to narrow down. But a couple that shocked me was at Verjus in San Francisco, taking a fun wine bottle shop concept and adding some of the most innovative and ingredient driven dishes. Another is the stalwart Gramercy Tavern, which I think serves the best burger in NYC from such a famous kitchen. Lastly, the many farm-to-fork restaurants in Portland really inspired me to look at food seasonally and take the approach of “less is more” on the plate when using ingredients are at their peak.

Do you have a signature dish or cooking technique that you’re particularly proud of? I make a mean “Sunday Gravy.” I think I excel at refining the Italian American classics of my youth. I used to be into molecular cuisine and modern plantings, but I find myself reverting back to simpler preparations and concentrating on flavors. If there is one skill, I’m most proud of, it is wine pairings, I did a lot at Tokyo American Club. Being passionate about wine and the experience of sharing wine and food with friends, that’s the best.

Is this your first time living in Japan? I lived here previously in 2006-2010, working as Executive Chef for Tokyo American Club and did some private consulting. I met my wife in 2005 and followed her to Japan. With my previous knowledge of the country being food, electronics, cars and Godzilla based, I quickly fell in love with the real Japan and decided to make it home.

Why the New Sanno? The New Sanno represents a harmonious friendship of the US and Japan, much like my marriage! I was initially attracted to the amount of restaurant outlets in relation to the boutique size of the hotel, making me believe we can offer a more personalized service to our guests. Being someone that still struggles with language, working in a familiar business setting means I can concentrate more on the next level and contribute more. Also, my father is a veteran, so serving the mission in my own way makes me proud. I like to think that by connecting troops to the foods of home makes them feel comfort and happiness. It’s a privilege.

What plans do you have for the New Sanno menus? Well, not sure how much I can divulge yet, but there are some exciting changes coming to The New Sanno. The first half of 2024 will see some new concepts, new banquet menus and a re-energized staff. We will be looking to strike a balance between some of the classic Sanno favorites, while stepping toward some food and décor that you would find happening in the US now. Many of the current concepts have been around for 20-plus years, and while we can certainly respect that, the hotel needs to be a place for all levels of guests, regardless of age or rank.

What’s the most challenging aspect of being a chef? Wow, where do I begin. For me, it’s a double-edged sword between time management (of myself and staff) and communication. Yes, the act of cooking for throngs of people can be challenging, but that’s overcome with math. Ensuring you have the proper staff deployed at the right time is crucial. Communicating ideas that are at times still theoretical or way in the future, not everyone subscribes to the insanity at first, but they all come around.

Are there any underrated ingredients you love working with? Colatura di Alici, it’s an Italian fish sauce, much more refined and less salty than the Southeast Asian fish sauces, in my opinion (though I love those, too). I also enjoy using dried vegetable powders for a power blast of a particular flavor, like a dried tomato powder can give you instant umami, vegetal, and acidic bump to a subtle dish.

Do you draw inspiration from Japanese food and/or cooking techniques? Absolutely. The power of subtle flavors using the freshest ingredients, yet every flavor has its place in the dish. Learning restraint as a chef is a valuable lesson.

Do you have a favorite kitchen tool or gadget that you can’t live without? Are there any Japanese kitchen tools that you recommend for those with an interest in culinary arts or even just casual cooking.

Using the correct knife for the job at hand is crucial. I also really enjoy the Japanese mandoline and highly recommend having one in any level of kitchen. A quality blender is also a valuable tool.

Are there any particular regions or cuisines you’d like to explore further in your cooking? I’m very interested in fermentation of vegetables, grains, legumes, etc. The different flavors that can exist at different stages with different sugar/starch content is fascinating. So, by default, I’m interested in areas without year-round growing, where preserving meats, dairy, grains and vegetables are a way of life. As juxtaposition, I’m also really keen on the bright flavors and cooking methods in Israeli and Lebanese cuisines. To me, one of the most fascinating and underappreciated continents for food is Africa. I mean WOW! What diversity, flavors and methods! I could talk about these cuisines all day and how they unceremoniously influenced so many other cuisines that get attention.

Do you have any food sustainability or sourcing practices you prioritize in your cooking?

Absolutely. I’m working with vendors now on how we can improve this both locally and with our prime vendor. The biggest way I can impact now is with food waste, and seasonality. Product utilization and menu engineering is just as important as sourcing from a certain distance. All play a role.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of being a chef for you? Mentoring young staff and seeing results either immediate or long term. To this day, there are chefs back in the US who would come to work for me at the drop of a hat. That’s not because I’m some sort of amazing chef, but I care about my staff, I’m loyal and I always give them praise. At the end of the day, we are nothing without our brigade, much like the military.

What’s your guilty pleasure food when you’re not in the kitchen? Well, truthfully, it’s pizza, kind of cliché for a native New Yorker (and don’t get me started on bagels). But, here in Japan, the level of “snack” food is amazing and a quick stop at 7-Eleven can yield magic (Nana Chickie!!). I’m also a perpetual kid, so a bowl of junk cereal is quite the siren song.

Are there any upcoming projects or events you’re excited about? Honestly, I’m just so excited for the new restaurant concepts coming next year at The New Sanno. Sharing with everyone will be tremendous. Plus, we are getting all the rooms remodeled, new carpets all over, including the ballroom, better service equipment. It’s a great time at the hotel, and it’s all for the service members and families.

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