Chef David Yoshimura just earned a Michelin star for his San Francisco restaurant Nisei. (Photo/Brianna Danner) Right: Dessert plate from Nisei with matcha nerikiri, red bean coffee yokan, ginger pate de fuille and pumpkin mochi. (Photo/Tina Yang)
Chef David Yoshimura just earned a Michelin star for his San Francisco restaurant Nisei. (Photo/Brianna Danner) Right: Dessert plate from Nisei with matcha nerikiri, red bean coffee yokan, ginger pate de fuille and pumpkin mochi. (Photo/Tina Yang)

Michelin-starred Nisei chef David Yoshimura leans into his cultures 

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David Yoshimura has a Jewish first name and a Japanese last name, which is fitting for the celebrated San Francisco chef who grew up in Houston with both cultures.

Now Yoshimura, 33, has just earned his first Michelin star for his fine-dining Japanese restaurant Nisei, located in Russian Hill. He also won the Michelin guide’s Young Chef Award for California.

“I can strongly say that a lot of the work was not my own. It’s very much a team effort. It does take a village to raise a child, and to earn a Michelin star,” he said.

Nisei, which is the term for second-generation Japanese, has a 10-course tasting menu, though when you count each individual item — some courses have more than one item — it’s more like 17 different tastes.

“I think the cuisine really encompasses that definition, too, as it’s not traditional and uses many local ingredients,” he said. “My cuisine is Japanese-Californian, as well as food that I’m comfortable eating as a Japanese American.”

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Yoshimura grew up the only child of a Japanese immigrant father and a Jewish mother. He was raised attending a Reform religious school and synagogue on the holidays.

While his mother made latkes and other Jewish holiday foods, he said, “it wasn’t a core part of my upbringing, which is unfortunate. A chance to learn more about being Jewish would be amazing. I think more cultural identity is important, especially in America, where we all tend to be from immigrant families already.”

He’s been to Tokyo a few times and said his mixed identity sometimes comes into play there. With a Japanese name and heritage, some immediately “claim” him as Japanese. But to others he’s an American, and he said he’s experienced discrimination in Japan for not being fully Japanese.

“I’m kind of riding this middle line of being both an insider and outsider and never really being a part of either community,” he said.

Yoshimura began cooking when both parents were at work. His mother was an excellent cook, he said, and he’d often spend time with her in the kitchen. He first became interested in Japanese food from his father, who would try to re-create flavors he remembered from his childhood.

Yoshimura started his restaurant work as a dishwasher in high school and then moved up, finally deciding to attend the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He later spent time working at the molecular gastronomy restaurant wd~50 in New York and cooking his way through Japan and Spain.

In 2015 he came to the Bay Area, where he found a mentor in chef Val Cantu at his elevated Mexican restaurant Californios. When Yoshimura was named its chef de cuisine, that’s when “I started to come into my own style,” he said. “It all happened organically, where I gravitated toward more Japanese ingredients and cooking methods.”

Cantu would remind him that Californios was still a Mexican restaurant, but as his mentor chef, Cantu also wanted to encourage Yoshimura.

“He was the one who told me, you’re Japanese, lean into that,” he said. In 2019 he spent three months in Tokyo, doing a culinary internship (or “stage”) at three-Michelin star restaurant Kagurazaka Ishikawa.

“That solidified it,” he said.

Clearly, it was a decision that has paid off. The Michelin star “is really validating,” he said. “It makes you feel like all your hard work meant something, and you accomplished something.”

Now that he has one under his belt, does he want to achieve the second?

“Yes,” he affirmed. “I can say that as soon as I got the first one, I thought, now we have to go for two. That’s not how every chef thinks, but it’s me.”

Restaurant Nisei, 2316 Polk St., S.F.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."