From photography to cooking, David has always pushed himself to the limit and beyond, ready to meet the next challenge with passion and fervor. As the former publisher of the photography zine, "Hamburger Eyes," David has always had a hands-on approach towards his work.
Now he serves as the head chef for the flagship restaurant of Yuji Ramen, located within the Ramen Museum of Japan. We caught up with David in Shin Yokohama, a few hops south of Tokyo, to discuss why he decided to make the jump from NYC to Japan and how he transitioned to the culinary world from photography.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
My name is David del Pilar Potes and I am currently Head Ramen Chef for Yuji Ramen Japan. I was born in San Diego, spent my teens in Hawaii, my 20's in San Francisco, and my 30's in New York. I moved to Tokyo in the beginning of 2017.
How Did You Get Started Working With Ramen?
I've always had an affinity with food. I accidentally got into making ramen with photography. My background is photography and self-publishing. At the time I just finished shooting the Roberta's cookbook, Yuji-san had asked me to take some photos for Yuji Ramen / Okonomi. It was a long project. So one day in between shots, he was saying how he was short staffed. I offered my help since I was there every day. He asked me, "Do you want to cook ramen?" I asked, "Is it hard?"
How Did You Start Your Career As A Photographer?
My brother Ray gave me a camera when I was around 15-16 years old. At that time we were both living in different cities. He was in San Diego and I was in Hawaii. We shared photos thru zines that we each made. I don't remember what I shot back then, probably what I still shoot today really.
Eventually I moved in with my brother when I turned 18. He was working at this magazines dark room, back when magazines shot only film. Well, Ray was processing and developing film at that time, so he had full access to their equipment. So I pretty much was shooting as much film I wanted to and getting them processed for free too. It was a fun way to explore photography. We would still continue to make zines with the photos we shot. Eventually, we started adding our friends photos in the zines. This is pretty much how Hamburger Eyes started.
I want to invigorate all the senses. I know I haven't reached this point, but I want to have someone experience a revelation when they eat.
But you left photography to pursue Ramen?
I don’t see myself leaving photography, I still shoot. I just haven't been too active. It’s a good break. To refocus my energy onto something new, has been really invigorating and rewarding for both my cooking and shooting photos. I think photography has shaped my perspective on composition. I really like to plate, I feel like I'm creating some kind of rhythm thru texture and color, like creating an image but you can smell it feel it eat it.
As a chef my goal is to push myself to the next level. To challenge myself. Without challenge, there is no growth. I never aspired to be a ramen chef or being a chef at all. Given the opportunity in a new career unexpectedly allows me to grow as an individual and this I am thankful for. I understand these opportunities don't happen often. I understand you have to make sacrifices to get to reach the next level.
What’s next for you?
Well, as for any chef, I guess you would aspire to have your own place. I would like to do something that is both food and art related. Like if both worlds collided somehow, I would like to see what that would look like. Ideally, I would love to incorporate what I learned from both photography and food worlds into something that fully represents me.
On a personal level I want my food to invigorate all the senses. I know I haven't reached this point, but I want to have someone experience a revelation when they eat. I never understood how someone can cry when they eat something so yummy, but I have been experiencing these moments more and more the past years. To eat something to bring yourself into the moment, a perfect moment... It’s beautiful.
How does the creativity you explore in the culinary field apply to the rest of your life, or vice versa?
Just learning how to let go and embrace at the same time. My creative process can happen anywhere at anytime. Sometimes I dream of matching flavors together and I have to write them down before I forget. Sometimes it happens accidentally. Usually, creating something complicated and then stripping it down til its simplified.
But I'd have to say most of my creative inspiration comes from nature. The seasons. The weather.
Can you elaborate?
In nature my brain can stop for a minute and I can stop thinking. I feel giving my mind a break, new ideas can come in. Also, grounding myself allows for new ideas to enter. With the inspiration I have the energy to execute new ideas. It can help me figure things out. With life, with creativity, with anything I apply myself to.
What Drives Your Inspiration?
Traveling and immersing myself in a different culture I am used to inspires me. Being forced to look at things in a different perspective inspires me. Innovation inspires me.
Do You Feel Your Tastes Have Changed Over Time?
Yes, my palette is ever-evolving! Also, depending where I am in the world, re-adapting to resources regionally.
Is It Important For You To Be In Japan?
The opportunity to live in Japan means so much to me. I don't think I would make a decision to move there on my own, but to be a part of a project that could change a culture or even make a difference is a remarkable opportunity. An opportunity to expand my mental landscape is so valuable. I am grateful more than anything.
Thanks, Dave, for giving us a glimpse into your world. It’s inspiring to see how you’ve managed to transition from one discipline to another without skipping a beat.
We wish you all the best in your creative pursuits and hope the exploits from your culinary adventures end up on our plate someday.