As a teenager in Tokyo, coming of age in the 1960s, Jimi Yui was by his own account a wild child and a terrible student. He’d spend his days “rocking it” in the neighborhoods of Roppongi and Azabu, and when he wanted to impress a date he’d take her to The Guest House, the storied Chinese restaurant his immigrant parents poured their lives into.
The last thing that the 16-year-old tearaway saw coming was a one way ticket to a Benedictine high school in the middle of America.
But that’s the thing about being young, you think you know it all, until you don’t. Unbenownst to Yui, his concerned parents, guided by a wise aunt and uncle, were conspiring to have him shipped off to a Catholic high school a world away.
“My uncle and aunt, who were educators in the U.S., would visit Japan on Fulbright scholarships and they told my parents I would become a functional illiterate,” Yui says. “And my parents thought I might turn into a yakuza, so collectively the four of them voted that I should leave Tokyo before I burned down something.”
Yui, now 64, doesn’t look back in anger though. When the decision was made for him — that he would finish out the remainder of his high school years in America — there was a degree of excitement, even if he was leaving all his childhood friends behind. After all, it was America: Yui had in mind yellow cabs, skyscrapers, the hustle and bustle of New York.
“Instead I looked out the window (on approach) and all I could see was miles and miles of flat land. And the plane landed in the middle of cornfields and I could see a hut outside the window,” Yui says, recounting his arrival in America.
The hut turned out to be the extent of the airport: St. Louis Lambert International Airport in Missouri.
For the next three years Saint Louis Priory School in Missouri, established by Benedictine monks from England, would be Yui’s home. While Yui had no trouble on the language front, he grew up speaking Japanese, Chinese and English, but culturally, he says “it was really intense.”
At his new high school Yui garnered a lot of firsts on his first day.
“I was the first Asian, first foreign student, first non-Christian to attend this Benedictine monastic school in St. Louis,” Yui recalls, laughing.
It was a world away from the “alcohol, cigarettes and motorcycles,” Yui enjoyed in Tokyo, although surreptitiously he still managed to get his hands on cigarettes.
But despite the differences of his new surroundings, Yui excelled — academically and on the athletic field.
“The hierarchy of these British (style) schools, it’s like ‘Oliver Twist,'” says Yui. “They’re really, really tough.”
After St. Louis, Yui went to Cornell University, an Ivy League school in upstate New York. According to his parents’ plans, Yui was to study medicine and then return back to the fold in Tokyo.
“Every Chinese family wants their kid to become a doctor. I was hell-bent on becoming a doctor, that’s what was expected.”
Yui initially started out on that path, interning at a hospital near his high school. But a semester of transferring cadavers to the mortuary, among other things, changed Yui’s mind about studying medicine.
Instead, he chose architecture and enrolled at Cornell University. But then in 1978, in the fourth year of his degree, Yui did the one thing his parents were dead set against: He dropped out of architecture, changed majors and took up hospitality management. It didn’t matter that Cornell was one of the most reputable schools for hotel management in the world, Yui’s parents saw it as a return to the working environment that had consumed their lives.
In some ways it was not surprising. Having grown up in the hospitality industry, he had an innate understanding for that world. Also, Yui says that at the time, the job prospects were far better: Graduates from the hotel school were walking into job placements all around the world.
So he persisted, in spite of everybody “hating” the transition.
It was a bold move, but his intuition served him well. After graduating, Yui went to work at Cini-Grissom Associates (now Cini-Little International), a food service consulting firm in Washington D.C. He put his talents to work as a kitchen designer, a vocation that for the next 40 years would take him around the world and into hundreds of kitchens.
The move into a design practice placated his parents, too. “They were happy I wasn’t closing up a bar in a hotel at 2 a.m. in the morning,” he says.
After six years at Cini-Grissom, Yui left to establish his own design office, YuiDesign in 1986. One of the first big commissions he landed was outfitting the sushi bar at the Sony Club in Manhattan. The brief from restaurateur Barry Wine was that “Sony Chairman Akio Morita should feel at home there and Janet Jackson should also think it cool.”
Early on in his design career Yui considered the idea of setting up a practice in Tokyo. Returning to Japan would have also aligned with his parent’s plans, and he even found a backer in the U.S. to help him get started.
Eventually, however, Yui decided against the move, as he realized that designing commercial kitchens, at least back then, was an industry that barely existed in Japan.
“It was pretty clear that on the financial side it would be tough,” he says.
Over his four-decade career Yui has worked with many of the world’s most celebrated chefs, including Japanese chefs Masaharu Morimoto and Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa. Along the way, he also picked up a special James Beard Award for his kitchen designs.
One of the keys to his success and longevity in a notoriously difficult industry has been developing and maintaining friendships and strong relationships.
“I understand the business and I love cooks, I love the people in this business, the hospitality people, because their fundamental ethos is to serve and to make you happy,” he says. “There’s way easier ways to make money, but what they do is put their heart and soul in to it.”