Chef Yuichi Ito: Award-Winning Head Chef of Crosta Pizzeria on Elevating the Pizza Experience in Manila and Niseko

Award-winning Filipino-Japanese chef Yuichi Ito’s culinary journey spans from the Michelin-starred restaurant The Pizza Bar on 38th, located on the 38th floor of the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo, Japan, to his current role at Crosta Pizzeria in the Philippines. Now, with Crosta’s expansion to Japan’s premier ski resort, Niseko, Chef Yuichi Ito’s multicultural background and culinary journey between the Philippines and Japan shape his unique approach to pizza-making, aiming to elevate the pizza experience in Niseko by bringing the best pizza to the region. In this exclusive interview, Chef Yuichi shares insights into his passion for pizza perfection and the collaborative spirit driving Crosta’s expansion.

Bridges: Can you tell us about your background and culinary journey between Japan and The Philippines?

Chef Yuichi Ito: I was actually born in Tokyo and moved to Manila at a young age. My mom, being Filipina, wanted me to experience life in the Philippines. Her family’s from the Visayas, but she grew up in Manila. She brought me back to Manila where I met all the family. We used to stay in this small village where I made a lot of good friends, as well. I remember always being excited to go to the Philippines, and then when I finally went, there were a lot of kids the same age as me, people were super nice, people were super warm, so it made a significant impact on me. Then I went back after two years, and eventually, my mom made me choose where to live. I was young, so I chose the Philippines because it was a fun place to be in, especially when you’re young.

When I started high school, I started to think, it’s quite different when you get older and start dreaming of what you want to do in the future. So I thought I’d move back to Japan, and so, I moved back to Tokyo. But when I did, I felt so sad in the beginning because I didn’t have any friends there. I only stayed a couple of months. I started getting sad and bored. My mom told me, ‘You need to make sure that once you move back to Manila, that you stay there until you finish school.’ So I went back to Manila to do that; I was taking up accounting. I was doing my training, but it didn’t feel like it was the thing that I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Accounting was my second choice. My first choice was really culinary. You know, as a high schooler, people try to push you to try different things. And when you’re young, you don’t know what to do with your life; you try to find yourself, or sometimes you just want to enjoy life first. There’s this pressure that you have to plan ahead. I just didn’t have it all together. So I asked my parents, what do you think, should I take accounting? Should I take culinary? And they were like, yeah, definitely culinary is like a job that you do if you really like it. And accounting is something that you’ll be doing if you really want to have a stable life. So I chose accounting; I mean, who doesn’t want a stable life?

When I was doing my training, I just saw the people around me that don’t smile. There seemed to be no connection between what they were doing and what they wanted with their life. And I just explained this to my parents, and they were supportive enough to bring me back to what I really wanted to do, which has always been cooking.

My first restaurant job was at a one-Michelin starred Italian restaurant in Tokyo, Shiodome. Then I moved to Mandarin Oriental Tokyo, where I stayed for 10 years, working at a renowned pizza restaurant known for its ‘weird pizza’ creations. That’s where I began my culinary journey. I left Tokyo and The Mandarin, I moved to Manila in January 2023 to work with Ingga (Cabangon Chua) and Tommy (Woudwyk), the founders of Crosta. They had already expressed interest in opening a restaurant in Niseko, a place they frequented. It made sense to expand there, so when we were offered the opportunity a few months later, we jumped at it and last December we opened Baby Crosta in Niseko.

Let’s talk about the perfect pizza. How would you describe it?

How would I describe a perfect pizza? I think for me, as someone who’s always trying to innovate with pizza, balance is key.

I remember when I used to live in Manila, the pizzas we had there, maybe a long time ago, didn’t give me a good image of what pizza should be. They were too heavy, with more cheese than anything else. It just didn’t feel right. So when I started making pizza, especially these unconventional ones, I approached it as a chef, looking to create a balance. Sometimes pizza can be boring with just tomatoes or cheese. It’s not necessarily bad, but it can be improved.

My personal favorite is marinara, without cheese, just tomato and garlic.

The way I see it, the perfect pizza is about balance, with good ingredients and amazing dough. It’s like sushi – without rice, it’s not sushi, and without fish, there’s no sushi.

The way I see it, the perfect pizza is about balance, with good ingredients and amazing dough. It’s like sushi – without rice, it’s not sushi, and without fish, there’s no sushi.

Yuichi Ito, Head Chef of Crosta Pizzeria

If you had to introduce someone to pizza for the first time, what flavor combination would you choose to make them fall in love with it?

I always go with marinara. It’s a beautiful introduction because people often think pizza has to have cheese or loads of toppings. But with a perfect marinara, you get the crunch, the crispiness, and the juiciness from the dough. It’s the best way to experience pizza.

Both Japan and the Philippines really have their unique ways of appreciating pizza. You can see it all over Japan and all over the Philippines, but quite differently. So, what aspects of pizza would you say resonate more with Japanese diners versus Filipinos?

Well, first of all, I think our palate is quite different. Even with simple foods, Japanese people tend to prefer lighter flavors, a lighter palate. We don’t use a lot of salt or heavy seasonings in Japan. Yes, we use soy sauce and vinegar, but more to enhance a product rather than to mask it, more naturally. In the Philippines, our approach to ingredients is quite different from Japan. Historically, we used heavy seasonings because we didn’t have access to fresh products, whereas in Japan, we have access to high-quality ingredients, so there’s no need to cover them up. It’s about showcasing the product you have. Just in this aspect, we can already see the difference in how we handle and appreciate ingredients. Japanese people tend to prefer lighter pizzas, while in the Philippines, we enjoy more flavor, more body.

In the restaurant you worked at previously in Tokyo, you served pizza to many famous chefs and celebrities, right? Can you recount any memorable moments serving pizzas to any famous chefs or celebrities? And do you remember the pizza flavor that you served them?

Oh, for sure. Pierre Gagnaire, a very famous French classic chef, visited my restaurant. I remember vividly the first time I met him. He was standing in my restaurant with the sunlight shining on his face through the floor-to-ceiling window, with his long white hair. It looked like he was descending from the heavens. I don’t usually get starstruck, but meeting such a high-level chef and having him dine at my restaurant was an incredible experience. I started him off with something simple, always the marinara. I believe in starting simple and then gradually introducing more innovative flavors. I remember serving him a radicchio tardivo pizza, paired with homemade guanciale. The combination of bitterness from the radicchio and the sweetness and richness of the guanciale created a truly innovative flavor profile.

Do you make your own sausages? Do you collaborate with local producers in the area? How do you source the ingredients that you use?

In terms of the cold cuts I use in my restaurants, I make sure that over 90% of them are homemade using Hokkaido products. The main reason for this is my personal journey towards a healthier lifestyle. I used to be significantly heavier, and through working out and paying attention to my diet, I realized the importance of what we eat. The quality of the food we consume, especially in the last hour before sleep, significantly impacts our health. I found that many store-bought products are heavily processed and contain harmful additives like nitrites. So, I started making my own cold cuts using natural preservation methods, primarily salt and occasionally spices like black pepper. I want to highlight the natural flavors of Hokkaido’s finest products without masking them. We have incredible farmers who take great care in raising their animals and crops, such as a duck farmer who simulates natural environments for his ducks throughout the seasons. We don’t want to hide these unique flavors; we want to preserve and enhance them.

You’re able to highlight the flavors of Hokkaido and the surrounding areas in your dishes, right?

Exactly. Even with seafood, Hokkaido is surrounded by the sea, so we have access to an abundance of fresh seafood. Different parts of Hokkaido have distinct climates, resulting in variations in flavor profiles. For example, uni from one region might have a sweeter taste, while uni from another region might be more savory, depending on the local environment and diet of the sea urchins. We have around 70 microseasons in Japan, which means that certain ingredients are only available for short periods, sometimes just a week or two. We also have different names for the same fish depending on its size or whether it’s wild-caught or farmed.

Tell us more about Crosta’s expansion into Japan.

Yes. The concept of the restaurant reflects my mixed heritage—half Japanese, half Filipino. I’ll be spending half of my time between Niseko and Manila, overseeing the Pizza Omakase concept called Pizza Bianca. We’re aiming to open both locations in July or August. I think the biggest project we have on the horizon is the opening of the Pizza Omakase restaurant in Manila. It’ll be located in Ayala Triangle 2, so keep an eye out for that.

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