Jeanette Holley didn't become a chef the easy way. Raised in Japan and Korea, the daughter of an American father and a Japanese mother, she grew up eating simple local foods and helping her family cook. "The places we ate were mostly just little family restaurants, little shacks," she recalls. "I didn't even know that the culinary field as such existed." Nonetheless, when she left Asia to go to school at Washington State University in Pullman--going "from big cities in Asia to an agricultural region in the Pacific Northwest, which I picked just by sort of pointing at a map"--she decided to earn a bachelor's degree in food chemistry and nutrition.
After graduation she moved to Los Angeles and went to work as a dietitian at a local hospital. "But cooking in a hospital was one of the most traumatic experiences I've ever had," she says. In 1982, on an impulse, she walked into Trumps in West Hollywood and asked for a job. She got hired as pantry chef and by 1984 had become sous-chef. Another chef working in the kitchen, Bob Waggoner, left to work in France, and she followed his lead in 1987 (after going into business on the side briefly raising baby lettuces and herbs to finance her trip). "I worked at the Rotisserie du Chambertin in Gevrey-Chambertin," she recalls, "which wasn't at all the kind of sophisticated French food I expected, and then at La Cote Saint-Jacques in Joigny, where the food was beautiful, but where I don't think they liked me very much."
Back in town, Holley was hired as chef at the Palm Court in West L.A., where she worked until she met Minoru Uchida and Preech Markthong, owner and general manager, respectively, of the Marquis Restaurant and Club (a business-lunch place and Japanese nightclub) in the Ahmanson Center downtown.
Now Uchida and Markthong are getting ready to open a new venue called Ototo on the site of the old Cafe La Brea on Melrose Avenue. Impressed both with Holley's culinary abilities and her familiarity with Asian food (and with the Japanese language), they've asked Holley to run the Ototo kitchen.
"\o7 Ototo\f7 is a Japanese word in the Osaka dialect, used by children to mean 'fish,' " Holley explains. "It doesn't have any particular significance for the restaurant. It just sounded good. We're not trying to market the place as Oriental."
Indeed, she adds, though the menu will offer such Pacific Rim-style dishes as salmon marinated in sake, leeks with miso and sauteed shrimp with rice-paper crepes, she'll also serve chicken stuffed with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and olives; butternut squash ravioli with fontina cheese and nasturtium blossoms . . . and meat loaf with mashed potatoes.
NEW YORK NOTES: In one of the more unusual restaurant pairings of recent years, Thomas Keller--who had cooked particularly refined and imaginative American/French food at Rakel until the owners decided to convert to bistro-style food earlier this year--has signed on as executive chef at Chez Louis, David (David's Cookies) Liederman's New York version of a Parisian, well, bistro. Liederman promises that Keller will retain several "classic" Chez Louis dishes, but will otherwise develop an entirely new menu . . . . The 122-year-old Old Homestead steakhouse has started serving Japan's famed Kobe beef, recently allowed in this country for the first time by the USDA. The beef comes from cattle raised on a special diet, which includes beer, and massaged by hand to keep their flesh especially tender. Kobe beef won't take the place of unmassaged American meat on the Old Homestead menu, though. It is so expensive that a 12-oz. portion is being served for $100--clearly a special-occasion dish . . . . Geoffrey Zakarian, ex-chef at the revivified "21" Club and then at 44, the dining room at the Royalton Hotel, will open a 150-seat restaurant-cafe in SoHo later this year for Brian McNally, proprietor of the trendy Indochine, 150 Wooster and other Gotham hot spots . . . . And Maurice, the upscale restaurant in the Parker-Meridien Hotel, where three-star chefs Alain Senderens and Marc Haeberlin once consulted on the menu, has closed after six years due to lack of business.