Image courtesy Kylie Javier Ashton.

Resy SpotlightSydney

Momofuku Seiōbo Wouldn’t Be What It Is Without Kylie Javier Ashton. Here’s Why.

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In 2013, Kylie Javier Ashton spent her honeymoon going to every Momofuku restaurant in New York. Technically, she was off-duty at the time – and she did it on her own dime. But going above and beyond is typical for the award-winning restaurant manager of Sydney’s Momofuku Seiōbo. “I’m so invested in everything I do,” she says.

Widely regarded as one of Australia’s best restaurants, Momofuku Seiobo has evolved since it opened back in 2011. The announcement in March that it would close permanently on June 26th then, was met with both sadness and hopefulness, as the team was going out at its peak. That peak in recent years has largely been credited to the charismatic double act of Javier Ashton and Bajan chef Paul Carmichael, who have helped redefine fine dining’s often narrow perspective.


Yes, Javier Ashton takes her job seriously, but she also approaches it with a humour and leftfield creativity that’s made her a treasured part of the dining experience at Seiōbo. She once covered the restaurant’s open kitchen in garbage bags, so the identity of that night’s guest chef – Alex Atala from São Paulo’s D.O.M. – wouldn’t be revealed ahead of time. “No one could just walk by and see it was him,” the restaurant manager says. She did it again for the dinner’s second sitting, too.

In 2011, Seiōbo recreated the 2007 menu of its New York sister restaurant, Momofuku Ssam Bar, for a special week-long event. So, she carefully scoured every venue at The Star complex (where Seiobo is located) for white plates that most resembled Ssam Bar’s original tableware.

And when Momofuku Seiōbo re-emerged from lockdown last year, she was responsible for the restaurant’s tie-dyed face masks and uniforms: the blue and gold palette paid tribute to the flag of Barbados – where chef Paul Carmichael is from – while also adding some personality to a clinical COVIDSafe initiative and upturning fine dining convention in the process.

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Her memorable approach to running a restaurant is why she collected the 2019 Good Food Guide’s National Service Excellence Award and was nominated for Gourmet Traveller’s 2018 Maître D’ of the Year honour.

She’s long been key to Seiōbo and its success, but when she started her trial at the restaurant in December 2011 – just months after it opened – she hadn’t planned to stick around for long.

“I didn’t think I was staying there,” she says. “[That was] nine years ago.”

“When Su left, I felt so out of my depth. I felt like they had already established a thing together and I was seeing it through.”

In October 2012, Javier Ashton became restaurant manager after Su Wong Ruiz, her predecessor, returned to New York to work at Momofuku Ko.

“Su is amazing. One of the reasons why Seiōbo is the way it is is because of her,” says Javier Ashton. “I’d never had a role model like that.”

“She had her hand in every decision. Su was never afraid to give her opinion, either. She’d taste the dishes, she’d give feedback. She was listened to, too. She wasn’t fighting to be heard.”

“When Su left, I felt so out of my depth,” she says. It wasn’t until Paul Carmichael became head chef in 2015 that she really found her voice. Until then, the legacy of the opening team – Wong Ruiz and head chef Ben Greeno – had been a heavy influence. “I felt like they had already established a thing together and I was seeing it through.”

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Image courtesy Momofuku Seiobo.

Carmichael reinvented the restaurant by drawing on his Caribbean upbringing for menu inspiration. He remixed cou cou – the national dish of Barbados – with caviar and fresh corn instead of the typical flying fish and cornmeal and scored megawatt praise and awards across the planet. “Carmichael deserves all the recognition afforded his famous boss [David Chang] and possibly more,” Besha Rodell wrote in Food & Wine, when she placed Momofuku Seiōbo on its list of World’s Best Restaurants in 2020.

The restaurant has no shortage of acclaim (it’s been twice named Restaurant of the Year by Gourmet Traveller), but for Javier Ashton – herself a woman of colour in an industry historically dominated by white men – the development of her relationship with Carmichael has also been an important milestone. Their bond really strengthened in 2017, when she went to visit the chef’s family in Barbados.

“I could imagine that it must be pretty hard representing a whole culture on your own, in a place where the only thing that people have as a reference are real stereotypes,” she says, referring to what Carmichael faces in Sydney – Caribbean restaurants are a rarity here. “You’re constantly having to explain yourself to everybody – even the people who mean well. So for someone to go over and find out for themselves and create their own connection and it’s not on you – perhaps he could see that I was committed and I was on his side and I wanted to help.”

Like her restaurant-heavy honeymoon, Javier Ashton was off-duty when she made this self-funded overseas trip. It reaffirms how dedicated she is to her role and the restaurant’s success. And it was her way of backing Carmichael, a gesture to show that “he wasn’t alone”, she says. “I think that was the point –we knew we were family from then on.”

In fact, his mum joked about adopting her and liking her more than her own son. And she made cou cou together with Javier Ashton. “She was showing me how it was done.” She even searched out her mother’s cou cou stick to show the restaurant manager. “It was special.”

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Javier Ashton recognises that one trip doesn’t make her an expert on Caribbean cuisine – but it gave her insightful perspectives that gave her and her team greater purpose beyond the food. “I feel very passionately now about Caribbean food and culture and I know that I cannot understand it in the way as if it was my own, but I definitely feel that connection to the place and to the people.”

It’s a link she’s tried to instil in her staff, particularly upon hearing them misinterpret dishes to diners – like comparing a Puerto Rican rice dish to risotto or paella. “You’re going off your own reference points, which is European food basically,” she says. “I know you’re used to your way of relating to a dish, in a way that feels familiar to you, but by doing that, you’re really devaluing what the dish is in its own culture.”

“People don’t take us seriously, that’s on them. But I’m not going to create Seiobo based on what white people have said a restaurant should be.”

To help them connect personally with the region, employees are given regular assignments: present on a Caribbean topic of your choosing. “It can be about anything – anything you can relate to about the Caribbean that connects you to that place.” Javier Ashton has presented about boxing and its Cuban origins. Someone else covered how climate change has affected the migration of flying fish, which has caused friction between Jamaica and Barbados (particularly as flying fish is a key ingredient in Barbados’ national dish, cou cou). “One of our girls, who is really into social justice, she did a really good presentation on cultural appropriation,” says Javier Ashton. She covered a Caribbean restaurant that traded in stereotypes. “There was a photo booth and you could take photos and it gave you dreadlocks. It was really bad.”

For Javier Ashton, seeing how people get it wrong only underscores why they needed to get things right at Momofuku Seiōbo. “It’s up to everybody in the restaurant to feel the responsibility of the story we’re telling,” she says. “We have to be socially conscious about how we present this, because it’s not just food – it’s history, it’s culture.”

It’s why she tells staff not to say dishes are ‘elevated’ or ‘refined’ versions of Caribbean staples. “Because that implies the original dishes aren’t elevated or refined,” she says. “You’d never say, ‘this is an elevated pasta’, you’d never say that.”

It’s why the tie-dyed uniforms she ordered in Barbados’ national colours play a more important role than you might think. One staffer worried that they were a sign that Momofuku Seiōbo wouldn’t be taken seriously, when fine-dining restaurants are typically defined by jackets and suits.

“The reason I love tie-dye is that it’s about individuality. It’s about fun. Think about what tie-dye has meant historically, it’s about revolution, it’s about being who you are. I think as a restaurant, that is who we are,” she said in response.

“People don’t take us seriously, that’s on them. But I’m not going to create Seiobo based on what white people have said a restaurant should be.”

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The uniforms weren’t the only change that came out of Momofuku Seiōbo’s post-lockdown reopening last July.

“Opening four days is much more sustainable, and convincing everyone around us that that’s a smart thing to do is easier when there’s uncertainty [because of Covid],” she says. That decision also led to their most financially successful period – long before the March announcement that Momofuku Seiōbo would be closing on June 26. That led to the remaining three months of bookings being snapped up in one day. The closure is partly inspired by the restaurant’s lease coming up. But it’s also because Momofuku Seiōbo’s team wants to go out on top.

“We’ve proven to ourselves everything that we ever needed to prove,” she says. “I think it just made the decision easy.”

“It’s mentally and physical exhausting, because it’s so busy. But I want to make sure we’re able to give everybody the best ever.”

So although diners have remarked that it’s sad to dine at the restaurant for a final time, Javier Ashton sees it in a different light.

“I don’t get to do this every day and that will always stay with you,” she says.

“The fact that you just can’t book here again is forcing all of us to live in this moment … Because you know it’s finishing, it pulls up the stakes and people pay much more attention and that is the beauty of it.”


Momofuku Seiobo’s last day of service will be on June 26th. 

Lee Tran Lam is a writer, podcaster, and editor of New Voices on Food, a Diversity In Food Media anthology showcasing under-represented Australian talent. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Gourmet Traveller, and SBS Food. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.

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