In the summer of 2014, I was making preparations to open a restaurant in Portland. After twenty years of restaurant work, I finally felt ready to open my own business and be my own boss. The majority of my working experience had been in Continental cuisines, French, Italian, English and Swiss. Many people expected this pedigree to continue in a predictable way, and open a traditional Euro-American or Pacific Northwest style restaurant. I had something else in mind all along.
Ever since I was a young boy, I had a fascination with all things Japan. It started in simple ways, origami, martial arts, medieval castles, romanticized samurai and shoguns, the mysteries of the east. As I grew up, these childish impressions matured and deepened into language, architecture, gardens, ikebana and bonsai, and of course, Japanese food and drink. When I started cooking as a career, my personal interests stayed completely separate from my professional pursuits.
I entered the food world of Europe. My work experiences and my mentors were practiced in the European traditions. I followed that path, working in French brigades, and traveling to Europe, working in Switzerland and staging in the kitchens of France and England. Once I was established in my career, I started to realize that there was plenty of room in my profession to incorporate my interest in Japan. In 2006, I made my first journey to five cities across Honshu. I would return three times over the next year. I was hooked. The chefs who inspired me began to shift from Michel Bras & Alain Passard to Hisao Nakahigashi & Yoshihiro Murata. I jumped at the chance to get into kitchens in Japan, yet, I never felt drawn to work in Japanese restaurants here in America. Something was missing.
When I was dining in Japan, the presentations were incredible, the textures and techniques were coming at me from another world. Not just fancy kaiseki, but the grungy izakaya places, too. Back in the States, Japanese restaurants were almost always boring sushi joints trapped in a time warp from the 1980's, with bullshit sake selections. By 2006, good sake portfolios were just starting to gain a foothold in the American market. People were beginning to learn that premium sake is served cold, and the gasoline they had been drinking hot out of coffee machines was a marketing gimmick. I felt there was little to learn in American-Japanese restaurants. So I kept working my more European repertoire, focused on seasonality and creativity, and developed my Japanese techniques in low profile.
By 2014, I felt I was ready to break into the izakaya model on my own. As I began to circulate my business plan, I was approached by a restauranteur in need of help. He had just opened an izakaya in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and it needed some concept refinement. As I took a look at their business, we came to an agreement. I would postpone my business plan and work at this izakaya in Santa Fe. It seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to test my ideas, and for the owner at Izanami, to set up a successful business concept totally different from anything else in Santa Fe. The Japanese have an expression for this once in a lifetime opportunity, ichigo ichie (一期一会).
After almost two years in Santa Fe, my obligations to Izanami now completed, I am able to return to Portland and pick up where I left off. Now, the ideas for my izakaya have been tested in production guests have dined on many meals, service training, purchasing patterns and scheduling, large batch recipe testing. Now, it's time to see how a twenty first century Portland will receive this kind of izakaya. I hope I'm not the only one who's excited.