Tomo Takahashi: Kaizen, We can always strive for more. Success is something to strive for, but the target should continuously be moving or pushing you further
There is a saying in Japan, “kaizen”, which basically means always looking for improvement. I think success is something to strive for, but the target should continuously be moving or pushing you further. To give you some evidence of this mindset, at my robatayaki concept, Robata JINYA, we have the Daruma between a series of ceramic masks on display over the bar. Traditionally in Japan, after one year of “success”, the face receives hand-painted eyes as a symbol of achievement. Even after eight busy and profitable years, Daruma remain “blind” at my restaurant. Why? Because simply — Kaizen. We can always strive for more.
I had the pleasure to interview Tomo Takahashi the CEO/Founder of JINYA Ramen Bar. Born to a successful restaurateur in Japan, JINYA Holdings CEO Tomo Takahashi proved his restaurant prowess in Tokyo long before opening JINYA Ramen Bar’s first U.S. location in Studio City, Calif. and Robata JINYA Hollywood in 2010. Takahashi spent his childhood at his family’s robatayaki concept in Ehime, Japan, where he immersed himself in traditional Japanese cooking methods and honed his hospitality management skills. In 2000, Takahashi branched out on his own, opening his first JINYA in Tokyo, followed by six additional restaurants between 2002–2008. When selecting the name of his establishments, Takahashi gravitated to JINYA as it refers to the historical estate of the samurai and community meeting point. JINYA embodies the ideals of all of Tomonori’s restaurants, intended to be a cozy, neighborhood spot for lively, social gatherings. Two years later, Takahashi fulfilled his life-long dream of honoring his family’s legacy and founded JINYA Holdings on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Under that umbrella, he developed two concepts: Robata JINYA Hollywood, an elevated, izakaya-style restaurant specializing in robatayaki, and JINYA Ramen Bar, a ramen shop offering authentic cuisine in modern, stylish surroundings. Following his success in Los Angeles and realizing the need for quality ramen across the country, Takahashi began franchising JINYA Ramen Bar to major cities across the United States and Canada. The concept now operates more than 30 locations with plans to reach 250 by 2023.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What inspired you to become a chef (or restauranteur)?
My father, a lifelong chef, had a Kappou-style restaurant as well as a robata restaurant in my hometown of Ehime, Japan. However, he had to close the latter after a couple years to care for my younger brother, who was injured in a bike accident. During elementary school, I ate at his robata restaurant every day and have vivid memories of how happy the guests looked.
Later, when I was at university in Tokyo, I frequently dined out with my friends and continued to observe how a simple yet delicious meal could bestow happiness upon people, even in life’s hardest and most stressful times.
It was always a dream to reopen my father’s robata restaurant, honoring his legacy and bringing joy to people through the medium of food.
What has your journey been like since first stepping foot in a kitchen?
It’s been a whirlwind and a constant learning process. I opened my first restaurant, Sabakuro in Tokyo, when I was 31 years old, followed by six other restaurants within seven years. While Japan will always be my home, it’s always been my dream to bring my penchant for Japanese food to the United States. Because I knew I was bringing a new restaurant concept and cuisine to the United States, I made countless annual visits to Los Angeles looking for the perfect place and time to open Robata JINYA. I probably made 40 trips before finally opening my first stateside restaurant in Hollywood, Calif. in 2010.
Do you have a specialty? If so, what drew you to that type of food?
My two specialties are robatayaki and ramen. My parents owned a robata restaurant in Japan, so robata runs in the family and is a nod to my heritage. Ramen, on the other hand, became a passion later in life when I opened my first U.S. restaurant, JINYA Ramen Bar, in Los Angeles in 2010. At the time, ramen was a promising, untapped market in Southern California but had the unlucky reputation of being synonymous with “cheap” and “instant.” I wanted to change this reputation to “cool” and “hip.” I saw potential for a gourmet ramen craze to sweep the country, since Americans already loved soup and noodle dishes such as pho. Plus, with such an active nightlife in LA, I wanted my customers to enjoy ramen as people do in Japan, as “shime” — the last meal of the day, especially after throwing back a few drinks!
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef?
At my restaurant Robata JINYA in Los Angeles, a guy ordered tonkotsu ramen for pickup literally every single day. Since he called us every day, everyone at the restaurant remembered him. I think he felt embarrassed, so one day, he changed his voice and ordered, “Tonkotsu Ramen, please.” We could easily tell it was him but were honored that he loved our ramen so much.
What is your definition of success?
That is a hard question. There is a saying in Japan, “kaizen”, which basically means always looking for improvement. I think success is something to strive for, but the target should continuously be moving or pushing you further. To give you some evidence of this mindset, at my robatayaki concept, Robata JINYA, we have the Daruma between a series of ceramic masks on display over the bar. Traditionally in Japan, after one year of “success”, the face receives hand-painted eyes as a symbol of achievement. Even after eight busy and profitable years, Daruma remain “blind” at my restaurant. Why? Because simply — Kaizen. We can always strive for more.
What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?
When I introduced new menu offerings such as a half-boiled egg, harder ramen noodles and rich soup, some people who had never tried them before complained. For the half-boiled egg, some customers complained, “This is not fully boiled!” so it took time for us to explain that it’s on purpose. I think now people in America know/accept half-boiled eggs. It’s all about educating customers and engaging them with a foreign cuisine.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
More JINYA Ramen Bar locations! After success in the Los Angeles market, we have been focused on bringing our ramen to cities across the United States and Canada. Come visit us and slurp up some noodles in California, Nevada, Georgia, Texas, Washington, Virginia, Maryland, Nebraska, Utah, Florida, Oklahoma, Washington D.C, and our Canadian outposts in Alberta, Toronto, and Vancouver. With 32 locations and 250 total planned by 2023, lots of growth into markets where we hope to ignite the ramen craze!
What advice do you have for aspiring chefs?
The list of advice for aspiring chefs could be a mile long! Being in the service industry, we are constantly learning and striving for new ways to please and excite our guests. My main advice is realizing that everyone can improve and encourage aspiring chefs to push beyond their comfort zone by trying new specialties. Learn from as many people as you can in whatever format. This could mean stodging at a Michelin restaurant or convincing a grandmother to share her generations old secrets to a family dish. Everyone has tips and tricks to share, so don’t rely purely on what is taught in a book. Also, remember that being a chef in the restaurant business is a wonderful occupation — we have the opportunity to make people happy through food!
What is the key to creating the perfect dish?
Being raised in Japan, the idea of balance on the plate is and has always been of the utmost importance, with preparation techniques that aim to showcase natural flavors and not mask them with heavy sauces or spice.
Cooking is art. Take grilling a fish as an example: there are countless ways to present it. We can put the fish in the middle of a plate, we can put it on the side, or we can even make the fish stand. To be a great cook, basic training is mandatory. However, beyond cooking, it is important to have originality. I take inspiration from reading interior design books and fashion magazines, going to the mall, and keeping an eye on trends. Receiving input and feedback is also very important.
Additionally, knowing your audience is key. For example, more salty notes may be needed for one region while certain ingredients may be “too scary” for another dining community. Challenge your diners to accept the unknown by folding it into flavor profiles or ingredients that are easily accessible to the area.
Lastly, be kind to yourself and understand cooking is a creative process. Some of my greatest dishes are a result of allowing myself not to get it “right” the first time. Take time to think and experience each dish objectively and allow for numerous iterations before hitting the “sweet spot.”
It is said that food is a common ground that brings people together. As someone who makes food for a living, what does this saying mean to you?
It means the world to me and is the driving force in what I do. When selecting the name for our ramen restaurants, the idea of a communal gathering spot was the main inspiration. We finally settled on “JINYA”, a reference to the urban and rural estates of samurais which later morphed into the town’s trading post of sorts — a place for all levels of society to mix and mingle.
When designing our dining rooms and patios, the idea of a communal meeting spot continued to push the overall concept. I love seeing guests glance at a neighboring table and state, “I’ll have what they are having” or exchanging personal reviews of favorites to a first-time diner seated nearby. Overall, from our name and design to the dishes themselves, we want to encourage lively social engagement and bring together a community over the simplest of ingredients: noodles.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
As I grew up in a restaurant, a lot of the initial learnings were ingrained at a young age simply by watching my parents in action. Cut to years later, on the precipice of opening my first U.S. location, I was fortunate enough to bend the ear of my fellow chefs and get some intel that proved immensely valuable.
1. Know The ‘Hood: This was a huge shift in my foundation of restaurant experience in Japan. Unlike Japan’s general mixing pot, most American markets are divided by cultures, ethnicities, and economic status. Of course, examining the neighborhood prior to finalizing plans ensured that we were opening in communities that would find our restaurant to be a positive addition to their neighborhood.
2. Bring On The Red Tape: In Japan, surprisingly, much of business is “handshake agreements” founded upon a mutual understanding. Here in America, attention to detail in our agreements is paramount, and we review and revise them numerous times to ensure parties are on the same page. It’s not all about cooking; there is a lot of putting pen to paper.
3. The Road to Opening can be a long one: In the U.S., construction, city permits, and liquor licenses take so long. In Japan, it takes 45 days to open restaurants from start to finish. In some ways, I wish someone would have told me that, but at the same time, if I had known, I might not have chosen to do business in the U.S. because it sounded hard. In the end, it’s a good thing that no one told me.
4. Do your research: I should have done more research up front about the restaurant opening process in the United States. For example, when we needed to buy kitchen equipment, we didn’t know where to buy it. Also, because I was new to Los Angeles as a resident, I didn’t fully understand what traffic was like until I was trying to schedule meetings across town. On one hand, I learned from experience, which is very important. On the other hand, I could have done more research about logistical difficulties in the United States.
5. Find the Time for R&R: Kitchen life can be tough, and it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. Days often start at 6 a.m. and end in the wee hours of the night. To avoid burning out, R&R is SO important! For me, when I need a break, I jump on my Harley Davidson and go for long drives through the LA canyons. And yes, there is a reason that is my escape — no way to look at your cell phone or email while roaring down the hills! Plus, the adrenaline from the ride can be just enough to get you through a challenge.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would like to create a movement that would introduce Japanese cuisine to those who have never encountered it before. Then, I hope they visit Japan in the future. With my meals, I hope people in Japan and people in the U.S will exchange their cultural experiences and have better relationships.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to cook for and why?
I would love to invite the late Jonathan Gold to return to JINYA Ramen Bar to see how much we have expanded our business and the new ways we are working to introduce Japanese cuisine to the United States. He spoke highly of JINYA Ramen Bar, and I believe he’s one of the reasons JINYA became so popular. I am so appreciative of all that he has done for our business and would have loved the opportunity to cook for him one more time.