Half Japanese, Fully Legit: Yonsei Chef Kyle Itani keeps on rolling

Itani Ramen Chef Kyle Itani’s miso pork ramen. photo by Alec Yoshio MacDonald

OAKLAND, Calif. — Sitting in the dining room of his Oakland sushi restaurant Yonsei Handrolls, chef Kyle Itani did something unexpected: He paused.

He had spent the previous 40 minutes discussing his career, his family, and his relationship to food, fielding questions from Nichi Bei News with the lightning-quick response time of a quiz show champion. However, when asked if his multiracial background had proven either a benefit or a hindrance in the culinary world, he took a moment to ponder the query.

“That’s interesting,” he mused before declaring, “I think it would be advantageous to the point that it just made me super inquisitive about cuisine, because I was tying it to my own culture.”

He went on to imply that this pursuit of self-discovery through cooking has been fueled by a touch of personal insecurity. “Sometimes, I feel like, it could be inauthentic, what I do — if I’m sticking to Japanese food — because I’m not full Japanese,” Itani speculated. The 41-year-old said such doubts have subsided with age, but when he was younger, “I felt like because I wasn’t full Japanese, well, I have to legitimize my resume.”

Itani has spent his entire adult life building a resume upon a foundation of flavors first tasted in childhood. Born and raised in Vacaville, Calif., his introduction to his own gastronomic heritage came on regular visits to see grandparents on California’s Central Coast. In Monterey, on his mom’s side, his Sicilian grandfather worked as a butcher while crafting sumptuous delicacies at home, such as pizzas laden with anchovies or fried medleys of shrimp, calamari and cod. In Salinas, on his dad’s side, he attended gatherings at the Buddhist temple where “it was always my baachan’s task to make inari for every event — so I remember stuffing inari for every single event that we ever went to.”

HANDROLLS AND MORE ­— Yonsei Handrolls and Itani Ramen Chef Kyle Itani. photo by Alec Yoshio MacDonald

The two culinary traditions of Itani’s ancestry didn’t have much occasion to mingle, except in one New Year’s Day osechi ryori spread when his mom accidentally filled the gyoza with ground Italian sausage. (“It was so weird, but it was kind of good,” Itani marveled, calling it “very Japalian.”) Ironically, although cooking factored in more prominently on the maternal side of his family tree, Itani ultimately became more curious about the foodways of his Japanese lineage.

His dad’s family followed a familiar pattern for California Nikkei, complete with first-generation farming a century ago (in Salinas and Arroyo Grande), the disruption of wartime incarceration (at Gila River, Poston, and Tule Lake), and a fading of linguistic and cultural practice among Sansei because, in Itani’s words, “growing up postwar, it wasn’t cool to be Japanese.”

For Itani, being Japanese was totally cool, and growing up as a Yonsei in Vacaville bolstered this pride as peers introduced him to an array of exciting fare from the Asian diaspora: sukiyaki, Filipino lumpia, Chamorro finadene, and more. An eagerness to explore his own ethnicity through food stuck with him after he left his hometown, although a few years passed before he found a suitable path forward for pursuing this passion. Following a dispiriting junior college experience down in San Luis Obispo, he attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, and then found work on a Hawaiian cruise ship. Once that intensive six-month gig pulled back into harbor, his luck took an auspicious turn when he had the opportunity to meet chef Sho Kamio.

Originally from Sendai, Kamio had earned accolades as executive chef at San Francisco’s Ozumo, an upscale establishment centered on robata grilling, sushi, and premium sake. Kamio hired Itani to help open Kozen, a similarly oriented restaurant in Sacramento, but that venture didn’t last and the pair moved on to Yoshi’s Oakland. Under Kamio’s mentorship, Itani rose up through the kitchens of both that nightclub and its short-lived sibling Yoshi’s San Francisco.

The chance to learn from a veteran Japanese chef proved invaluable. Itani testified that Kamio’s “approach to food was so good for me. It was just very simple — every plate seemed to have five ingredients or less and you could taste every single one.”

Itani was compelled to seek out more Japanese chefs to collaborate with, and hoped to find one in the Bay Area, but Kamio had an alternative suggestion. As Itani explained, “Sho has a twin brother, a restauranteur in Tokyo and Sendai, and so he’s like, ‘You should just go to Sendai and hang out with my brother.’ I was like, ‘Sounds amazing!’”

It was — at least for a few months, until the 2011 Tohoku earthquake struck some 80 miles away. Prior to that cataclysmic temblor, Itani gained experience at yakitori shops around Sendai and connected with plenty of local Japanese chefs. He also traveled the country by rail, allowing him to better grasp the diversity and specialization of different regional cuisines. And even when he was sticking around his apartment, living in Japan encouraged him to try new routines that opened up his repertoire. For instance, a trip to the market might unfold such that “I’ll buy a whole hirame one day, we’ll have sashimi and rice for dinner, and then I’ll cure some for konbujime for the next day, and then I’ll make stock out of the bones for the next day,” Itani said. “It was really fun for me as a chef to stretch out one whole fish between a week’s worth of meals,” he added.

Forced to return to the United States by the earthquake, Itani wound up in New York, where his girlfriend had been accepted to graduate school. He joined The Meatball Shop, a casual eatery that his friend Daniel Holzman was expanding around the city, but didn’t feel particularly fulfilled. As he recalled, “I was 28, and I was like, ‘I think I want to open my own restaurant, and I want to do it back in California, and probably in Oakland.’”

So in 2012, that’s what he did. He called his restaurant Hopscotch, conceiving it as a classic American diner with a Japanese twist, enhanced with gourmet sensibilities and high-end cocktails. A glowing review from influential San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer helped the place take off, and before long the newspaper had honored Itani with a Rising Star Chef Award.

In those early days at Hopscotch, “to make ends meet there, we started doing late-night ramen on Friday nights,” Itani said. “The idea was, we do all the butchery for the week, collect all the bones, make one big broth,” he recounted, and “then from 11 to 2 just sell ramen” to pull in “a little extra revenue to help make payroll.”

Despite an enthusiastic reception from patrons, the restaurant was stretched too thin to continue churning out hot noodle soup into the wee hours of Saturday morning.

“So that kind of fell away for a few years,” Itani said, “but I always thought, OK, if I do another restaurant, I should do this ramen thing — so that’s what became Itani Ramen.”

Located in Downtown Oakland a few blocks away from Hopscotch, Itani Ramen launched in 2016. Debuting as a pop-up with only two types of ramen (shoyu and miso), it swiftly transitioned into regular counter service and a bigger menu before expanding a year later into a formal dining operation with even more options.

Hungry customers could come tuck into a hearty bowl of oxtail ramen or a chicken katsu donburi, splurge on a side of gyoza or some furikake garlic fries, and maybe wash it all down with a shochu-spiked yuzu lemonade.

Itani said things were “going great for four years or so, and then the pandemic hit.”

Along with restaurants everywhere else, he had to pivot to takeout — “not the best way to eat ramen, so that was tough,” he conceded.

Making the best of a bad situation, Itani used government relief funding provided him through the Paycheck Protection Program to implement a more takeout-friendly model. With COVID-19 exacting a huge toll on the culinary industry, Itani said, “I knew a lot of sushi chefs that were out of work” — so he hired them to ply their trade in the empty dining room of his ramen restaurant. Where crowds of noodle-lovers once sat happily slurping soup, crews of trained professionals jumped in to begin busily slicing fish.

Itani dubbed the project Nikkei Sushi. It served as a precursor of sorts to Yonsei Handrolls, which he opened last October right next-door to Itani Ramen. As the worst of the pandemic hopefully fades into history, these neighboring eateries now stand as his primary focus for brick-and-mortar operations. In June, he shuttered Hopscotch, transforming it into a catering business and paving the way for former coworkers Matthew Meyer and Daniel Paez to take over the space. The pair re-opened the doors last week, leaning on Itani’s support and guidance to welcome the public into Good Luck Gato, an “izakaya cantina” celebrating Mexican and Japanese street foods and bar culture.

This kind of blending seems to have become a standard feature of Itani’s efforts. The menu at Yonsei Handrolls, for example, does not offer “traditional flavors of sushi rolls,” he said. “It’s a really creative outlet,” he added, given his view that “a starter or cold app or crudo dish could theoretically be a handroll, as long as it tastes good with vinegared rice.”

Itani’s willingness to split from convention could be interpreted as an indication of personal growth, a sign that perhaps he’s letting go of the need to authenticate his ethnicity. Instead of feeling the pressure to demonstrate that he’s just as capable of representing Japanese culture as any chef of full Japanese ancestry, maybe he’s found greater comfort in his own skin.

At the tail end of his interview with Nichi Bei News, right after having admitted to harboring lingering doubts about the legitimacy of his resume, Itani turned around and offered a more self-assured take on his status in the culinary world. Asked about what he wants his restaurants to represent, he immediately dove into an answer, pointing out that a lot of people seem to use the word “fusion” in reference to his cooking.

“Chefs don’t love hearing their food described as fusion so much,” he said, implying that the word gets thrown around a little carelessly. But labels aside, when it comes to fusing together cooking styles, he contended, “I feel like I have a license to do that.”

In the process, Itani aspires to provide adventurous eaters with unique meals. “This ramen isn’t going to be like any ramen you’ve had,” he asserted about the steaming hot bowls he’s so attentively crafted.

Still, certain expectations die hard. “Some people say, ‘This tastes different than ramen I had in Japan,’” he noted. To that skepticism, he has a response: “What prefecture were you in? Because ramen is going to taste different anywhere you are in Japan.”

The fact is, Itani knows more about the full range of ramen styles than most anyone else. He knows more about Japanese food, period — and now he’s making it his own.

“This is my style,” he proclaimed, adding, “Oakland’s my prefecture.”

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