Katsuji Tanabe

Taste Bud Profile

Katsuji Tanabe

Occupation: Chef
Location: Raleigh, NC
Restaurants: Barrio, LeKon, Hussong's Cantina
Books: Mexikosher

The idea that food can act as a metaphor to find happiness is a great lesson—Chef Katsuji has had an incredibly unique journey to success in his career, with plenty of ups and downs. But, just like in cooking, he could always learn from it, fix it, or just start over.

Katsuji Tanabe
Katsuji Tanabe
Katsuji Tanabe

Katsuji Tanabe: I grew up in Mexico City. My dad is Japanese and my mom is Mexican, and we lived in a Jewish neighborhood. The food in our house was always a pretty interesting mix of the flavors of cuisines. For example, on Sundays we had tempura tacos with miso soup. My earliest food memory is of my grandmother letting me “help” her cook pasta. I was always so impressed that something hard and inedible could be transformed by fire, water, and salt. She’d let me play with the pasta while she cooked, letting me break it up and smash it around, and she obviously wouldn’t serve that pasta that I played with. She served her pasta, but I always thought that I had cooked it. I loved that. I also remember every summer having chiles en nogada. It’s essentially chiles rellenos with pomegranate seeds. Every summer, that recipe caused so much drama because my mom had one recipe, my grandma had another recipe, and they fought about the superior version every time. But still—it was a tradition, and it is still a tradition I share with my kids. That continuity is important. Everything we did, in our house revolved around cooking. Birthdays, good grades, any sort of celebration—we had it around the table, together.
 

Katsuji Tanabe

Food was a reward for me, in a way, when I was growing up. My parents would tell me that if I got good grades, we could go out for any dinner I wanted. So I worked super hard at school so that I could get sushi. Sushi was my favorite thing, but in Mexico in the 80s, very expensive. So every time we had it, it was a special occasion. I lived in Mexico City till I was 19 years old, and then immigrated to California. I started out in this country with $5 in my pocket. Ten years later, I owned my own restaurant in Beverly Hills. And soon after that, I had seven restaurants. It all worked out, but it was definitely not easy. I didn’t speak any English at all when I arrived. I didn’t really know how to navigate life in this country. Cooking was always part of it for me though. It was the common denominator. It kept me moving on, moving up, learning English, becoming better and faster all the time. In those early days, I saved up every penny. I saved for big things, of course, but also for special moments I could give myself through food. I’d save up to buy one small tin of caviar, for example, or to take my mom out for dinner, or to be able to have a bottle of champagne to celebrate a dinner with my partner. I was poor, but food was my comfort.

I’ll never forget that feeling of prioritizing doing something special, tasting something special, whenever I could. As I continued to work as a chef I was constantly trying to eat this food that I couldn’t really afford or reach, so I started working in fancier and fancier places. I just wanted to be around that food. I worked a lot just to be able to experience things I couldn’t reach, because those things felt like accomplishments, and like happiness to me. 

My first restaurant was a kosher restaurant. I decided I would cook without a lot of butter or cream, focusing more on acids, spices, and herbs. Don’t get me wrong, I love butter and cream! But trying to cook in a way that didn’t use them as much actually made me into a better chef. I keep that in my mind all the time. The kosher, Jewish lifestyle was a big part of my life growing up, and I didn’t want to forget it. At my first restaurant, I made a lot of people happy because they had never had kosher Mexican food in their lives. There were people who were 60 years old telling me “this is my first taco”. That kind of thing feels really good. I teach a lot of cooking classes for kids, and often times kids who keep kosher will think there’s no point in really learning, because they feel they have so many restrictions on them. I try to refocus that, so they know that sometimes those “restrictions” can actually make you a more creative chef, and the food can be flavorful and fun in ways you may not have thought of before. 

Cooking with kids isn’t easy, but I do try to keep my kids involved with me in the kitchen. The way I do it is to give them short tasks.

Peel this one small potato, stir this for one minute. I make them part of the process but in short bursts, because they always just want to move on to the next thing. And then with the final product, if for some reason they don’t want to eat it, I can say “well you made it, you should try it.” And they do. They are spoiled, to a certain extent, because my wife and I love good food and we get to taste a lot of exciting things—but to me it’s about making them feel like they’re part of it. We make them feel like we’re putting this food on the table because of them. 
 

Katsuji Tanabe

I believe that food can teach happiness. It’s a metaphor, a life lesson, on how to be happy or to find happiness.

To achieve something, there’s a road to get there. Sometimes the road is difficult. Just like cooking, it takes process, it takes small steps. And just like in cooking, if you follow those steps and that process, you are working towards the final goal and happiness. Sometimes you mess up. You burn it, you add too much salt, whatever. But you learn from it, you fix it, or you start over. At the end, your happiness is there, cooking has always provided that life-lesson for me. 

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Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas is the co-founder and Chief Imaginator at Kalamata’s Kitchen. As a former sommelier, she’s also very proud of her unofficial title as “Professional-Try-Things-Twicer”, and is on a mission to keep minds open and forks ready everywhere.

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