What are we drinking?
TAKASHI BARTENDER: We have the Kyoto Blossom, it tends to be an apéritif drink. I always recommend it for people who want to have nice digestion. It’s vermouth, lemon juice and finished with sparkling sake so it’s super refreshing. We call the second one the Osaka Berry, it’s very fruity. We use blackberries, lime juice, cinnamon syrup and then finish with some ginger beer. The last one is the Tokyo, pretty much like a Manhattan but a little different. We use bourbon, bitters and amaro.
TAKASHI YAGIHASHI: Do you want me to wear the chef’s jacket or just regular clothes? I can not however change my face.
Your regular clothes are just fine! Do you have a favorite cocktail?
I like the Tokyo. Kanpai!
Kanpai. Is it true it wasn’t food that originally excited you about moving to America?
I wanted to come to the United States because of pop art. When I was in high school I listened to Jimi Hendrix. Pop culture was very much a part of my life. I wanted to be a rock star. I played guitar when I was in high school and after I went to the design school in Tokyo. I met the artist named David Hockney and that made my decision to want to come to the United States one day. I came here in ’82 or ’83 when I was only 23 years old and just wanted to have a life in America.
Is your background in design applied in your restaurants or does someone else handle the decor?
I went to the school but I partied too much so I didn’t get the job. I hired a French man, his name is François Genève. We went to New York and ate and looked around to discover what kind of tastes I liked. He gets all of the information, we talk and after that he creates it.
The New York Times named Tribute one of America’s top restaurants and described it as “the finest restaurant between New York and Chicago.” Do you consider your time in Detroit as the turning point in your career?
Oh, absolutely. I started cooking in Japan and I came to Chicago as a Japanese restaurant cook. I worked here a couple of years and met the young lady that I married. Thirty years ago Japanese restaurant food was not sophisticated like it is now. I wanted to do more fine dining. Nobody wanted to do it so at that time I changed my career and decided I would cook French food. This led to the chance of opening the restaurant Tribute in Farmington Hills, Michigan. I was there nine years as the executive chef so that totally changed my career. I loved Michigan life.
With a son at Michigan State University and a daughter at University of Michigan, are you a Spartan or a Wolverine?
[Laughs] That’s tough, right? The good thing is I’m not crazy about football or basketball. I just sit back, relax and watch.
Your daughter is lucky she has Slurping Turtle in Ann Arbor. How often do your kids allow you to visit?
I take turns. I’m planning on stopping by East Lansing next time because last time I saw my daughter. My boy is not good, when I call he doesn’t call back right away. [Laughs] He’s graduating next spring for computer engineering, nobody wants to be a chef!
Did you want one of your children to follow in your footsteps?
I never pushed them to do it. I talk to my wife about it, the restaurant business is so tough. You have to give up a lot of things. I love it, I’m meeting you guys today, it’s fun for me but it’s not for everyone. Cooking is a very small part of it. It’s long hours, 15 or 16 hours a days and seven days a week. My father passed away 25 years ago. I’m the only son and I couldn’t be with my mother all of the time, that’s my biggest regret.
What other advice do you pass along to your children?
When you meet somebody, try to be nice and polite because you never know who that person could be. They could be your neighbors or your [future] wife. First impressions are very important for relationships so I try to be as nice as I can. It’s so weird how you can never talk to a person in five years and then suddenly you become good friends.
Why do you think your marriage of 25 years is still going strong?
I think you’re going to find out that a lot of couples who do well together have totally different personalities. I’m a perfectionist, my wife is very laid back. Totally different personalities, otherwise we could not get together. Also, listen more and take more time. I think a lot of people don’t listen.
What do you hear most from people on the street that recognize you from Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters” and “Top Chef Duels”?
Sometimes in the street I’ll hear, “Hey, you’re the chef Takashi!” People will shake my hand or they want to hug me. After that I realized I can’t steal any candy bars from 7-Eleven.
Why do you think you won the coveted Fan Favorite Award on the fourth season of “Top Chef Masters”?
I did not expect that. I was the most quiet guy basically and I didn’t cause that much drama. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. If you want to win something you have to be very passionate about it, no matter what you do. I wasn’t like that, I was relaxed all of the time. I thought I could go all of the way up but I screwed up and got kicked out. I feel like I should have been a little more aggressive or more passionate and grab it but I didn’t have those kinds of feelings.
When is the last time you got upset and showed it?
I don’t have many moments where I’m very pissed off. You’re training yourself all of the time. Let’s say for example you are slicing a fish. Every day you do that, for the next 10 years, 30 years. You must be good about your technique and then you can go to the next step. If I don’t go to the next step I feel like I’m a failure. I want to be better than last year. If I can’t control my emotions then I feel like I’m not stepping up as a person.
Would you say you work best under pressure?
Yeah. I always thought I was very bad at working under pressure but this experience made me realize I’m pretty good. The most difficult thing [about the show] is that you don’t have time to sit down with a piece of paper to plan what you’re going to do so you have to run around and you have to think about it at the same time. I had to make three dishes in 30 minutes and in the last five minutes I still didn’t know what I needed to do. That’s very tough.
Do you stay in touch with chefs from the show and frequent their restaurants?
I spent a lot of time with Art Smith. [Back in Chicago] we don’t have much time and the chance to do that but while filming “Top Chef Masters” and “Top Chef Duels” we hung around. Art is a great guy and Stephanie Izard, same thing.
How do you continue to challenge yourself at this point in your successful career?
Nothing is ever mastered. I’m still still learning everyday how to be a better husband, man and chef. I’m not looking to have 20 restaurants. That is not my style. This is enough but the quality is going to go up. I want to have better service and better food.
Where are you the happiest?
I think in my town, Mito, in Japan. It’s by the ocean. If you go there in the summer it’s so peaceful by the beach where there is no one around. I like to go back atleast once a year but it’s getting tough … I love horse mackerel called aji. When it’s sliced on top of the sushi rice with a little bit of the ginger and a touch of soy sauce that is my favorite thing in my life. It’s unbelievable.
How do you enjoy a day off?
I have a daughter in high school and on my days off I like to cook at home. Home cooking is so much fun. Do you know why? I can cook anything I want to cook. I don’t need to think about food or labor costs or anything, just my tastes.
Who was the most exciting guest you’ve had dine at one of your restaurants?
When I was in the Wynn in Las Vegas I had a restaurant called Okata. Sting came three days in a row.
What did he order?
He doesn’t eat. Very small order. One night he ordered only miso soup. That’s it! Then the next night he ordered two pieces of sushi: one was the sweet shrimp and the other one was some cucumber role. He’s so skinny. The third night he ate a piece of chicken with no sauce. Mayor Rahm Emanuel came here [to Takashi] in Chicago.
Best concert you’ve ever been to?
Wow, that’s good a question. Probably at Alpine Valley. I went to three concerts. The Eagles, Doobie Brothers and Stevie Ray Vaughan. That was a great, great rock concert.
If we were to go out and do karaoke tonight, what would you sing?
I can’t sing. I’m so bad. Ten years ago I took 20 American customers from the restaurant to Japan. We stayed one night in a traditional Japanese hotel close to Mount Fuji. After dinner we did karaoke and nobody wanted to sing because there was a stage so I had to sing. After I sang everyone wanted to sing. That night I sang “My Love” by Paul McCartney.
First thing you’d do if you won the lottery?
I’d want to give a million dollars to all of my employees. How would you use the millions yourself? I think it would be fun.
Favorite dish at each of your restaurants?
I think Slurping Turtle’s duck fat fried chicken is my favorite, that actually started here [at Takashi]. We make a lot of duck confit, we get a lot of duck fat and we can’t throw it away so one day I realized that some chefs were doing duck fat french fries. I thought, “Why don’t we cook the fried chicken in duck fat?” The duck leg is cured with basically herbes de Provence, that’s the bay leaf, thyme, rosemary, sea salt and touch of sugar. All the umani, the flavor, gets into the fat. At Takashi’s we can not take the seared scallops with soba gnocchi off the menu. In Japan we make the soba gnocchi from buckwheat, very similar to Italian gnocchi.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
Haruki Murakami. He’s an unbelievable Japanese writer.
Lastly, do you still think about being in a rock band?
Yeah maybe I should be in, how do you say, a senior citizens’ rock band. Everybody does!
KIRSTEN MICCOLI PHOTOGRAPHY / A DRINK WITH
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