The Half-Mexican, Half-Japanese Chef Who Built a Career in Kosher Cooking
By Kylie Jane Wakefield Tablet M.
‘I didn’t pick kosher. Kosher picked me,’ says ‘Top Chef’ contestant Katsuji Tanabe, who runs L.A.’s Mexikosher restaurant
Chef Katsuji Tanabe runs one of the most popular kosher restaurants in America: Mexikosher, in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles. But Tanabe doesn’t keep kosher outside the restaurant. In fact, he isn’t even Jewish. The half-Mexican, half-Japanese—and Christian—cook simply found that kosher food was his calling. “I always tell people that when you are a chef you get to pick what you want to make,” Tanabe told me in a recent phone interview. “But I didn’t pick kosher. Kosher picked me. And because of it, I’ve turned into a much better chef.”
Now Tanabe has a shot at becoming a household name beyond the kosher world. He’s one of 16 contestants on the new season of Top Chef, which premieres this Wednesday on Bravo. He won’t be cooking strictly kosher food on Top Chef, where his tagline is “cooks kosher, but loves pork.” But he’s used to the dichotomy: “I keep it 100 percent kosher” at Mexikosher’s brick-and-mortar restaurant and its mobile food truck, he told me, but when people visit him at home, “I make them roasted pork and pasta with bacon.”
Though most of the season, set in Boston, has already been filmed, the competition isn’t over yet; Tanabe said his strategy to win is “to stay true to my Latin and Mexican background.”
Tanabe, 33, was born in California but raised in Mexico City, which is home to nearly 40,000 Jews. “My next door neighbor was an Orthodox Jew,” he said. “We lived in a Jewish neighborhood in Mexico City.”
He’s been cooking since he was 6 years old, first learning from his parents’ maid. “It was always a passion since I was a little kid,” he said. “Our maid cooked for us and I would spend every Sunday with her making paella. I always knew I wanted to be a chef.”
At age 14, he decided to get serious about food and started cooking regularly. When he was 18, he moved to Los Angeles with his Mexican mother, who had recently divorced his Japanese father. From there, he looked into getting a proper culinary education. While enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu, a cooking school with multiple locations in the United States, Tanabe took on internships in local restaurants. He then went on to work as a line cook at the four-star Bastide Restaurant and Loews Beverly Hills, both of which have since closed.
When he was 24, he appeared on a different television show: PBS’s Cooking Under Fire, on which he was one of 12 finalists. Despite not winning the competition, shortly after, he was hired as a sous chef at Mastro’s Steakhouse in Beverly Hills.
While he was working there, he received a fateful call from another neighborhood restaurant: The owners of Shiloh’s Kosher Steakhouse, a glatt-kosher fine-dining establishment in Pico-Robertson, wanted to hire Tanabe for consulting work. He agreed, not realizing that Shiloh’s was kosher. He became executive chef.
Fabrice Ghanem, who owns Shiloh’s with his brother Jeffrey, saw that customers were pleased with Tanabe’s dishes. “It was a challenge for him to do kosher food, but he brought a new element to it,” Ghanem said in a phone interview. “He tried to take non-kosher food [and make a kosher version] of it. The customers liked that.”
Tanabe worked at Shiloh’s for five years. He came up with dishes like “bacon-wrapped scallops,” faux-pork chops, and a “bacon cheeseburger.” Instead of using treyf ingredients, he substituted sea bass and beef. “Tanabe was a great chef,” Ghanem said. “He was very innovative.”
In 2011, Tanabe decided to venture out on his own and open up Mexikosher, which is located a block away from his former employer and kosher-certified by the Rabbinical Council of California. It’s a fast food and take-out eatery that features everything from staples like beef and lamb to Mexican dishes like steak tacos, burritos, taquitos, and nachos (with pareve sour cream). Tanabe introduces new specials periodically; in the past they’ve included goose tacos; the Paula Dean Donut Burger made of beef bacon, fried egg strips, and soy cheese; veal sweetbreads; and fried chicken with waffles. One of his recurring specials is the Big Makosher, which comes with two beef patties, vegan cheese, and a fried egg. During Passover, he kashers his food truck, switching out burritos for salads.
Tanabe is known not only for his cooking, but also for his lighthearted approach to marketing. His restaurant awning reads: “Finally. Real Mexican Kosher. Real Good. Yes, Really.” On his Facebook fan page, underneath his logo, it says, “99% of Mexican restaurants don’t serve kosher food. We are the 1%. Occupy Mexikosher.”
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously when it comes to food,” said Tanabe. “We want to make food fun and pack in a little flavor.”
Tanabe may be the owner of Mexikosher, but he doesn’t have a key to his own restaurant; because of kashrut regulations, the mashgiach holds it. Tanabe is required to close on Shabbat, which he says isn’t a big deal for him since he has a wife, a kid, and another baby on the way. “It’s a relief to be closed on Shabbat,” he said. “It’s good to spend quality time with my family.”
One of the first customers Tanabe served at Mexikosher was Hershel “Rabbs” Remer, also known as Rabbi Rabbs, a Los Angeles based Hasidic comedian. Remer became friends with the chef and appeared with him on Travel Channel’s Chow Masters and Food Network’sChopped, which he won. In an email interview, Remer had only positive things to say about Tanabe and his restaurant. “There are many top notch kosher restaurants in Los Angeles, and Mexikosher is right at the top of that list,” he said. “I would say to anyone visiting L.A. who requires a kosher diet that Mexikosher is an absolute must visit, right up there on the vacation itinerary with Disneyland and the Hollywood sign.”
Remer also said he’s impressed with Tanabe’s dedication to the kosher Jewish community. “What most amazes me most about Katsuji isn’t that he is a gourmet chef or that he is becoming world-renowned on TV for his cooking skills,” he said. “What blows my mind is that he doesn’t need to serve kosher food. He could open a regular non-kosher establishment, not be limited to the exacting Jewish dietary regulations, and be just as successful. He isn’t Jewish. He doesn’t need to do what he’s doing. But, he does it anyway, because he likes the Jewish community.”
Tanabe, who is planning to open a new location next year in Mexico City, said he is glad to be part of the Jewish scene in Los Angeles. “The Jewish community is very close,” he said. “I got in somehow. I went first to their stomachs.”
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