Katsuji Tanabe is a Japanese-Mexican restaurateur who cooks kosher food. He could win “most Angeleno” based on those credentials alone. Throw in the fact that he's an immigrant and he's been featured on five different food television shows, and the guy is L.A.'s unofficial mascot.
Tanabe is currently a contestant on Top Chef: Charleston, taking a break from running Mexikosher, his fast-casual, certified-kosher Mexican restaurant on the Westside. He talked with us about his unlikely path to the United States and why he will always run kosher restaurants, even though he's not Jewish. From nearly being deported to employing dozens of people in L.A. and New York, Tanabe has a unique perspective on the American Dream.
You grew up in Mexico and you moved here when you were 18, right?
Yes. I came to this country for a better life. Literally looking for the American Dream. My mom, my sister and I. We moved in 1999 and we literally came with like $5 in our pockets. We didn't have any money whatsoever. Nothing. Nothing nothing nothing nothing. We rented a one-bedroom apartment in Eagle Rock.
Were Eagle Rock restaurants important to your culinary education?
Not really restaurants, but there were a couple of taco places that I would go and just get tacos after working like 12-hour shifts, washing dishes in West Covina at a Chinese restaurant.
You grew up eating Japanese and Mexican food. When you decided to go to culinary school, were you hoping to learn how to cook everything, or specialize in one cuisine?
When I went to culinary school, I was already working in restaurants almost for 10 years. I started when I was 14 in Mexico. So for me going to culinary school was more about learning why things would happen. I didn't know why a sauce would break. I knew how to make a bechamel, but I didn't know it was called a bechamel. I just wanted to be well-educated in anything culinary. And for me, education was always the most important thing. I went to really good schools in Mexico, so I knew going to culinary school would help me understand and know my craft better.
What kind of restaurants had you been working in before you went to culinary school?
Mainly in Mexico a lot of fine-dining restaurants. Very French, Italian restaurants in Mexico. Big catering companies. I started literally from the bottom just like any other chef, washing dishes. … In Mexico laws are not like here, so they would work me pretty much 24 hours. It was awful. And then I would spend like eight hours just cutting garlic and onions and it was awful. And then when I started moving to Italian restaurants, I would clean and squeeze calamari for literally 10 hours. So after work my whole … everything would smell like fish the whole day. My towels, my bed. Everything.
You've talked about how you didn't have paperwork to live and go to school in the United States, but the person at the culinary school who discovered that decided to let it slide. Is that something you're still comfortable talking about?
It's part of my life. I'm not ashamed. I was hoping not to get caught, but I got caught. That day my whole world fell apart. It was a miracle, this person at the culinary school, she was like, “My parents were illegal. My parents did everything for me to be the best person that I could be, so the only way that I can see paying back is helping somebody else.” And she actually looked the other way and the only thing she asked me was be the best chef that this school has ever created, and whenever I can help somebody, help somebody. I have done that since I left culinary school.
And after culinary school, you decided that you wanted to learn how to cook kosher?
No, actually it was not like that. After culinary school I ended up at a super fine-dining restaurant. I became a chef and I was very immature, so I didn't know how to handle all these new responsibilities and it went to my head. I became really bad at what I did. I started losing jobs. I started drinking very heavily. I wasn't happy. Out of nowhere somebody called me and they're like, “Hey, would you like to be the chef at our restaurant? We saw you on a cooking show on PBS.” I was on a PBS cooking show before Top Chef, before all the other shows. And then when I got there, they said to me it's a French restaurant, it's fine dining — they never mentioned it was kosher. When I found out, I didn't think it's a good match, but at the time it was either that or being stuck in the same no-future jobs. So I was like, yeah, I'll give it a try.
I don't know how to phrase this, I'm not a very religious person, or, I don't believe in a lot of things, but thanks to being surrounded by very strict old people, very orthodox … they care about food and family. And I started focusing more on my craft and I became a much better chef. I always said kosher picked me, I didn't pick kosher. And thanks to kosher, my life changed for good. I was able to provide for my family, to have a wife, to have two daughters who will be able to have some money. It made me better. When time came to expand or open my own restaurant, I couldn't go back to the non-kosher lifestyle. I couldn't go back to pork and seafood, not because I didn't want to but because I felt that it would be ungrateful of me that I used the Jewish community of Los Angeles to acquire wealth and then say, “Fuck it, I'm out of here.” And I think that was the best decision ever … me going to kosher actually helped me become a better person.
And it led to more opportunities, like being on TV a ton.
Top Chef literally was my American dream. When I was dead broke in my apartment, something that would inspire me was, “Oh my God, one day I will be on Top Chef. One day.” I literally applied to be on Top Chef 10 years in a row. And I never got the callback. It wasn't until the last year that I got a phone call, like, “Hey, would you like to be on Top Chef?” I was like yeah, of course. And then in the last four years I've been on Top Chef Boston, Top Chef Mexico and now Top Chef Charleston.
I make a fool of myself on TV and it's fun, but for me, I don't care about the fancy car, the house, the clothing, the expensive things. For me it was to compete and be on Top Chef. That was literally my goal in life. I get super excited when people ask me about Top Chef. A lot of chefs are not happy with their experience on Top Chef. I don't have to win to make people feel proud or feel happy about what we're doing.
You have been on TV a lot, but in your Twitter bio you say that you're not a celebrity chef.
In the kosher community, they say, “Oh! You're the celebrity.” I'm probably the only celebrity chef in the kosher community, but I will never dare to call myself a celebrity, nothing like that. That 15 minutes of fame, it really helped me a lot, but I do this more for the people that backed me up since the beginning.
Do the TV appearances give you more investors and that sort of thing?
They lead to more investors, but you know what is the most amazing thing? The community feels proud of me. They feel proud of having a non-Jew being the face of kosher cuisine in America right now. Because I don't think there's a chef, kosher-wise, in this country or even outside of this country, better than me. It's a sense of pride that I, not being Jewish, still belong to this community. They get excited when they see me on TV. They get excited when I talk about kosher, and try to erase that stigma of bad stereotypes of kosher or Jewish people in America.
Your life has had a fair number of ups and downs. You said that in culinary school, your world fell apart when you didn't have the right paperwork, and now you're a TV star.
The thing is, when I left my country … people leave Mexico to come for a better life. I had an amazing life in Mexico, I had everything you could imagine. Best schools, cars, trips, everything. But one day all that life changed, so what do we do now? There is nothing else.
Your dad had the money, and you moved to the United States with your mom to start over.
Yeah, he kept all the money. For me there was no way to go back, there was nothing for me back in Mexico. So for me it's all about building everything in this country. I was poor and unemployed and nobody wanted to touch me, and now I'm actually providing over 35 jobs between L.A. and New York. I have white people, black people, Jewish, Mexican, everybody working with me to accomplish this dream. I don't really think about it much, but I'm helping other people to have their American dream.
Watch Top Chef: Charleston Thursdays at 10 p.m. on Bravo.