In the steamy air of Mizuna’s kitchen, beads of sweat trickle down the 30-something Japanese job candidate’s face.
“Which restaurants have you worked in in New York?” I am holding the afternoon interview to replace the fifth prep cook who’s left this year for higher pay elsewhere.
“None.” He shakes his head. “In Japan. Soba.” He gestures kneading dough with his hands.
In the kitchen the hiss of the gas burners is constant. With his limited English and my very basic Japanese, this conversation isn’t really going anywhere. I point toward the fry counter and raise my eyebrows.
“Chahan. Gyoza,” he says and then proactively points toward the basin of boiling water, “ramen.”
Bingo! Right answer.
There’s no time for small talk in the restaurant business. I usually grill people if are they are going to be able to handle the pressure in the kitchen, show up at work on time, and suss out any criminal background or drug problems they might have.
Kaz, short for Kazuki, smells faintly of beer and his eyes look tired. But thick, tight muscles bulge around his shoulders and back, not a meth user. He looks as if he could sling a 100 lb side of pork over his shoulder if we didn't get our meat preprocessed.
“So Kaz.” The big question. “Do you have a work visa?”
“I have…a student visa,” he says.
I've lost two line cooks this month. I decide a student visa is good enough. We can pay him in cash.
In fact 2003 has been a great year to open a ramen shop in New York. A trend in new Japanese culinary options is in full swing. Eating at a sushi bar and talking about how unique it is is your dad’s generation's thing.
The new Japanese food wave started in 1994. Nobu opened his restaurant in Los Angeles and introduced new tastes such as black cod with miso to his celebrity clientele. Chef Masa also became known as chef to the stars in LA. Soon foodies in New York also wanted a taste of the action.
We started in the East Village, just around the corner from St Mark’s place, the new culinary mecca for young professionals in the city. And by ‘we’ I mean me. After a year in Japan I wanted to bring back the authentic food culture I found in Tokyo’s shitamachi and pull America out of the era of Benihana. No one in Japan eats at Benihana.
“You’ve got to weigh out all the ingredients,” I say to Kaz, “50g of sauce in each bowl.” I point to the little plastic cups of sauce lined up. He starts work the same day of his interview. It takes about 10 minutes to teach him the basics of working the line.
Dried noodles into the boiling water. 4 minutes. Get a bowl ready. Dump the noodles in. Pour 4 cups of pork broth over. And then the toppings. A laminated guide with photos is taped up behind the counter. It's easier than repeating myself to every new hire.
I can teach him the rest later if he sticks around.
“Brian-san.” Kaz gets my attention. He’s holding a Japanese electronic translator in his hand. “Garlic.”
I show him where we store the garlic paste.
Six o’clock soon turns around and we get busy serving the after work rush. It’s a Friday night and I’ve stocked up on double of everything. Two vats of base stock are simmering.
Base stock is the secret to good ramen. That’s what I learned at ramen school. Every morning I devote an hour to boiling 50 lbs of pork and chicken bones with flavorings and skimming off the scum at steady intervals.
Out front, there’s a line of customers. The first six months of Mizuna were a slow grind, but now things are kicking, and we’re finally making revenue above expenses. I hope to someday pay back dad on the $100k he put into my business plan.
After a week, Kaz has learned all the tricks and is working on autopilot, and I can relax.
Every restaurant plays music to make the monotonous work more bearable. We take turns choosing the tunes during prep hours.
I hear something awful.
“Livin’ La Vida Loca is NOT allowed in this restaurant,” I shout over the noise. I push the next song button on the CD player. A management veto.
Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” begins playing. That's more like it.
That week I overhear a customer talking to Kaz.
“Can you watch my kid for a second?” The man indicates he needs to go to the toilet.
Kaz is giving him a blank stare, I got to teach this new hire English. I make a mental note to practice a few English expressions with him every day.
“I’ll keep an eye on him,” I say to the customer, “we get a lot of children eating here.”
When he gets back to his seat he looks relieved his 2 year old hasn’t disappeared in his absence. “Thanks bud.”
“No problem, anytime.” A good chance he’ll convert into a return customer if we can help him with his childcare issues. We get a lot of odd customer service requests like this. And I’ve answered a million questions on what goes into different types of ramen.
Kaz works like a machine in the kitchen so I can forgive him for not being good with customer service. The only other weak point I can see are his slippery fingers. But a broken dish now and then costs almost nothing for the restaurant.
Serving Asian cuisine also has a plus side. Fewer food complaints. When I worked summers in New Haven, if a steak was over-salted or a burger undercooked, the odds were high it would be sent back. For Asian food, if the sauce is off, they just think that’s the way it's supposed to be.
I know myself if It's off as I’m half Japanese on my mother’s side. Being half works great for the restaurant biz. People want to see an Asian face behind the counter of a Japanese restaurant, right? But outside me, there’s not many Asian-Americans willing to work odd hours in a restaurant. Almost all of our employees have been immigrants.
Monday nights are my day off.
At Zum Schneider on Avenue C, I meet my very American friend Brad from university. There’s not many people available for a drinking night out on Monday. But to be honest, Brad can be a bit of a dick sometimes.
“Come to the Buddha Bar with me on Friday? There will be hot girls there,” he says.
“I have to run the restaurant.”
“Can’t you take a night off?”
I take the first sip of beer and skip answering his question. The German pilsner has a crisp sour bite with a hint of flowers. The first sip is always the best.
“Running a restaurant, you meet a lot of hot women there?” Brad is continuing with the same topic.
“Not much time for talking,” I say, “Buy yeah, a lot of women come in.”
“I’ll hang out sometime.” He takes a gulp of his beer too. “From being an international relations major, to running a restaurant, how did that happen?”
“I know, I know. Almost everyone who studied PolySci or international relations at Brown now works in NGOs in DC or New York. But I wanted to do something real. Reconnect to my roots. That’s why I went to Japan to teach English.”
“Do you speak Japanese?”
“Before I went to Japan, almost none. My mother is Japanese. But she wanted us to be American, so we spoke English at home. I felt like I was missing something. There’s a reason why they call it a ‘mother tongue’ you know.”
While I was in Japan I found learning the language to be more of a challenge than I expected.
“You should watch Tanpopo,” I say. A film about a woman starting a ramen restaurant.
Over the course of the evening, I try to educate Brad a bit about the humanities. He needs to learn there’s more to life than making money on Wall Street.
Brad may party at the Buddha Bar on Friday nights but I need to have my fun in the restaurant where I work 16 hours a day 6 days a week.
It’s 1am, and we have to clean up the restaurant before we can go home. I put on “Push It” by Salt n’ Pepa. Kaz needs to learn how to loosen up. I try to entice him to dance while we wipe the tables and put the chairs up. As I’m thrusting my hips at Kaz, a young woman walking past the window looks in at me. Our gaze meets, and we both laugh through the window joyfully at each other before she walks off.
The next morning in the dining room, Dolly Parton is gently serenading our customers. We play soft rock during peak hours. It relaxes the diners.
“Good looking guy like you,” I say to Kaz, “you’ve got a girlfriend or anything?”
“I need money to get married,” he chuckles. Things are different for Japanese. I’ve noticed his English has been getting better after working in the restaurant a few weeks.
A buddy of Kaz’s that comes to the restaurant tells me Kaz sometimes goes to a Japanese hostess bar in midtown. Expensive. I don’t think he’s going to pickup a girlfriend out of the working girls there. But at least, he’s interested in women.
On occasion, he shows up in the morning with different Japanese cooking ingredients and whips up a new recipe. I pick and choose from what I think will work with American customers.
When winter comes, one morning he brings in Myoga. I’ve seen these small purple bulbs before but didn’t know what they're used for. Kaz cuts them into wafer thin slices and adds them into our gyoza dumplings. It adds a piney tang I’ve never tasted before.
I find a piece of white chalk, pull out the step stool, and add ‘Winter Special - Myoga Gyoza’ to the menu. He looks especially proud to see that.
Later that day during the lunch rush, we are dishing out ramen and even a few servings of the new gyoza. A loud clatter rings out. It’s loud enough to make every customer turn around and search for its source. Kaz is standing above shards of broken ceramic and steaming soup spreading across the floor. His hands are shaking.
“I need to go home,” he says.
“Ok,” I say. A man has pride. He dropped a ramen yesterday too. Maybe he just needs to have a few beers, or blow off some steam at that hostess bar I heard about. I hope he gets back by the night rush.
He doesn’t show up. Early the next morning, when I open the front door of Mizuna, I see something on the floor. It’s a photo of myself and Kaz standing behind the counter. Written on top in red marker is the word ‘Memories’ with a heart after it, like a girl would draw.
For days, Kaz doesn’t reply to any of my calls or messages.
I can’t cook solo for long. We hire a new cook. Restaurants go through a lot of employees, cooks and servers come and go. Thousands of bowls of ramen are served. I no longer think about our best line chef, except for glancing at the photo taped up over the bar when I need to reach something up high.
More than a year later, sometime in 2005, an older Japanese couple come into the restaurant. They order two bowls of miso ramen.
“Eeee~ Brian?” the Japanese man asks.
“Yes?” I say.
“Kazuki,” he points at himself, “Kazuki’s father.”
It takes me a second to figure out he’s talking about our line chef.
He pulls out a sheet of paper. He’s translated something.
“Kazuki had…A.L.S.,” he says the words one by one. “He’s died.” He explains further. I find out that Kaz left his hometown when he was diagnosed with the initial symptoms. His childhood dream was to live in New York they say. I do as much as I can to sympathize with his parents, but there’s really not much I can do. I try to give them the photo of myself and Kaz above the bar but they tell me to keep it. After staying a while, they say thank you for helping Kaz realize his dream in New York and bow deeply when they leave.
Perhaps I realize I'm missing something or that life is short. Later that year, I meet an amazing woman, Melissa. She’s also from Connecticut. We talk about reconnecting to our roots there, starting an organic farm. Maybe its time to start a new chapter. I’ve been approached by agents a few times to buy the business. My dad starts introducing me to his friends from academia, some who run non-profits in our home state. Even if the starting pay is not high, contributing to a good cause would be fulfilling. I could try that for a year and spend more time with Melissa while we search for our next project together.