Behind the Menu: An interview with Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya owner, Kevin Yu
Interview by: Fiona Lu and Melanie Wang
Photographer: Melanie Wang
Recently, BITE blog sat down with the chef/owner of Chicago’s Kizuki Ramen shops, Kevin Yu, for a behind-the-menu look at how Kizuki has shaped the ramen industry, and brought an entirely new meaning to authenticity. Founded in 2003 in Tokyo, Kookai Ramen was brought to the U.S. as Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya in 2012. It has two shops located in our very own Chicago and was awarded “Chicago’s Best Ramen” in 2016. Kizuki’s philosophy is to embody authentic Japanese culture and cuisine, and to share these traditions with its customers at any cost.
While chatting with Kevin, he revealed to us the painstaking effort behind creating every bowl of ramen in accordance with Japanese standards. We got to learn not only Kevin’s standards for creating the perfect bowl of ramen, but also how he came to start in the food industry and what motivates him to keep journeying down this path. Kevin has been working in the food industry for over 8 years and manages the Kizuki shops in Wicker Park and New City, Chicago.
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and your story.
A: I believe I am an immigrant version of the American Dream. I emigrated from Taiwan to the U.S. at age 16, and traveled all over the states--Cali, Massachusetts, Seattle, Portland, and Chicago, to name a few places--in search of work. I went to college to study business, but my parents didn’t have a lot of money so I had to find work straight out of college. I was having a bit of trouble and called my mom one night to tell her that all I really wanted was to go back to Taiwan and bartend. She obviously said “Hell no” and helped me find a job working in retail for JCPenney. From there, I slowly climbed my way up the corporate ladder until I realized I wanted to start my own business.
Q: How did you get started in the food industry and in your position as manager of Kizuki?
A: There are two ways to start a business: either find a foreign concept and bring it to the U.S. or find a demand in the market and provide the supply. I opted for the first method. Back in 2011, there was not much ramen in the U.S. and I saw the opportunity for ramen to grow. That’s when I met my business partners who brought Kizuki from Japan to Seattle. At the time, we only had two shops and not much in terms of ingredients, equipment, and skillsets. Our biggest challenge was importing authentic ingredients from Japan. A lot of the ingredients were not available in the U.S. so we had to work with the FDA to approve them for importing. For example, we added deep sea Japanese fish to the FDA’s dictionary in order to recreate the authentic Tonkotsu broth flavor. We realize that it would have been easier to source replacement ingredients from within the U.S., but our philosophy has always been to provide an authentic taste. Once we recreated that taste, we were able to grow and expand to our current 11 locations across the U.S.
Q: What drives your passion for the food industry?
A: I was always passionate about the service industry; even back when I was working in retail, the satisfaction of my customers was what drove me. When I saw the potential for introducing ramen in the U.S., I saw a potential for spreading Japanese culture and connecting communities through food. That, to me, was something special that I could do to make my customers happy.
Q: What is your restaurant philosophy?
A: Our philosophy, above all, is authenticity. Authenticity is not about just the ingredients-- it’s an attitude and an approach towards every single detail. We want to recreate every aspect of true Japanese dining, so we will never take shortcuts that deprive our customers; we always go the extra mile. A single bowl of our ramen takes 1 minute and 30 seconds to make, but 11 hours to prepare for, and we ensure that every step of the preparation process represents how ramen is traditionally made. About 90% of ramen shops use powders to create their broth because using real bones is considered a waste of space, time, and capital. However, we make all of our broths from roasted pork and chicken bones. Did you know it takes about 20 pounds of bones to make one pot of soup? So it definitely is time and space-consuming, but the finished product makes all the difference, and we hope to teach our customers to be able to recognize and appreciate that difference. Asia has such a rich culinary history that people often don’t realize the time and effort behind it, but if you’re truly passionate about food you can tell the difference. We want to broadcast what authentic Asian food should taste like. Before I first started in the ramen industry, many Americans couldn’t tell the difference between Cup Noodles and traditional ramen. Hence, I made it my mission to represent the culture behind Japanese ramen and teach people how amazing authentic ramen tastes.
Q: Can you tell us more about the process that goes behind making a bowl of authentic ramen?
A: We refuse to use powders, MSG, or other cheap methods of making up for the gamey flavor of the broth. At Kizuki, we make all of our soups from real bones. We go the additional mile of roasting the bones prior to creating the broth, which allows for a much more gentle and cleaner flavor compared to the flavor from using raw bones (this adds another eight hours to the broth process). We also have a six-step inspection process for our soft boiled eggs to ensure that each egg has the perfect creamy consistency. Our noodles are hand-massaged to create that chewy elasticity and we check the temperatures of all our meats, soups, and equipment prior to serving. This all requires huge investments in time and capital, but it pays off in a product that we are proud of.
Q: What does hospitality mean to you?
A: I’m very down-to-earth, so to me, hospitality boils down to how you would interact with your friends. On a basic level, the concept of restaurants is no different than the concept of having friends over to eat, except they end up liking your food so much that they pay to help you cover the costs. I want to provide an environment that satisfies all of our guests’ needs and treats them as friends by meeting their expectations and beyond. We would not serve our friends something we are not proud of, so the same applies to our customers.
Q: What type of experience do you hope customers get out of dining with Kizuki?
A: This all goes back to our main philosophy of creating authenticity. We do this not only through preparing the food a certain way, but also through creating an authentic cultural environment. All of our decorations are imported from Asia, even down to the wood of the tables. We hired a decorator from Japan to design the atmosphere of each of our U.S. shops. I told him for our latest New City location that I wanted the decor to embrace Asian heritage while also capturing what it means to be a part of the Lincoln Park, Chicago community. He researched the community and had nothing until one afternoon, while we were enjoying beers by the lake and watching the waves roll in it, it hit us that that moment embodied the meaning and culture of Chicago’s communities. We recreated this scene with our chopstick decorated wall that represents the waves of Lake Michigan coming in. It’s a perfect harmony of the two cultures at play.
Q: What was your most memorable dining experience and how do you hope to recreate that experience for others?
A: My most memorable experience was serving professional Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish. He enjoyed the ramen so much that he now visits us yearly. I can’t even describe how much it means to me that someone as successful as Yu Darvish would be impressed enough by our food to keep coming all the way back to our restaurant for a $9 bowl of ramen, when he could have the most extravagant, expensive meals anywhere else. It proves to me that we are able to provide a consistent, quality dining experience and motivates me to keep that up for our other regular customers.
Q: If you could choose one dish to recommend to new customers which one would it be?
A: We always recommend our guests to start with the Garlic Tonkotsu Shoyu Ramen which is a more savory, rich broth. But if you want to try something new and lighter, the Yuzu Shio Ramen always wins us “best ramen” in every city we go to. A clean variation of traditionally heavy ramen, our Yuzu Shio Ramen incorporates imported Japanese yuzu for that fresh citrus taste.
Q: Lastly, what’s new in store for Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya?
A: We have a lot of new events and partnerships coming soon. We are launching our partnership with Chowbus (an exclusively Asian food delivery platform) this October. Next month we are doing our very first Ramen Asake & Ikebana event next month, where we will be providing ikebana art lessons, wine, and food. For those who don’t know, ikebana is the Japanese art of floral arrangements. Many people associate Asian restaurants with loud rowdiness, but I want to showcase the more refined side of Asian dining and break down these stereotypes. We’ve also paired five dishes with five signature crafted beers for the event and have received overwhelming positive feedback from people who never expected American beer to go with Japanese food. This September, we will be hosting our second annual Japanese cultural festival or “matsuri” here at the Newcity plaza. I have a tendency of making things unnecessarily big, so last year we ended up taking over the entire courtyard with live performances and vendors. This year, we are doing it again but twice as big, featuring a Japanese alcohol garden or “suntory,” japanese cosmetic vendors offering makeovers, and a japanese government-held gallery display of the tsunami recovery. It’s really interesting to see how big and hungry the Asian community in Chicago is; I want to continue creating events that bring people together and spread cultural awareness.
We hope you enjoyed getting to know the face behind Chicago’s Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya as much as we did! To learn more about Kevin Yu or Kizuki Ramen, follow the Kizuki Facebook page or stop by for an in-person visit.