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A Fine Dining Chef Reimagines Japanese American Food in the Heart of Little Tokyo

Eater logo Eater 8/9/2022 Cathy Chaplin
Wagyu steak teriyaki with corn, grilled broccolini, cherry tomato confit, pickles, and Koda Farms rice. © Provided by Eater Wagyu steak teriyaki with corn, grilled broccolini, cherry tomato confit, pickles, and Koda Farms rice.

What is Japanese American food?

Answering that question is at the heart of chef Chris Ono’s culinary residency, Hansei, at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC) in Little Tokyo, which debuts this Thursday, August 11 and runs until next spring. After cutting his teeth in some of the world’s most storied kitchens, Ono’s next chapter promises to be his most ambitious effort yet. Course by course, the chef’s tasting menu takes diners through a richly inspired culinary journey from the perspective of a Los Angeles-born, fine dining-trained, fourth-generation Japanese American. By exploring, defining, and sharing what Ono calls “LA Nikkei” cuisine, the chef wants diners to reimagine Japanese American foodways beyond staple dishes like teriyaki and California rolls.

“My purpose is to take what I have in my mind and my heart, utilize techniques that I’ve learned from all these amazing places and chefs, and to tell my version of Japanese American food,” he says. “I think it’s a good time to reinvent the wheel — stay true to the flavor, the familiarity of it, but at the same time bring in a little technique.” Ono cites Kris Yenbamroong of Night + Market and Justin Pichetrungsi of Anajak Thai, two Asian American chefs who successfully revitalized their families’ decades-old Los Angeles restaurants, as sources of inspiration. “It’s an amazing time in food right now because people are really taking on their own personality and voice and trying to run with it,” he says.

Chef Chris Ono and Jane Matsumoto, head of culinary arts at JACCC. © Provided by Eater Chef Chris Ono and Jane Matsumoto, head of culinary arts at JACCC.

Hansei, which means “reflection” in Japanese, has been a part of Ono’s life for as long as he can remember. As a young cook training in rigorous kitchens including at Eleven Madison Park in New York, Providence and Mori Sushi in Los Angeles, and RyuGin in Tokyo, Ono cataloged his mistakes in a notebook. By writing down each misstep, he hoped to never make the same error twice and to grow from each experience. “The idea of hansei really stuck out to me, making these mistakes and embodying them,” he says. “I think some people have a tendency to hide them or tuck them away.” The lessons Ono learned through this practice influences every element of the chef’s residency — from its eight-course menu to its historic setting in Little Tokyo and even the kitchen’s reverent culture. With Hansei, Ono’s laying out his past and present for all to experience; food doesn’t get any more personal than this.

For the multicourse menu, which is priced at $175 per person (excluding taxes, fees, and gratuity), Ono marries Japanese respect for seasonality with inspiration from his upbringing and formal training. Growing up in West LA, Ono’s mother prepared chicken wings crusted in cornflakes and served it with a simple cabbage slaw topped with dried ramen noodles. The chef pays homage to this beloved dish with a cornflake-crusted foie gras bonbon, a one-bite wonder that wakes the palate at the start of the meal.

Ono also riffs on classic Japanese American foods by turning their traditional compositions and shelf-stable ingredients on their heads. “[Japanese American] food is not glamorous, you’re not going to wow people,” says Ono. “For me, it’s the challenge of trying to make it nice.” The chef’s rendition of the much-maligned California roll consists of a crispy seaweed raft layered with Dungeness crab, Santa Barbara uni, avocado, and cucumber. Ono’s take on teriyaki incorporates well-marbled wagyu steak, along with peak summer tomatoes and corn. The chef’s LA roots run through the ceviche course, bringing together both Japanese and Mexican ingredients seamlessly. “I know more Spanish than I do Japanese,” Ono says.

The chef’s California roll includes Santa Barbara uni, Dungeness crab, crispy seaweed, and crystalized soy. © Provided by Eater The chef’s California roll includes Santa Barbara uni, Dungeness crab, crispy seaweed, and crystalized soy.
Corn flake-crusted foie gras bonbon with umeboshi, sesame, and pickled myoga. © Provided by Eater Corn flake-crusted foie gras bonbon with umeboshi, sesame, and pickled myoga.
Summer Suica cocktail with watermelon, lime, shiso, and Nankai shochu. © Provided by Eater Summer Suica cocktail with watermelon, lime, shiso, and Nankai shochu.

Hansei’s menu will change over time as Ono refines dishes and experiments with new ideas. “I come from a lot of chefs who, for better or for worse, are just never happy with what they serve. But that’s what I think drives us and drives me to figure these things out,” he says. To pair with Ono’s cooking are craft cocktails, local beers, Japanese sake, and California wines produced by Japanese American winemakers.

The three-part Hansei experience takes diners throughout the newly built Toshizo Watanabe Culinary & Cultural Center, hidden away on JACCC’s 2.2-acre campus, starting with appetizers served in the James Irvine Japanese Garden, larger dishes at the chef’s counter, and desserts in the lounge. Ono is looking forward to connecting with diners seated along the L-shaped counter by sharing the stories and thinking behind each dish.

Jane Matsumoto, head of culinary arts at JACCC, tapped Ono for the inaugural chef-in-residence program while he was cooking locally at Yojimbo. “Chris offered us an opportunity to work with someone who was both Japanese American, fourth generation, trained in Japan, trained in the U.S., worked at some of the most prominent restaurants,” she says. “We thought that he could amplify the voice of Japanese American food and elevate it to different styles that are a little different from just Japanese washoku cooking.” She hopes that Hansei will bring “younger generations” and “broader audiences” to JACCC.

The chef’s counter at the Toshizo Watanabe Culinary & Cultural Center. © Provided by Eater The chef’s counter at the Toshizo Watanabe Culinary & Cultural Center.

After years of toiling behind hot stoves in harshly lit and windowless kitchens, Ono was taken aback the first time he toured the culinary center. Overlooking a pristine Japanese garden — quite possibly the lushest pocket in Downtown Los Angeles — the chef saw the awesome potential of cooking in a community-oriented environment, rather than a commercially driven one. “I thought this could be a high-end, world-class dining experience where people could come in, sprawl out, and just go on a little journey,” he says. Ono, who admits to burning out while working in high-pressure restaurants that constantly demand perfection, can breathe a little easier here too. “I feel more connected to this place than I do to a standalone restaurant,” he says. “A lot of times I make food at restaurants, I have a lot of questions and hesitations. There’s been no time where I’ve hesitated or really questioned what I put on the plate. Walking in here was always like walking home.”

Hansei is open for dinner from Wednesday through Saturday. Reservations are required.

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