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Top Chef competitor is already bringing new vision to Wilmington restaurants

Wilmington Star-News logo Wilmington Star-News 6/4/2021 Allison Ballard, Wilmington StarNews

If Katsuji Tanabe looks familiar, you may have seen the chef during one of his many television appearances. He competed on “Top Chef Boston,” “Top Chef Mexico,” and “Top Chef Charleston.”

Or maybe you saw him on “Chow Masters” or “Chopped.”

It could also be that the Raleigh-based chef has been seen around Wilmington in recent months for his latest role as culinary director of LM Restaurants, the family-owned group that owns eight businesses, including four in this area.

He first got to know the local restaurants when he was in town for the Azalea Festival in April, and helped host a three-night dinner series with LM. Now, he’s working more culinary magic with the help of local chefs.

“I think what I can do is bring up the level of cooking,” he said.

Background: The best things I ate (and drank) at the Azalea Festival Chefs' Series dinners

Food: Azalea Festival Chefs' Series at Oceanic Restaurant in Wrightsville Beach

Already, you can see Tanabe’s influence. It may be in small ways, such as not using black pepper when cooking fresh fish so the seasoning doesn’t burn and overpower the delicate flavors, or in a general updating of presentation of dishes at Henry’s an 2508 Independence Blvd. in Wilmington.  

Or when you sit down to eat at Bluewater Waterfront Grill in Wrightsville Beach and are greeted with Tanabe’s family cornbread recipe. 

“It’s my grandmother’s recipe, made from scratch and it’s cheesy and gooey,” he said.  

Tanabe has a Mexican mother and Japanese father, and extensive experience in some of the country’s most well-known culinary destinations. But he describes his style as being about more than a fusion of flavors. 

“I think of it like I take the best from each,” he said. “It’s about creating layers of flavors.  

New dishes are already on the menu at Hop’s Supply Co., 5400 Oleander Drive in Wilmington, where Tanabe wanted to help create more of a gastropub feel. New dishes include the Kung Pao Calamari, Crispy Brussels Sprouts with a vanilla bacon butter, and a house-made sundried tomato hummus. 

Tanabe also helped rework the burger menu, which includes the Gastro Burger with arugula, blue cheese and bacon onion marmalade.  

Chef Series: Azalea Festival Chefs' Series at Hops in Wilmington

Restaurant news: A first look at Mariposa Tapas Bar in Wilmington

“There’s also a great Smash Burger, super” he said, with two beef patties, American cheese, house-made pickles, red onion and garlic aioli. “It’s great hangover food.” 

Fans might also notice a few tweaks at Bluewater.  

“I wanted to bring a taste of Chicago and L.A. to the seafood menu there,” he said.  “It’s mind blowing to think how many people move to North Carolina every day. They are coming from all over the country.”  

Tanabe was one of them. He moved to the Raleigh area to open a restaurant, High Horse, in 2019. The restaurant closed early in the pandemic. Despite the welcoming and friendly people he found in the state, it was a low point for Tanabe. 

“I was very depressed and heartbroken,” he said. “I think it was something a lot of us in the industry experienced.” 

On Facebook: Like us at Port City Foodies for more, well, food

In order to be productive and healthy, he reached out to the Moshakos family at LM. They were eager to have his help. A stint of a few months eventually led to the position as culinary director. 

Tanabe tries to spend a week at a time in each of the restaurant’s kitchens. He said while it can be easy to stagnate in the restaurant industry, he and LM are ready to change and update with the times.  

Restaurants in the Wilmington area needing to step up their presence, he said. 

“After the pandemic, everybody wants to get out,” he said. “They have high expectations.” 

“I’ve had some great meals in Wilmington, and also some not so good,” he said. 

He’s given high marks to restaurants like Seabird, Mariposa, Osteria Cicchetti, Grand Cru Food and Wine and 1900 Restaurant & Lounge.  

And he’s looking forward to his role in the local culinary scene. 

“I’m excited about what I do,” he said.  

That includes some updates at Oceanic at 703 S Lumina Ave. in Wrightsville Beach in the coming months, and a new LM restaurant collaboration -- a Mexican restaurant in Cary that should open in a month or two.

This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: Top Chef competitor is already bringing new vision to Wilmington restaurants

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