We had the good fortune of connecting with Akira Yoshimura and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Akira, why did you pursue a creative career?
Well it’s funny – I didn’t originally pursue a creative career! My degree is in environmental health and safety, and for the past twenty years I’ve been working as a Safety Engineer. However, outside of work I’ve always enjoyed bringing people together to relax and have fun, and a big part of that was providing them with delicious food to eat. So I started to cook for friends and family when they gathered at my house, and I found that I really loved bringing people happiness through food. I began to get serious about cooking and to learn the mechanics of preparing a wide variety of foods. The great thing about cooking is that it’s both a science and an art, so there’s both very specific processes you must follow – the oil has to be above a certain temperature before you can fry anything in it – but also room to experiment and make a dish your own.
That’s how I came to my recipe for chicken karaage, or Japanese fried chicken. This is a staple that I’d been eating at my mom’s and my aunt’s houses my whole life. But I got interested in how I might change it up and make it my own, so I did research and tested multiple iterations with all kinds of changes to the batter, to the oil, to the frying process. I was hosting parties at my house just so I could have folks test the latest batch! And now the karaaage is the signature dish at Jichan’s. Jichan’s is the restaurant I co-own in Monterey Park. The name is a Japanese word meaning “Grandpa’s” because the food we serve is Japanese home cooking.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
For many years, I worked a corporate job and thought of cooking as a hobby, something to share with friends and family at home – I never dreamed of starting a restaurant! And then I was on vacation in Hawaii, and went to a restaurant in Waikiki that served rice balls. They were very successful and I thought, Hey, I could do this. In fact, I think I could do it better. And that was my motivation for pursuing a new career path.
We fortunately never had a problem attracting folks wanting to eat our food, but it has still been far from easy. We debuted Jichan’s at the 626 Night Market in 2017, and I will never forget that first weekend – there were hundreds of people lined up to eat our food, which was amazing, but I was also standing over a fryer for 12 hours in 110 degree heat! It was incredibly stressful trying to keep up with demand while making sure the food quality didn’t suffer. And then it was still two more nerve wracking years until we were able to open a brick-and-mortar location.
But it’s also been tremendously exciting. Jichan’s was recently even featured in the New York Times. To see people buying and enjoying the food that I’ve created and cooked is so fulfilling. I’m also proud that we now provide jobs to 11 cooks, cashiers, and other staff at our restaurant, and that we’ve been able to succeed while staying true to Japanese cooking methods and using only premium and authentic Japanese ingredients. It is deeply satisfying to know that we have given people a quality meal that also provides them with a real taste of Japan.
The lesson I have learned along the way is the importance of community. So many people have helped us by volunteering at the 626 Night Market and our other pop-ups, by coming to the restaurant when it first opened and then for takeout through the pandemic, and by posting positive reviews and photos on social media to raise our profile. People I have not seen for years show up at the restaurant to wish us well and buy onigiri, and it’s such a pleasure to feel their support. I really believe that people are inspired to see someone following their creative path and want to support that and help them succeed.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
There’s so much that Southern California has to offer that a week really isn’t enough! For food, I’d take them to Trieu Chau in Santa Ana for some truly delicious noodles, and to Kobawoo in Koreatown for pork bossam and pancakes. I’d also use their visit as an opportunity to try out a restaurant I’ve been wanting to visit, n/naka. Chef Niki Nakayama has been putting together the most incredible bento boxes for takeout during the pandemic. Then we’d have to go for a run to work off all that food, so I’d take them down to the pier at Hermosa Beach. The people watching is amazing and we could catch some beach volleyball while we’re there. Depending on the time of year, I’d also take them to a Dodgers or a Lakers game – LA is such a great sports town and our teams always show up and show out!
I’ve always loved San Diego too – there’s such a chill vibe and great food there too. So maybe we’d make a quick run south and hit up Las Cuatro Milpas for Mexican rolled tacos, Phils BBQ and grab some burgers from Hodad’s on the way back.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
My mom and my aunt deserve a lot of the credit, for feeding me and sharing recipes and teaching me about Japanese food. They are both great cooks! My aunt recently passed away and some of her lives on in the food I cook everyday and at Jichan’s.
Also Joe Miyano, who co-owns Jichan’s with me, deserves a lot of recognition. He was on board from the minute I told him about my idea for opening an onigiri-ya, or Japanese rice ball shop. He was part of the trip to Japan to research onigiri, he got us started doing pop-ups at the 626 Night Market, and he’s been amazing at the marketing and social media aspect of the business. He and our manager Rick Kawada really hold things down. I’ve known them both since we were kids – I actually met Joe working in a manju, or Japanese confectionary, shop in Little Tokyo when we were teenagers.