As a testimony to those who do what they love and do it well. I have decided to sing the praises of one of my best friends in this first installment of the 4%.
What I look for in a friend is someone who:
1. Does what they say they are going to do.
2. When they say they are going to do it.
3. How they say they are going to do it.
I am much more impressed when people show me what they have done.
Than when they tell me they are going to do something. I know that seems simple, but this is a big thing to me.
I have aspired to this my entire life and even though I am far from where I want to be; I love hanging around folks with high aspirations.
Several years ago my best friend Jim Taylor came to North Texas for a Judo tournament. At the time Jim was studying Judo with Karl Geis a 10th Dan Aikido and 8th Dan Judo instructor from Houston. I enjoyed watching the tournament and Karl Geis loved music and I found we had a lot to talk about.
At the time I was studying Jeet Kun Do here in Denton with Sifu Hoch Hochheim and just starting to get my feet wet in the martial arts community.
After the tournament one of the referees suggested that we all go eat sushi at Royal Tokyo in Dallas on Royal Lane.
I grew up eating seafood and fishing with my father. We are still avid outdoorsman and I am as comfortable in the ocean as I am with my guitars and amps. Most of the seafood and crab I ate growing up we caught ourselves and were eating 10 minutes after we caught it. Because of this I have a keen sense of freshness and quality when it comes to seafood.
When I walked into Royal Tokyo it was my first time to ever set foot inside a Japanese restaurant. I found the decor fascinating and especially was intrigued by the Tatami rooms where you would remove your shoes and eat privately. I also was extremely curious about the sushi bar. Where the patrons would sit and eat the freshest fish of the day all carefully cut and prepared by these seasoned chefs who had these serious looks on there faces as they prepared the food. Then after they personally handed the sushi to the patron and the person “lit up” as they savored the impeccable delicious quality the chef would smile and bow and “wash, rinse and repeat”
I didn’t know what to eat but I am an avid student of life so I just told Jim bring it on
I mean we had everything from (squid) to Futomaki (big roll) assortments of sashimi (raw fish) as well as sushi (with rice) and (rolls with seaweed). To be honest the food was so different from anything I had ever tried it freaked me out quite a bit but I just kept trying things due to the fact that it was so exotic and enticing.
The first thing I noticed was how sitting right in front of the sushi bar in front of the chef separated the “men from the boys” It was here that the “maki” the rolls would be handed to you immediately while the “nori” was still crisp and fresh.
If you sit at a table your order may sit waiting for the waitress/waiter and in those crucial few minutes a world of culinary pleasure can dwindle to a “soggy saturated” roll that is nothing like the fresh variety.
I remember mentioning this phenomena to my good friend Dr. Jeff Viaclovsky years ago over dinner at Musashino an excellent japanese restaurant in Austin, TX. I was surprised to hear the “white guy” sushi chef there at the time “Tyson Cole” chime in from over the sushi bar and agree with me.
In my first 15 years of eating and getting to know Japanese food Tyson was the first “Hakujin” (white guy) I had ever seen as a sushi chef. I remember when I first started eating at Kyoto in Austin upstairs from the Elephant Room he was just getting started there. When you are in Austin stop by his place “Uchi” which means house in Japanese and try it.
It is excellent and a testimony to the perseverance and dedication that it takes to learn the art of Japanese cuisine.
I have to tell you Tyson is a hell of a chef and I will mention a few more in this article. Yes I will…
But the friend I am here to talk about today is a friend of mine that has taken my love and comprehension of what is possible in food to a whole another level. That would be this crazy “motherfucker” right here!
This is my friend Kei Nagano. I first me Kei in the mid 90’s in Addison, TX. I was just starting to study Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with Rickson Gracie’s cousin Carlos Machado and his dojo was down the street on Midway. After class I was always hungry as a horse and I wanted to eat something light and nutritious after rigorous training.
There was this little Japanese restaurant around the corner from the trendy place in Addison at the time “Mr. Sushi”
It was called “Hana” and it had been a hidden treasure in Dallas mainly supported by the Japanese community for years. I started going there for lunch after class and at this point I had a pretty good understanding of Japanese cuisine and had even taken a class in cooking Japanese food. I also had dated a girl from Japan “Satomi Miyowaki” who used to cook for me and teach me about the food and the language.
I have to tell you, there is this thing called the “WOW factor” Sometimes in life you just have to go “WOW’
Kind of like when you see a UFO or something. I have had this experience just a few times in my life. I remember them vividly. The first time I saw Yngwie Malmsteen perform live. I was 16 years old and my jaw hit the floor. I mean I practiced for hours and hours after that. My best friend in music at the time Chris Sacco missed that show and I never got over the fact that he did not see what I saw. It was that life changing. I still wish he would have seen that performance. 5 encores!
I have to tell you the first time I had Kei’s food I was in shock it was so good. There was some “intangible” element there that I just did not find in any other chef at the time. Everytime I went back I began to trust him and his instincts even more.
It got to a point where I would just walk into Hana and say “Omakase” which in Japanese means “I trust you, just do your thing!”
He can look at someone and tell what they would like to eat. He is that intuitive.
I am the kind of guy that when I find a good thing I want to share it with everyone and especially my friends. I got a wild idea and I decided to have a “sushi party” and invite all my friends that were scared of Japanese food.
I had so many friends that just didn’t know what it was all about and would say things like “oooh raw fish” or “that is so gross or that it was “alive” and all of this silliness that was based in just not understanding this unique cuisine.
I also have always been into health and keeping my blood as “alkaline” as possible. Okinawa Japan has the highest population of centenarians on the planet and Japanese women live longer that any other females in any other culture. Much of this has to do with the clean nature of the food.
When you cook food you destroy it’s nutritional value and it’s water content as well. Also their is no bread or dairy massively prevalent in this cuisine which makes it very healthy.
I chose to have it on my Birthday. I had all these friends that were skeptical of Japanese food I talked about it so much. So I figured if we had a party, got a few drinks in everybody and had some great music. I could convert all of them.
I have to tell you it worked like a charm. The first year that Kei cooked at my party he received a standing ovation from the 40 to 50 friends we had in attendance.
We ended up making this an annual tradition and each April I would hire Kei to come to my home and he would arrive early in the morning and begin the meticulous preparation that went into the menu he had planned for the evening. I had good friends that were chefs that would purposely come over and watch to see what went into this and what was going on.
The third year we had planned to do this I was saddened to hear that Kei had a falling out with his partner. He informed he sold his interest in his restaurant “Yumeya” (dream in Japanese) and would be moving to Houston to work as the sous’ chef for his friend Efisio Faris’ at his amazing Italian bistro Arcodoro Pomodoro. This ended up being a blessing in disguise but more on that later…
Kei figured driving here would be too much trouble and all the logistics involved just made it to complex. By this time the party was a tradition so I did the next best thing I could think of and hired a different sushi chef. The guys came over with a bunch of pre-made rolls and it just was not the same. On a scale of 1-10 this experience was about a 4. You could hear the trombone at the end of the evening going “Waaaaah Waaaaaaah Waaaaaah!!!!!!!!!!!!!
So after my birthday I called Kei and told him how it just wasn’t the same. In his own humble way we laughed about it and I told him we would fly him in next year and that he could stay at my home and we would make it happen. Since Jim Taylor my best friend that lived in Houston was the original guy that introduced me to this cuisine. I wanted to thank him so I had Kei come to his home and cook for a small group of friends and family. That was a huge success.
The next two years we would fly Kei in and the party grew because my good friend Trey Smith who is a foodie himself and a connosieur of a “great vittle” approached me and said “Eric, let me pitch in and we will throw the party together, that way we can make it twice as big” I thought thet was a great idea and we have done that ever since. After the 5th or 6th year we did the party; Kei surprised me. He said to me “Eric, I want to move to Denton and open my own private restaurant!”
I was pumped and thought it was a great idea. Me and my core circle of friends had been driving to Dallas on a regular basis and it was time for Denton to have a real restaurant with real Japanese people making real Japanese food. Not all this fake “muckjaw” with california rolls with fake crab (the notorious “K-R-A-B”) and all the other “bullshit” as me and Kei and my friend Damascus like to call it.
Kei started driving down on weekends and looking for a place to build his dream. He did this for a couple of months and we quickly figured he would have to live here to make any major strides in making this happen.
I had an idea. My friend Chai Tamprateep that was a successful restauarant owner in Denton and Kei should meet I thought, “something good will come from this” So I went to Mr Chopstix and I invited Chai to my home for dinner. I knew that Chai loved Japanese food so I had Kei cook dinner. Sure enough Chai loved it and had the idea of having Kei as a sushi chef at Mr. Chopstix so he could introduce sushi to his menu.
Kei was honest with Chai and told him his intentions were to open his own place. However this situation was win/win because Kei needed a job and Chai wanted to have access to his expertise. Also Kei could teach Chai’s sister in law the basics so she could keep it going after Kei found his place.
It worked like a charm for both parties involved and we had another plus in that my friend Aya Matsuda whose family also are excellent restauranteurs with their 3 locations of Jinbeh hired Kei part time as well. So now he had a job and could live at my place while we continued the search for the building.
Me and Kei were fortunate to have a friend and extremely savvy businessman Teiichi Sakurai to consult with about this venture. Teiichi had spent the last 10 years raising the bar in Dallas as far as Japanese cuisine with his flagship restaurants Teppo and Tei Tei Robata bar. I was glad to hear Teiichi tell Kei the same thing that I had been saying. “Whatever you do, buy the building”
You see when you rent you just make the landlord richer and you also are not investing in your future. Smart people buy assets, Foolish people buy liabilities. So we set out to find a building that Kei could buy and build his dream.
I believe deeply in “Ask and you shall receive” and I have had so many situations in my life where I have manifested the exact outcome I desired; I decided to ask the “universe” to help me find Kei’s restaurant. I did it during my ritual morning meditation. The next morning I woke up and I had my answer. The voice in my head said “Go to Scott Brown Properties and ask to speak to their #1 Commercial Realtor”
This is “Ed Zachary” (exactly) (sounds Japanese eh?) what I did.
It was 7:30 in the morning when this came to me. I woke Kei up and I told him. Today is the day, it came to me in a dream. I feel we will find your place today. We had some breakfast and drove to Scott Brown Properties. I walked into the door asked the girl at the receptionist desk “Who is your #1 Commercial Real estate agent” She looked at me and said “that would be Chuck Levack” I said go get him.
She did, and I told Chuck, “Good morning this is my friend Kei, he is a chef and wants to open his own Japanese restaurant in Denton. He has money and we are ready to rock. Chuck says to me, ‘Have you looked at the old Parkway Hair Salon? I said no. He said the owner Bonnie is looking to retire and she might even be willing to owner finance and carry the note.
We jumped in the truck and went to the corner of Elm and Parkway to see the property. I have to tell you the minute we drove into the parking lot and I saw all the parking I got “goose bumps” (which means the truth). I told Kei, “this is it” Look at all this parking and this is the perfect location. He said “I think so too Eric” I said “I know it is.” We went inside and met Bonnie, she was a sweetheart and there were all these cute little old ladies in their getting their hair done. Kei and Bonnie met and within a few weeks the deal was made and we were on the way to changing the culinary landscape in Denton.
Mark Holderbaum who did a majority of the construction at my home built the restaurant and did a magical and magnificent job giving the place the ambience and elegance to compliment Kei’s clean and elegant food. Know here is where we get to the good stuff and this is why my friend Kei has the honor of being the 1st installment of the 4%.
I know good food and I am quite a cook myself. I have traveled a lot and as far as life goes food is one of my greatest passions. I grew up with a mess of Italians and the seafood in the freshest state that my father always brought home. I used to get so excited when he would bring home a bushel of oysters and I could help him schuck them in the garage.
Keiichi, which is what Kei calls his restaurant is one of the top 4% of dining experiences is the World and I mean that. And it is right here in Denton, TX and you can thank me for that. I believe in what he does on so many different levels that I could write a whole other blog or mlog (meal blog) hehe! on that subject alone. If you haven’t been yet try it.
You will thank yourself for listening to me and you will definitely thank me for having the vision to bring him here. Then you will thank Kei for having the heart and sould and the passion to be the best at what he does. Here is what is special:
1. The menu changes daily and the fish is flown in from New York daily.
2. Uncle Nakaya as we call him brings the fish in fresh daily from vendors and it is always the freshest.
3. The “Nori” seaweed that Kei’s uses is specially shipped from Japan and is so crisp and flavorful you won’t believe it. Only 4 restaurants in the US besides Kei have the quality control and standards to use this high of a quality nori.
4. The eel that Kei uses is only available in 5 restaurants in the US and it just melts in your mouth.
5. All of the water in the restaurant even the water he cooks in is distilled and shipped in from a company owned by the family of my good friend Dominic Cure. Dominic is definitely in the 4% (more on him later)
The Italian and the Lamb and Steak is leaps and bounds over anything you could find in Denton and rivals anything in the Metroplex as well. Ask Kei to try his “Carbonara” trust me on this one. You will have an orgasm while you are eating it.
Why am I telling you all of this? Simple, because I wanted to tell you the story behind Keiichi and the story behind our friendship and why I have so much respect for him. He takes his food seriously like I do my music.
You see, In the underground, there lies a greater love. With those wise as serpents and gentle as doves.
Life is too short to live it any other way! Check him out:
500 N. Elm St.
Denton, TX 76201
Tue-Sat, 5-11 P.M.
Tell Kei I sent you,