My connection with Japanese broth runs deep, all the way back to when I lived in Japan in 2011.
It was around 2:45 in the afternoon when it happened. I was just kicking it at my house because I was supposed to go sightseeing along the coast that morning, but I was so massively hungover from the night before that I didn't go.
In the days prior, there had been several small earthquakes that lasted a few seconds, but this one just didn't stop shaking. It got violent, and then even more violent. I remember running out of my house and seeing a lot of people huddled in the streets panicking, so I huddled and waited along with them until the violent shaking was finally over.
We lived in Sendai, in a one-bedroom spot with paper screen doors like you see in the movies. At times, it would get really cold so I cooked dashi all day to heat up the house. I started the broth at lunch and let it boil all day until dinner so that it would get really complex.
We basically had nabe for dinner every day, which was very comforting.
My wife and I didn't understand the severity of the earthquake at first; we intended to ride it out and stay. Every day, we listened to a transistor radio I had and tried our hardest to understand the Japanese announcements while we charged our phones from a gas generator. When I finally called my parents to tell them that I was OK, they broke it all down to me: the nuclear meltdown, the damage from the tsunami—everything.
MAKE: Kyle Itani's Dashi
We were staying at the local high school gym that was turned into a makeshift shelter and survived off half a Fuji apple and some crackers each day. At that point, we felt that we were taking away these precious resources from the locals.
We left a week after and decided to stay in California—Oakland to be exact, where I opened up my first Japanese-rooted American restaurant in 2012, and now plan to open up my second place, a ramen-only establishment.
If you are a cook in San Francisco, you probably live—or at one point have lived—in Oakland because it is the only place where you can afford to live in around here. But the city of Oakland has been changing recently; it is now more neighbor than 'hood, thanks to a few good cooks that have opened up restaurants here instead of in San Francisco.
When I first moved here ten years ago, Oakland was often associated with crime, but I can attest that it takes a few small businesses to turn a neighborhood around. When I realized that I wanted to open up Hopscotch, I didn't even know what an LLC was, but the city is really great with helping young food entrepreneurs with that basic stuff: paperwork and so much more.
But why ramen? Believe it or not, Oakland and San Francisco don't really have many ramen options. San Mateo and the rest of the South Bay may have some spots but the East Bay doesn't have much. My favorite ramen around here is one that is only offered during lunchtime, at Iyasare in Berkeley; the chashu pork and the broth are great, but they really think about every component in the dish as one whole package, which is key with ramen.
A lot of people think of Japanese food as just sushi and ramen, but there are so many regional variants within those genres. When I hang out with other chefs and tell them that I cook Japanese food, they respond with "Like sushi and stuff?" But if I cooked Italian food, for example, they would probably ask, "What region do you focus on?" Japanese food has regions too, and I am going to be exploring those regions with my new ramen spot, rotating regional broths from different prefectures like some bars rotate beers. I'm a big fan of lighter, fish- and chicken-heavy broths, as opposed to the porkier tonkotsu broths.
Let it be known that not all ramen has to be a gut bomb. They can be very light and clean, so much so that you can walk away feeling good and not stuffed. Hopefully, over the upcoming decades, ramen will have the same trajectory as sushi.
Despite the cataclysmic earthquake, my wife and I have been going back to Sendai every year since then. It has been great see the amount of resilience there that they are always building up.
As told to Javier Cabral.