A man in a squat black top hat and tailored suit jacket strolls through Manhattan’s St. Mark’s Place on a scorching August evening. Gold chains dangle from his eyeglasses frames; an American flag tucked under one of his epaulets, wraps around his midsection and drapes over his shoulder. Cradled in one of his arms is Seara, a part rabbit, part sea-creature animal made out of a winter coat. This is Takeshi Yamada, a rogue taxidermist (once featured on the short-lived 2013 AMC reality TV show Immortalized) who’s larger than life. By day, in a three-piece suit for what he calls his “Clark Kent job,” he’s an English-Japanese translator for the New York court system, traveling among the boroughs for work. By night, he’s something else entirely. “I am not an artist, I am art,” he says, “so whatever I do becomes art.” Painting, sculpting, jewelry-making, taxidermy—it's all basically the same thing, beget by the artwork known as Yamada.
Since August 2017, the food writing and restaurant reviews he publishes on Yelp have been his main focus. Amid gawking patrons and people asking to take photos with him, I chatted with Yamada about his reviews over a hearty meal at Kenka, an izakaya (and, per his Yelp review, an ADULT RATED FUN JAPANESE RESTAURANT) that’s one of his favorite Japanese spots.
If you’re in the greater New York City area and you search for all-you-can-eat buffets (a preference of his), you’re bound to see one of Yamada’s reviews. With 96 restaurant posts at the time of this writing, and anointed with the distinction of “Yelp Elite,” he takes his writing seriously. “When I first read Yelp reviews, my impression was that they were very amateurish,” he says. “Most of the reviews are one paragraph. In the worst cases, they’re one or two short sentences. Give me a break! That’s not a review. If you want to show respect, at least for the restaurant, then you write your honest opinion.”
What drew Yamada to Yelp in the first place, however, had nothing to do with fine dining. “Actually, it started when I was conned out of $40,000.” Yamada had a two-story home in Coney Island that was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. He hired a contractor to repair the house, who instead took the money and disappeared. “I was so angry; I didn’t do my homework. I thought I should go on a review website for the contractor… When I went on Yelp, there were already many people complaining that this guy was a scammer.” He calls his Yelp reviews “my repent.” “If I can’t do the homework myself, at least I can do homework for other people so that they don’t make the same mistake.”
Yelp users appreciate Yamada’s work; responses to his sincere writing have been manifold and positive. He tells me that, in the last 90 days, over 1.6 million people have viewed his reviews. Every day he gets friend requests on the site. And managers comment on his posts, thanking him for his detailed evaluations. “Your feedback was like a fresh breath of air for all of us here at E Buffet. Our whole team was so encouraged and motivated by your feedback!” wrote the owner of the Bensonhurst-based restaurant.
Although sprinkled with typos, grammatical errors, and dramatic use of all caps, Yamada’s long reviews are thorough and regimented. When he first started, the writing lacked shape. Now, they have a uniformity consisting of numbered sections for ease of comprehension. “Recently, my structure is: overview, then food, then service, interior and ambience, and finally value.” And yet these entries remain quite personal. In the post about the long-shuttered Midtown West Japanese restaurant, Rio & You, he talks about the trials and tribulations of having been their assistant manager in 2005 and 2007. In his review for John’s Restaurant, he explains his “personal eating philosophy:” “I consider my body as a complete whole universe. Thus, I also want my each and every meal to be the complete whole universe.”
Sitting at one of several rows of tiny two-person tables, as we eat our food—he has saba teishoku (a set meal of mackerel, miso soup, rice, and salad); I have miso ramen—he elaborates on his philosphy. His reviews include biographical details because he wants to explain “that everything is connected, so that people can understand that they’re not alone. You are always part of something bigger, whether it’s part of the environment, part of the city, part of the Earth, part of the universe.” In fact, he speaks of the dining experience in galactic terms: “On one dish, there is a micro-cosmos… Outside the dish is the macro-cosmos. But you don’t have to separate them. It’s all connected. One for all and all for one.”
What appears in this micro-cosmos for Yamada is a myriad of foods. “Most people should be eating 50 foods a day. Different vegetables, different meats, different fish—50. That’s the most balanced diet. Just eating beef and potatoes doesn’t do it.” To reach this quantity, he’ll dine at all-you-can-eat and pay-per-pound buffets, such as Korea Town’s IchiUmi, which he considers the best in the city.
Still hungry, Yamada orders ankimo (monkfish liver) with a side of white rice, while I buy myself a glass of white wine. As we wait for our food and drinks, Yamada, from one of his pockets, pulls out an array of eating and drinking utensils, wrapped in a plastic bag, that he carries with him wherever he eats: forks, knives, spoons, glasses, and even a lobster pick. Restaurants don’t use the proper flatware, so he has to bring his own. “Yesterday’s silverware is better. Today’s so-called modern, simplified [utensils] suck.”
Yamada attributes his passion for food and the dining experience to his upbringing. Born in 1960, and before moving to the United States to attend art school, Yamada grew up in Osaka, one of Japan’s most food-obsessed cities and the home of takoyaki (and the concept of kuiadore, aka eating until you collapse). Yamada isn’t the only gourmand in his family either; his brother Ryouichi is a chef in Japan.
The meal over, the waiter, unfazed by the perpetually jolly taxidermist, hands us the bill. Yamada packs away his long black chopsticks and custom-made chopstick stand (a piece of old cinnamon bark). I pay my share, and then he does, scribbling “delicious!” in Japanese and English on the check. As we walk out of Kenka, he stops at the chef, visible adjacent to the entrance, and compliments his cuisine. It’s another five-star dining experience.