With the opening of Hopscotch in Uptown Oakland, Chef Kyle Itani put himself and the whole neighborhood on the Bay Area foodie agenda. To celebrate the one-year anniversary of his second restaurant Itani Ramen (also Uptown Oakland), we met Chef Kyle over a bowl of hot, delicious ramen and a quick chit-chat.
Since 2012 Hopscotch has become a local’s favorite, serving American classics with Japanese influence. A fourth-generation American-Japanese, Chef Kyle blends these two cuisines perfectly together creating a refined menu with local ingredients. Dishes such as Tonkatsu sandwich and his Buttermilk Fried Chicken are well known beyond Oakland. Before opening Itani Ramen, Kyle spent few months in Japan, talking, listening and learning from different ramen masters. His approach to ramen is simple.
“I set out to mirror the Japanese ramen experience, one where a bowl of ramen is affordable, served quickly, and always soulful and satisfying. ” Itani Ramen Oakland
We talked with Chef Kyle about his time in Japan, the difference between the American and Japanese ramen and what spices he always has in his kitchen. Read on below for a full interview.
Hi Kyle, thank you for letting us peek into our kitchen today! Tell us a bit about yourself and your work?
I’m a California-native, born and raised in Vacaville, right in the middle of Sacramento and San Francisco, which are your two options after high school. I chose the Bay Area.
Since moving to the Bay Area, I’ve always lived in Oakland, no matter if I was working in the area or San Francisco, or even if I was traveling abroad. In 2012, Oakland was really small business friendly, which made it possible for me to open Hopscotch. It’s changed a lot over the years, but still is a better option than San Francisco.
I grew up as a fourth-generation Japanese-American, so a very American upbringing, but with a lot of Japanese foods and traditions around. Some we paid attention to, others we did not. I started traveling to Japan to learn more about that Japanese side of my heritage, but after dozens of trips, I’ve now come to realize that being Japanese-American is it’s own thing entirely altogether.
*The images at Itani Ramen were taken by Kyle’s friend who was traveling with him to Japan.
You spent some time in Japan. Tell us, how did your time there influenced your cooking and approach to food?
My plan when I moved to Japan was to fully immerse myself in the day-to-day rituals as it pertained to food. Household refrigerators are tiny, so we had to buy what we needed for only one, maybe two days. This approach was great as I would go to the markets five days a week and buy only what I needed for that day. It also taught me how to be really frugal. I’d buy a small halibut, eat some of it as sashimi, cure some of it in konbu sheets, cook some of it, and make dashi with the bones. Never wasting a thing. This gave me the opportunity to make any meal extraordinary.
“In America, the mindset is, I’ve had ramen before, so now I have to compare it to any other bowl I’ve had and judge it as it compares to everything else. Ramen should be fun, it should be filling, it should be delicious, and beyond that, there are no rules.“
What is the main feeling you want your guests to have when they leave your restaurants?
Relaxed. I want them to be relaxed when they come to the restaurants, confident they’re going to have a good time. I want them to be relaxed when they order, knowing the servers are going to ensure they get exactly what they want. I want them to be relaxed when they receive their food, knowing the cooks have prepared it as it was intended, I want them to be relaxed when they leave, hopefully having had a brief respite from their daily stresses.
What is the main difference between ramen that we eat here in the US and ramen in Japan?
The mindset. In Japan, there is ramen everywhere, and each new place is a chance for the diner to experience the chef’s iteration of what ramen means to that chef. In America, the mindset is, I’ve had ramen before, so now I have to compare it to any other bowl I’ve had and judge it as it compares to everything else. Ramen should be fun, it should be filling, it should be delicious, and beyond that, there are no rules.
When you create a menu, where do you start?
First, I start with splitting the menu into appetizers and entrees. Then I divide the menu into categories based on dietary aversions as it pertains to the center of plate ingredient. It’s not ideal, but that’s the reality. I have to think about the following categories: Vegetarian, Vegetarian no gluten, Fish, Fish no gluten, Poultry, Poultry no gluten, Pork, Pork no gluten, Other Meat no pork, Other Meat no pork and no gluten. At Hopscotch, I’m much less concerned with this, though. It’s a more intimate space than Itani Ramen. The menu includes six appetizers and six entrees. If you don’t see something you like, walk down the street and eat at Itani Ramen.
Then I go by stations in the kitchen, so one won’t get crushed and slow down ticket times.
Then I round out the dish with appropriate seasonal garnishes.
Do you see any other food trends coming from Japan anytime soon?
I think we’re going to start seeing Japanese ingredients from small batch, artisanal producers. Now, almost everything imported is from huge distributors. Greg Dunmore at the Japanese Pantry is working with really cool products from small producers, and the quality is so much better. In 2015, I worked with JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization) to launch a campaign called Nippon Gochiso Select, where I tasted small batch samples and gave feedback as it would pertain to the palate of the American audience. Then I went to Japan and met with some of the producers, which was overall really fun and educational experience.
A chef’s day must be very busy. How does your day look like from am to pm?
It’s a very challenging job. I work 30-40 days in a row and then take 3-5 days off. I can’t just take one day off a week; it drives me crazy. I’m all in until I’m burnt out, and then I go away and recharge. I thought the aggravations of running one restaurant would be better with two restaurants because when I was frustrated with one, I could use the other to take my mind off it. But the reality is, the more restaurants you have, the more likelihood that specific challenges will come up.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your work? What’s not so great?
The answer to both are the employees. I have been extremely lucky to work with groups of exceptionally dedicated and eager to learn employees. It’s a real joy, especially when we’re faced with a challenging situation, you band together, and pull out of the weeds. I love that the industry is accepting to every single person, and all you have to do is try hard every day, and you can be successful. On the other hand, hiring and staffing is a challenge. There are a lot of amazing people in this industry, but unfortunately, also quite a few that aren’t as dedicated or passionate about what we do.
How to you recharge after a long week of work?
If I can get away, it’s to travel. Even if it’s just up to Tahoe or the coast, somewhere out of town is ideal.
You have 20 min to whip up a lunch, what do you do?
Make a quick dashi, chill it, season with soy and mirin. Boil some dried soba noodles, top with any meat or vegetable leftovers in the fridge. A quick Hiyashi Chuka Soba.
Spices that are always in your spice cabinet?
Shichimi, Furikake, Japanese curry powder, and black pepper.
Best food souvenir you ever brought back home or most memorable meal you ever had?
Dried Fugu fins that we steeped in hot sake and were supposed to get a buzz off the sake and blowfish poison, but it didn’t work. It was not good, and we ended up just drinking crappy hot sake. In hindsight, hilarious though.
2007 at Cyrus, formerly of Healdsburg. Douglas Keane changed my life with that meal. The first gaijin chef who cooked like he was Japanese. The reverence for each ingredient changed my professional approach to cooking.
Any new exciting projects on the horizon?
I’m helping a long time friend of mine with a project in Petaluma. Stay tuned for more details about what we’re working on later this month!
If we have only 12 hours in Oakland, what should we do … Where do you take out-of-town friends?
Depending on which 12 hours of the day they’re here, either down International Blvd for Pho or Tacos or up to the Oakland Hills for the views of the Bay.
Tell us your three favorite food spots in the Bay Area ( except Itani Ramen & Hopscotch, those, we know, are already great!)…
B-Dama – Chikara, Shin, and Asuka are the embodiment of Japanese hospitality, and the food is always great.
Champa Gardens – generously put, not quite the hospitality of B-Dama, but the food is always great, and the prices are a great value. I love the no-frills approach to this spot.
La Farine – whether you like sweets or savory pastries, this place is exceptional.
Your favorite outdoor activity in Oakland?
When I get the chance to get out, a few of my favorite things include a round of golf at Metropolitan Golf Links, walking around the Redwood Regional Park and taking my daughter, Ayla, to the Oakland Zoo.
Where should we go for a weekend getaway?ani Ramen Oakland
Up the Northern California coast. Drive on Hwy 1 and stop at every smoked salmon trailer or anything else that catches your eye. I’ve stayed at the Timber Cove Resort in Jenner before and highly recommend it.
Best kept California secret…
Oakland! I read it’s the next big thing, but feel like I’m the only one reading those stories, because when I talk to people from out of town, they only know us for our past and not where we are headed as a city.
What do you love most about California?
The ethnic diversity. It exposes all of us to not only great food but more importantly, diverse values to live by that are rooted in a foreign principal. At the very least, it causes for thought and examination.