Kyoto restaurant here in Austin closed recently. Sad news. Very sad. Kyoto was the first real Japanese restaurant to open in Austin in the early 80′s by a sushi chef named Ted Kasuga who saved a bunch of money he made working 7 day weeks in Vegas for almost a decade. Kyoto restaurant was super traditional with experienced female Japanese servers in kimonos, a full service sushi bar, and even a bamboo floored tatami room where you had to take off your shoes to sit in. Low tables where you had to sit cross legged and eat everything with chopsticks. (the first time i ate there it felt like i was in Japan.) Ted was a master sushi chef and worked at Kyoto for years; long enough to later open a second location in north Austin as well called Kyoto “2″.
Kyoto restaurant is where my life as i know it today began, and why it’s sad to see it go. I’ll never really be able to figure out what possessed me to apply there in the beginning; i kinda wanted to work downstairs below at the Elephant Room to be a bartender, but when i went to apply in the afternoon they were closed, so i went up the stair instead of down and applied at Kyoto instead.
Work at Kyoto was tough. I started on dish and had to prove myself to the other dishwashers right out of the gates. One of them was nicknamed “Uzi”, and he would always show me the large pocket knife switchblade he carried when he got upset…and i’m pretty sure half the time he was stoned anyway because he always tried to sell me weed from friends of his who would bring it up “from the valley”. Overall he was all talk, and a nice enough guy..i got him on my side and eventually got promoted to fry cook/prep cook…but the older Japanese women named Kiyoko who was the kitchen chef there didn’t want any part of a white guy in her kitchen so i got relegated to lunch time waiter.
I hated being a waiter. My uniform was terrible. Slip off Japanese sandals,black rubber trays, and a dayglow pink t-shirt with the Kyoto logo on the front, it was the early nineties and i felt like a gay member of “Wham!”. lol. Waiting tables there was super hard too! The restaurant was shotgun style, with the sushi bar in the front with 18 seats, a sushi dining room, a regular dining room with about 15 tables…and the tatami room with its own challenges and another 12-15 tables as well. The kitchen was tucked in the back and a long hallway circumvented the entire space. There were 2 dishes on the menu that were prepared tableside: Zosui and Sukiyaki. As the waiter if someone ordered it; i would panic. It meant i had to bring portable gas burner out the table…and all the ingredients,etc to set it up..and then start the pan on the stove and add each ingredient one at a time in progression to cook the dish correctly. Then i had to serve it in bowls to the guests upon completion. It was alone the hardest thing i’d ever done; i didn’t even know hot to cook!; but the real icing on the cake: sometimes id have 3-4 tables in my “section, (there were no sections), all order sukiyaki at the same time! id literally be running from the kitchen to the sushi bar to the tables like lightning, my pink t-shirt covered in sweat…a mad crazy chaos of panic and urgency; it was one of the most stressful jobs of my life. i was working double shifts waiting tables, lunch and dinner and sleeping in the tatami room on the floor between shifts to save bus fare. I needed to get out of the waiting tables thing asap.
I started to befriend the Japanese chefs while i was a waiter. They would make me dishes to try, and over time i started to really like the food. Id go out with them every night after work to the bar downstairs, then to their apartments late at night and watch VHS tapes of Japanese tv and game shows. I started to fall in love with the originality of everything Japanese; it was such a departure from everything that i knew and i was full on committed to learn everything i could from the people i worked with and so respected. My chef Kiyohisa Hara would later take me under his wing as an apprentice, and later after that i worked side by side with the owner Kasuga-san making sushi rolls as well. It was the genesis of my sushi career, and some of the most valuable memories i possess.