East meets West in the kitchen,and the result is delicious!
The GORO-AWASE of Gyotaku: Japanese wordplayIf you don’t speak or read Japanese, you might assume the name, ‘GYOTAKU,’ is a place or a family name. Instead, co-owner, Tony Sato cleverly combined two Japanese words and kanjis (the symbols) to create a unique identity for the business. Since the meaning of a Japanese word or phrase can be altered or distorted due to nuances of pronunciation and written kanjis (which may change the meaning), the culture embraces this innate quality in the art of wordplay.
“When I started thinking of a name for our restaurant, I pored over a Japanese dictionary for over a week. I made a list of about 20 words and phrases that I liked. The word for fish print jumped out at me — ‘GYOTAKU’.”
“First of all, I liked the way this word sounded very similar to the name of ‘KYOTARU’. Tom and I met while working there, and Kyotaru is a very well established name. People recognize ‘KYOTARU’ and they think of sushi.”
“I also knew we would need a lot of artwork to fill the many empty walls in the Pearl City restaurant. I have a friend, Naoki, who creates beautiful gyotaku art in Hawaii, and he had already offered to help. Gyotaku (gyo “fish” + taku “rubbing”) is a traditional form of Japanese fish printing, in which an actual fish is placed on a surface and then painted on one side with sumi ink. Next the artist places a piece of paper over the ink-covered fish, and rubs the material until the image of the fish is transferred to it.”
“Third, I liked the fact that ‘GYO’ means fish which is a main ingredient in Japanese cooking. However, the original kanji character for ‘TAKU’ means ‘PRESS,’ and that didn’t suggest anything about food. It also wasn’t original. The traditional “GYOTAKU” kanji conjures up the image of fishing supplies or deep sea fishing tours to the people of Japan.”
“I swapped the ‘TAKU’ kanji to a different one, that happens to be pronounced the same, but means, ‘TABLE’. This new combination of kanji characters translates as ‘FISH ON THE TABLE’, but still has the second meaning of “FISH ART.’ Perfect for a Japanese restaurant!”
Although they were born a world apart, Tom Jones and Nobutaka “Tony” Sato were drawn to the restaurant business at an early age.
Tom grew up on the Jersey Shore, during the days of “peace, love, and follow your bliss, man.” A self-proclaimed “kitchen rat,” he loved to concoct new tasty things and try them out on his friends. He listened to his muse, and parlayed his love for creative cooking into a lucrative career by enrolling in the Culinary Institute of America. After graduating at age nineteen, and working his way up the culinary ladder on the East Coast, he ultimately made a life-changing move to Tokyo, where he would overcome cultural and language barriers to become one of the first non-Japanese sushi cutters in the region.
Tony quite literally grew up in the Japanese food industry. As a child, he toddled around the family-owned restaurant and absorbed the daily activities as he watched his great grandmother, mother, and aunts and uncles go about their business. It was just natural that he worked at restaurants to make ends meet while he attended Senshu University in Tokyo.
In a serendipitous turn of events, Tom and Tony crossed paths early in their careers, while working for Kyotaru Corporation in Honolulu. Tony’s management and marketing background paired with Tom’s food production systems and their combined passion for Japanese Cuisine, proved to be a recipe for a strong business team. The synergistic duo created the highly successful REI Food Service, LLC with its popular chain of Gyotaku Japanese Restaurants in Hawaii. However, both men have never lost their conviction that cuisine can be elevated to an art form, and they continue to fulfill their creative natures with the expansion and evolution of their restaurants and products.
Tony’s uncle’s house was a renowned restaurant in the town of Iwate Japan, and some of his earliest memories include the array of ramen noodle, udon and other traditional dishes cooked by both his great grandmother and his mother. He jokes about how, as a child, he grew tired of eating off the same menu day after day. “I was raised looking at those dishes all the time. Like any other child who is served well-balanced meals, I hated to eat them, except for the free shaved ice in the summer time. Isn’t that usually the case? Kids turn their noses up at what’s good for them, and just want to go straight to the sweets. Until, of course, they get older and realize how good they had it.”
His palate was awakened when his aunt took Tony and his cousin to a sushi restaurant. “It was my first experience to eat sushi at a sushi restaurant. We sat at the table and my aunt asked, ‘What you want to eat?’ But I didn’t know how to order sushi yet. My cousin, who is younger than me said. ‘I want to eat KAPPA-MAKI (cucumber roll)!’ And so I followed her lead and replied, ‘I’ll have the same thing!”
During his Senior year at the Senshu University in Tokyo, the Sushi Master of the restaurant where Tony worked part-time, told him that he was very impressed and felt Tony could have a future in the industry. Tony’s mentor advised him to consider working for Kyotaru Corporation—then a huge presence in the market with ten different types of dinner restaurants, and over 300 sushi take-out shops in the area. Immediately after graduation, Tony was hired as an Assistant Manager at a shabu shabu restaurant in Ginza.
“When I graduated from Senshu University and got a job at Kyotaru, I cashed my first paycheck and went straight to the sushi bar alone and ordered an entire meal, except KAPPA-MAKI. I really felt like I had finally become an adult.”
By 1978, Tony’s resume at Kyotaru included managing the opening of the first suburban family restaurant under the corporate name. He followed this with the title of Opening Manager for five more restaurants, and in 1985, managed three Kyotaru stores at the Tsukuba International Science Exposition. He became an integral part of the New Concept Restaurant Development Team, as well as managing these new restaurants himself. In 1986, he started a new post as Restaurant Manager at Beijing Hotel, China for one and a half years.
Meanwhile, in 1984, after leaving his job as Executive Chef at The Tantallon Country Club in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, Tom Jones, arrived in Tokyo with an open-ended ticket and a dream of becoming a sushi cutter. Ironically, it was while working in the United State’s capital that Tom developed a love of raw fish. “I ate my first sushi at Samurai Sushi-Ko on Wisconsin Avenue and then spent a lot of time gorging my way through the different sushi restaurants in the D.C. area. I became one of the ‘usuals’ at Takezushi at 20th and L, N.W., where I’d knock back beer, sake, sushi rolls, and many slices of raw fish.” When he expressed a desire to seek authentic training in Tokyo, his chef buddies were amused, and didn’t take him seriously. Kawasaki-san pointed out that Tom’s lack of Japanese language skill would be a huge obstacle. Tom simply took the advice to heart. He bought Japanese One lesson tapes the very next day, and listened to them on his Walkman from that moment through his departure to Japan.
Tom’s innate stubbornness and ambitious nature helped him overcome the challenge of securing a job as a sushi apprentice in Japan. It also happened that Tom’s cousin, Ross Matthews, lived and worked in Tokyo, and was ready, willing and able to help acclimate him to a foreign land with strange mores. Tom studied Japanese daily at Hiroo Japanese Center, and immediately found several part time opportunities at nearby eateries.
“Having a good sense of humor came in handy when I went into work thinking I had my Japanese vocabulary down cold. Once I was handed a postage stamp, when I thought I was asking the Chef if I could listen in on a conversation. I’m sure I provided a lot of stand-up comedy for my co-workers in those days.”
Three months later, Yankee accent or not, Tom’s doggedness paid off and he landed a job with Kyotaru, the largest Japanese sushi chain in the Tokyo area, with 800 sushi take-out operations, dozens of sushi bars and over 80 full service restaurants. Kyotaru already had plans to open restaurants in America, so Tom recognized this as a golden opportunity. He began an 18-month intensive training program in Japanese Cuisine. By the time Tom arrived in Honolulu, HI in 1986, he had wide hands-on experience under his belt having worked the main Kyotaru commissary kitchen, several restaurants, as well as the counter at a Kyotaru Sushi Bar in Shibuya for two months.
Meanwhile, ever since Kyotaru had entered the Chinese, American, and other overseas markets, Tony heard talk that his company was training two Americans to be sushi cutters in Tokyo. One of these was Tom Jones. However Tony and Tom didn’t meet – yet.
“I have to admit that at first, I assumed that as an American, Tom and the other guy would not be able to understand the subtleties of Japanese Cuisine. After I finally worked with Tom, I changed my mind.”
“Some of my co-workers who knew him said that Tom’s system for managing the kitchen was superior to other’s methods. I knew that Kyotaru could use someone with his talents.”
Together, Tom and Tony were given the task of expanding the restaurants in Hawaii, with the goal of making them more profitable. By 1995, they had succeeded in both these goals. Kyotaru now had six stores on the islands.
In 2000, when Kyotaru announced it would be exiting the U.S. market, Tom and Tony grabbed this opportunity to realize their own vision. In August 2001, they invested in one of the restaurants they had worked in and formed REI Food Service, LLC d.b.a. Gyotaku Japanese Restaurant. Within 6 months, they acquired a second restaurant, the former Suehiro Japanese Restaurant on King Street. In 2008, they opened the third Gyotaku Restaurant in the Niu Valley Shopping Center.
In 2011, Tony and Tom started to think about how they would take Gyotaku Restaurants to the next level. Already known as a family-style staple on the islands, the owners wanted to find ways to re-create and re-brand Gyotaku to make it ‘the’ Japanese restaurant destination in Hawaii.’ They want it to have something for everyone, including—the local repeat customers and the first-time tourists, the traditional Japanese patrons and families looking for a good value, as well as the young hipsters out on the town. The partners contacted Tom’s old friend, John Ransom, and his partner Barbara Mastej of Odd Man Out Creative Mercenaries in Los Angeles. Together, they developed a look that truly represents the vision of Gyotaku’s evolving identity.
Tom notes that these outward changes have also proved to be inspirational for the entire staff. “We’re well on our way to actualizing our dream. Tony and I didn’t open these places just to make a living. They’re part of us and we hope the restaurants are embraced by the community. Our customers and our staff are like family.”