The Toki Effect – Louisville, KY

Originally published 2.5.14 by the LEO Weekly


THE STRUGGLES AND SUCCESSES OF A JAPANESE RESTAURATEUR

When Toki Masabuchi got married, her father came from Japan to attend the wedding in Louisville. She ordered sushi from a health food store for the wedding, and her father was taken aback. “Is this what Japanese food is in Kentucky?” he asked. He encouraged her to think about bringing the flavors she knew well to her new home.

Toki is from Osaka, Japan, where food is celebrated and attributed to the joyful constitution of the people. She thought about her roots, and soon after the wedding, her father gave her a small loan that led to a takeout business at the now-defunct Seafood Connection on Bardstown Road.

The loan wasn’t without complications. A traditional Japanese man, Toki’s father was skeptical about his daughter’s ability to succeed. In 2003, he returned to the United States to assist her in opening her first full-service restaurant, Maido Essential Japanese Cuisine. Unfortunately, their personalities clashed so much that Toki’s father left for Japan before the restaurant even opened. In parting at the airport, he told his daughter, “You are going to fail, but you must pay me back.”

LOST AND FOUND

In the early ’90s, Toki Masabuchi boarded a plane with 100 other Japanese students to attend college in the United States. She had ambitions to master the English language and cultivate friendships with people all over the world. She had an urgent need to get away from her comfortable, sheltered lifestyle at home and broaden her horizons, which is, in part, how she landed at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Ky. For the next five years, Toki bounced between Japan and the United States, trying to find herself.

Aside from the international travel, her young 20s story probably doesn’t vary much from yours or mine. Like many young women, it includes heartbreak, long hours at sordid jobs, study and minimal sleep. She ultimately landed in Louisville to complete a degree in communications at the University of Louisville. During this time, she had also begun to study Buddhism. Her mother had urged her gently over these years to look into the religion, and when Toki finally began to study it in earnest, she felt a shift in her life trajectory.

In the midst of her Buddhist studies, Toki read about the “butterfly effect” in a Buddhist magazine. Simply put, the article discussed how one person’s energy could be infectious and affect the world around him. Toki determined that by balancing her own life and pushing positive “happy” intentions outward, she could contribute to making the world a better place. It ignited a deeper self-worth and respect, and a desire to spread that to others. It still wasn’t clear how she would project her renewed energy, but her intentions were set, and she firmly believed this was the path she would follow. Her interest in communications began to wane, and she became a committed Nichiren Buddhist.

THE FIRST YEARS OF MAIDO

Maido Essential Japanese, an izakaya (a Japanese bar with food), wasn’t an immediate hit in its Clifton neighborhood. If you visit Japan, you’ll find a range of izakayas — from the traditional and classic to more modern varieties with fusion cocktails and an update on standard cuisine. All feature plenty of drink options and a large menu of small plates. Maido was somewhere in between, boasting a modern interior, a craft beer list, a sake menu, sushi and small tapas-sized servings of traditional Japanese cuisine.

“It was a lot of struggle,” Toki remembers. Maido opened without a sign, credit card machine or liquor license because she had run out of money. Business was very slow. People complained it wasn’t their understanding of what Japanese food was, and that portions were too small. Former Maido and Dragon King’s Daughter employee Brooks “Jojo” Hocog recalls how, initially, all orders were taken and delivered to the kitchen by hand. During busier evenings, things could get a little messy.

Concurrently, Toki’s marriage and finances struggled, and her relationship with her father continued to be estranged. She sought strength in her Buddhist practice.

“I might look like I was in trouble. But I knew I was going to prove everyone wrong,” she says. “I am going to make it happen. I am going to be successful because I have gohonzon(devotion and commitment to Buddhist practice). This was a conviction of my practice. I knew I had to struggle so that I can show actual proof of my practice.

“Because I had to spend some days without power, almost kicked out of an apartment and had to quit smoking because I could not afford it, I made stronger connection with sensei (teacher). I can say, ‘Thank you, sensei, for this opportunity to be super poor. I did not have money, but I had hope. I was building fortune in my life. I felt like nobody was on my side, but at the same time, I felt strong inside.”

While she credits many supporters who urged her on in the darkest of times, Toki reached deep into her faith to put her situation into a different perspective. She believed in the value of her struggle and was determined to persevere. Ultimately, she refused to change her restaurant concept. In the morning and night, she chanted and prayed for everyone’s happiness. She prayed that her staff would be able to make a reasonable living, for her restaurant to survive, and that her customers would get good energy from the food — and that energy would spread out to the community.

“Over time, I came to realize that many were regulars and loyal fans of Toki’s food — and deservedly so,” says Hocog, a witness to Maido’s evolution. “In the kitchen, Toki was a perfectionist. She taught me on slow days how to roll sushi and what differentiated her technique from others. She was almost devout in her preparation of the rice and su. Very skilled with the knife, and it was evident that her slicing technique had been crafted over the course of many years. Sushi was and still is her art. She once told me it made her really happy to cook for people, almost as though cooking was her way of contributing joy to the world.”

Toki’s resolve paid off. Maido began to turn a profit. Five years after opening, she had made enough to open her second restaurant, Dragon King’s Daughter in the Highlands.

BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS

Toki had opened Maido with her then-husband Jim Huie. During their divorce, they tried working with each other for a period, but it proved challenging. Ultimately, she ended up the sole owner of Maido; she sold it to a friend in 2010 so she could focus on Dragon King’s Daughter, called DKD by its loyal regulars.

“This didn’t happen overnight, though, because Toki managed to run both restaurants for a while before going solely with DKD,” Hocog recalls. “I heard through the grapevine that she was opening a new restaurant, and I asked her if she needed any help. She said, ‘Sure,’ and next thing you know, I was helping paint the new place, printing and formatting the menu, and helping hire and train staff. It was really a team of me, Justin Riestra and Camille Pass who helped get the front of house in gear for opening.”

With Maido under new ownership, the divorce finalized and her finances stabilizing, things were seemingly on the upswing. When Toki began to withdraw from Maido, she focused her Buddhist practice on changing the core of her life, rather than being so immersed in her financial and business projects.

Part of this change included fixing her relationship with her father. She reached out and invited her father back to Louisville. He happily accepted and offered to come for a month. “I think two weeks is OK,” Toki responded.

During his visit, Toki and her father continued to have differences. Regardless, she enjoyed her time with him. He had not yet experienced Maido. On the day they planned to eat there, Toki got a call that, again, brought a challenge into her life. Siwon Yu, her friend who had bought the restaurant from her, had ended his life.

HEARTS IN THE RIGHT PLACE

She rushed to Maido and arrived as Yu’s body was being removed. She remembers her father walking around the deserted dining room, looking around at the polished wood and brightly colored walls. Toki grieved for her friend and felt further despair as the restaurant that represented her perseverance began its demise. Her father, who had been skeptical of her success so many years ago, still did not see his daughter’s accomplishment in action.

She recalled that Siwon Yu, while an experienced and capable chef, did not take to the many challenges of managing a restaurant. She knew Yu had been struggling with depression for myriad reasons and had hoped Maido could turn it around for him, the way it had for her.

“I had a hope because it was his restaurant, it would be different,” she says. “I have worked in restaurants and have been unhappy. So I created my own restaurant, the kind of place I wanted to work. I was hoping the same could happen for Siwon. He was OK at the beginning. It didn’t last long.”

When Maido didn’t translate the same way for Yu, Toki fought relentlessly to keep it open. After a brief closure in late 2011, she collected a crew from Dragon King’s Daughter and spent a few weeks redesigning Maido for Yu. She recalls his surprise as they marched in, unpaid, and helped clean and decorate. Toki hosted a soft re-opening in late October 2011 to help jumpstart the business. She offered to manage Maido if Yu would manage the kitchen at DKD. Yu agreed, but on the day they were supposed to switch, he called and canceled.

She didn’t know why, but thought perhaps Yu found it hard and awkward to be around her staff. Toki then sent DKD employee Winston Blake to Maido to help relieve Yu’s stress and create a “happy kitchen.” Blake recalls business was significantly slower at Maido while the environment was more stressful. In the kitchen, there was a partition between the sushi side and hot food, which led to minimal communication between staff. Blake remembers going in many times to an incredibly silent kitchen. From time to time, he was able to inspire some conversation, and it would change the feel of the whole day. However, he didn’t always succeed.

In contrast, Dragon King’s Daughter’s kitchen was a happy place to be. Toki says it was “the happiest kitchen I’ve ever worked in.” Hocog fondly remembers that on the end of the busiest days, Toki would pass out beers to her employees after closing. Her employees credit her management style to the success of DKD. “Toki values hard work, self-efficacy and honesty. If you’re a good person with your heart in the right place — even when your head sometimes isn’t — then Toki will respect you.”

Blake says Toki is even-tempered, efficient and full of energy. “I’ve always loved the atmosphere of wherever Toki is. She’s been a great boss. She’s very good at promoting a good atmosphere.”

Whether she realized it or not, Toki’s butterfly effect was clearly critical to the sustained success of these spaces. While the character of the food naturally changes with a new chef, reviews of Yu’s cooking were mostly good, though some criticized it lacked consistency. Despite the largely unchanged menu and the best efforts from Toki and her staff, Maido struggled to survive. In November 2012, it was finally silenced when Maido closed permanently (due to the passing of Yu).

HAPPINESS THROUGH FOOD

It took a long time before Toki could talk about Maido. Life moved on, but her first restaurant continued to haunt her. She says, to this day, it’s difficult for her to drive by the building. She often takes a detour to avoid it. When she can’t, she will fix her gaze to the opposite side of the street toward the Silver Dollar. Still, she can see the old green sign in her periphery. She says many people still ask her, as it stands vacant, if she will take the place back. Toki wrangles with this question. “I don’t know. I do sometimes wish … maybe … can I take it back? Because everything is still there. I’d rather see it empty than turned into something else. It’s a part of me.”

She is unsure if there would be a purpose to rebuilding this place that housed so much of her growth and path to happiness — or if she should accept its fate and let it fade into the past.

(Following this interview, leasing signage was pulled from Maido’s windows; now, brown butcher paper covers the view into its interior. A new Japanese restaurant is projected to open there in April.)

With the question of Maido’s reopening finally put to rest, fans can mourn its passing and move forward. Toki surely has enough on her plate as Dragon King’s Daughter continues to thrive. She opened a second location in New Albany nearly a year ago, and it has become a fast favorite among the new businesses in the city’s revitalized downtown.

Hocog, now living in San Francisco, shares, “I’m very proud of what she has been able to accomplish and contribute to the city of Louisville, and I hope that anyone who is fortunate to rally behind her realizes they’re working for a truly remarkable lady … I want Toki to come open a DKD in San Francisco and blow these people’s minds away!”

Whether you credit the butterfly effect or just good sense, it’s hard to not be impressed with Toki’s discipline and commitment. Her devotion to her faith and the relationships she cultivated on this road helped her emerge from numerous challenges humble, grateful, determined and, most importantly, happy.

“I have a happy family. My partner and I have nothing to complain about. Beautiful daughter. Good relationship with my parents and brothers. I now have deeper understanding about life, and my faith in the gohonzon is stronger than ever. I am grateful for who I am and what I have. I am very, very happy — happiest ever,” she says. “I take everything that happens to my life with faith and challenged them one by one, patiently following sensei’s lead.The

Charim – Louisville, KY

Charim Korean Restaurant, $$ 4123 Oechsli Ave Louisville, KY 40241


I’ve been hearing bits and pieces about Charim for months and have been dying to try it. The most common complaint I came across was that unlike many popular Korean restaurants, Charim does not have grills at the table. I find this complaint to be similar to folks who think every Japanese restaurant and sushi bar should have a hibachi grill (in case you aren’t aware, the Benihana style dining is an American invention). While Korean BBQ exists in Korea, it’s not the only Korean food. There’s a whole world of Korean eats out there.

Charim’s interior is simple, quiet, and classy. It’s not over the top, the price point is a little higher than other similar establishments for the area.

Food came to the table piping hot. You can see the steam swelling off of it.
We started off with some Mandu, a fried vegetable dumpling served with what seemed to be a chili soy sauce. Of course, we had many different Korean banchan, or side dishes, to accompany our meal.  Our first entree was Bulgogi, grilled marinated beef that was served sizzling on a cast iron plate with bright vegetables and green onion.  The Bulgogi was tender and flavorful and the portions that sat on the hot cast iron plate had the perfect amount of caramelized flavor.  In addition, we ordered the Godeung uh Jorim, a whole mackerel that was stewed with Korean radish, spices, and onion. The rich and oily mackerel’s meat was delicious with the juicy stewed radish which had sucked up so much flavor and spice. We tempered the perfect amount of heat off the chili laden mackerel with a incredibly sticky and chewy brown rice.  It was enough heat to get your blood going but still enjoy the flavors.

My favorite, however, was the Kimchi. Kimchi isn’t rare in this town but Charim’s Kimchi is the Kimchi I dream about. Crunchy and juicy, full of delicate flavor without a strong aroma. Each bite cleaned our palette so we could revisit the other flavors on the table.

The owner and chef was kind enough to visit our table after our meal and take the time to talk to us about the food and ingredients. She explained how, though it was labor intensive and difficult, she made everything by hand and by scratch. Her handmade approach was definitely reflected in our meal.

I want to close by explaining why I think Charim is working it’s way to my favorite Korean haunt. I think the food tastes very fresh with attention to diverse detail. Charim’s food is not only full of delicate, well balanced flavor, but also prepared with care. The owner is lovely to chat with. Our meal ended up feeling like we were a guest in a comfortable home, rather than a restaurant.

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao – Flushing, NY

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao, $, 38-12 Prince St Flushing, NY 11354


I’ve just found out one of my favorite Flushing eateries has closed.

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao was always my first stop when I went to Flushing. They had incredible soup dumplings and food in general.

I took my sister and her boyfriend there when they visited me in New York.

It’s the first place I had a soup dumpling. I didn’t know how to eat them and my partner burned a line down his chin trying. It’s also when I realized black vinegar is glorious.

I came straight off the 7 train and looked for those red awnings. I always came hungry.

We took all our friends there, despite the long and stressful wait for a table. Despite the fact it was cash only.

 

I will mourn you Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao.

Miya’s Sushi – New Haven CT

Originally posted on Yelp on 8/20/2012
Miya’s Sushi $$ 68 Howe St, New Haven, CT 06511

Land of Plenty – Manhattan, NY

Originally posted on Yelp on 8/21/2012

Land of Plenty $$ Chinese 204E 58th St New York, NY 10022


We found Land of Plenty while ambling around Manhattan, randomly peeking into different places. It was cold and the light from within felt warm and pulled us in.

Our server was so engaged with us and excited to discuss their menu. The server really pushed the fish so we obliged, though it’s not normally what we order when we go for Chinese.

We started off with some plump pan fried pork dumplings that weren’t really different from other dumplings we’ve had but were piping hot and delicious with the black vinegar on the side. We then had the pan fried noodles with mixed seafood. After that a plate of steamed fish filet with Asian chili that our server recommended made it’s way to our table.

We are so freaking glad the server pushed the fish. It was so delicious. Tender and meaty but mild in flavor that the spices sung in unison with the meat. Everything was seasoned perfectly. Plenty of favor without the gut bomb of thick over sweetened sauces.

Our faces warmed, and we started to feel a little giddy. We left plump and happy. Truly it was plenty.

I recommend this place absolutely if you want to step up your Chinese food. Get the fish!!

Welcome

Welcome to Colette Eats! I’m not sure how you found me, but I’m happy you’re here.

This page has transformed several times. I used to blog here about food. Eventually I realized my writings were rather boring or inaccessible. I also found I really enjoyed sharing those thoughts in person with people over food rather than writing them down alone at my desk. I didn’t really keep up with it.

I have also worked briefly for a few places as a freelance food writer and am asked often if I ever plan to return. I actually found writing about food formally a little difficult. We are in the age of top ten lists touting the best pizza by the slice or beer selection. I find these so curious because if you are basing it just on taste- they experience feels so relative to the eater. While there are some obvious things you want to avoid, we all develop our appetites differently.

So I’m going to keep Colette Eats simple. The #1 thing I’m asked is where to go to eat. When I’m asked that, I usually follow up with a billion questions. To me, eating isn’t just about where the best burger is. It’s about what you like your burger to be, who your company is, and what setting you want to be in to sink your teeth into that burger.  Do you need a gluten free bun? a vegan option? a place that serves good cocktails as well?  I love to help find that perfect place for people. People who are searching for not only a good meal, but also a specific atmosphere and vibe. Having food cooked for you and served to you is a god damn gift- so when I eat out, it’s usually for more than just the perfect bite. It’s to connect with others, not only those eating with you but to those preparing the food, those who cultivated it, and those who serve it (not to say I don’t eat solo,  a solo meal is an amazing meditative experience from time to time). I also love to hear from others about their perfect places and why they love them.  The stories that surround our experiences at the table is what I love. Stories of celebration, healing, hardship, adventure, etc. I will work to have stories built into as many of these reviews as possible.

My hope is this page attracts eaters that are like me. My hope is together we build a database of reviews that aren’t heavily based on opinion. Instead, the reviews posted here will strive to provide a holistic look at eateries so you know what you’re getting into, and you can decide for yourself if that’s the experience you wanted. I hope others will add to their stories and reviews or add to other previous reviews.

So if you sound like my people, dig in. If you want to add to this, shoot me a message at coletteeats@gmail.com.*

 

 

*While posts are heavily in NY or KY, I welcome information and stories about any  eateries- all over the world.