- LAUREN LEYSHON THOMAS
This Charming Man
CHEZ TAKA IS ABOUT PEOPLE AND CONVERSATION. THE INCREDIBLE FOOD IS JUST PART OF THE CHARM.
On a balmy evening, Takayoshi Kawai greets the steady flow of diners entering his restaurant with a firm handshake and infectious laugh. Tucked away in a sidestreet between white-walled embassies, this is Chez Taka and you are, emphatically, his guest. We’re captivated by the colors and smells from the bustling open-plan kitchen on the ground floor, two first-timers to the restaurant. Across the kitchen counter, head chef and owner Takayoshi—Taka for short—beams back at us, chatting warmly about his passion for food and people.
Taka built his restaurant around the concept of breaking down the formal walls of French dining. For him, diners should feel completely comfortable even while receiving service of unparalleled quality. It’s this unpretentious atmosphere, coupled with an exquisite culinary experience, that has made Chez Taka a huge hit with international customers, as well as locals keen to shake off Japanese politesse for the night.
As we made our way through the omakase (recommended) course, Taka stepped into our dining room to personally serve us the Cioppino fish stew, a staple of his San Francisco roots where he was a chef at Masa’s—one of the city’s most renowned French restaurants—for almost 10 years. Regaling us with his fascinating resume (having also served Queen Elizabeth ii), we weren’t surprised when he told us that he had once been a competitor on the tv cooking show Iron Chef.
With customers still recognizing him for his tv role some twenty-four years later, the endearing combination of fame and familiarity he has with his clientele clearly endures. "I didn’t mean to come back to Japan, but I decided to compete [in Iron Chef ] here. It was a really fun time!" leaving us to dig into the signature dish in the wake of his laughter.
It was only when we’d noticed the last of the diners leaving, each personally thanked by the chef, that we’d realized we’d spent more time at Taka’s place than we’d intended— the mark of a true host and one of the most heartwarming dining experiences in the city.