From Sendai, Japan to Oakland, California
As Oakland's fast-rising food scene keeps on getting hotter, Hopscotch Restaurant and Bar is creating its own fire. Being a yonsei, or a fourth-generation Japanese American, Chef Kyle Itani uses his multicultural background and diverse culinary experience for his retro diner known for Japanese-inspired American comfort food. Hopscotch brings together East and West with dishes like soba pappardelle and mascarpone with a jidori egg. A short stint living firsthand in Japan allowed Chef Kyle to learn about the food and traditions of his ancestors and to study the finer points of Japanese cuisine, including the handling of fish and a respect for ingredients and seasonality. In this episode of LUCKYINSIDER, we delve into the mind of one of Oakland's hottest culinary stars:
LUCKYRICE: You grew up around food and fresh produce; your father was an avid gardener and your grandparents were farmers. How did this influence you becoming a chef and your menu at Hopscotch?
Kyle Itani: Being around homegrown produce, whether at my parent's house or my grandparent's house, has engrained into me what fruits and vegetables should actually taste like. Snapping into a snap pea from the vine, biting into a cherry tomato that bursts with sun warmed juices, and on a hot summer day, experiencing why the saying "cool as a cucumber" exists, has shaped my culinary philosophy. LUCKYRICE: You're in Oakland, the heart of the local sustainable seasonal farm-to-table movement - is that essential to your cooking or is it in fact restrictive?
Kyle: I just cook what tastes the best and cooking in season is the easiest way to achieve that. The best part for me is taking those seasonal ingredients and highlighting them with unique flavor combinations and ingredients specific to Japanese and Asian pantries.
LUCKYRICE: You're half Japanese - what drove you to combine your various culinary heritages?
Kyle: It really started out as cooking comfort food in college: what reminded me of home or what satisfied more than just my hunger. Once I started learning about the different ingredients, I branched out to technique and with that came historical perspective. All those things combined gave me a better understanding of who I am and where I came from.
LUCKYRICE: There's a legacy of Westernized Japanese cuisine (Yoshoku) - has that influenced your menu at Hopscotch?
Kyle: To me, Yoshoku is the opposite. More like Japanified western food. When I'm in Japan I love eating that stuff. Not really because it is delicious, but more because it is fun. "Why put those things together?" is always running through my head when I see them. I don't take inspiration from those dishes to Hopscotch but I do like experiencing them. My favorites are Uni or Mentaiko Pasta, Yaki Soba Pan, and omu-rice.
LUCKYRICE: Why Oakland and what differentiates Oakland's food scene from SF? Would you compare it to Brooklyn vs. Manhattan?
Kyle: "Why Oakland" is easy because it is affordable to open a restaurant with very little investors. At least it was 3 years ago. What differentiates the food scene is the clientele. The cooks are all the same. Hell, half of the ones who work in San Francisco live in Oakland. As far as Oakland vs. SF and Brooklyn vs. Manhattan, I can see similarities but I haven't spent enough time in NY to really say for sure what those are.
LUCKYRICE: Traditionally, Japanese cuisine is fairly light whereas its American counterpart is considered to be quite heavy. The menu at Hopscotch features dishes like buttermilk fried chicken and kimchi fried rice with braised pork belly - have you found it difficult to find a balance between these two cuisines without one overpowering the other?
Kyle: Hopscotch strikes the balance by giving the consumer their options. You can indulge when you come in and order Dirty Farro, Fried Chicken, and finish with Butterscotch Cream Donuts. Or you can have the Wok-tossed Greens and Mushrooms, Manila Clam Risotto with Smoked Eggplant, and finish with an assortment of seasonal sorbets. Throw in some oysters either way and you've got one hell of a meal. It really is the diner's choice, but even the indulgences are balanced with proper acid and salt. LUCKYRICE: What's next?
Kyle: I'm continuing my self-heritage exploration in a new setting and focusing on ramen. Itani Ramen will be a chance for me to dive deeper into exploring Japanese regional food. My intention is to offer an experience similar to Japan where one can drop in and grab a quick, wholesome, tasty meal and be on their way. I'm most excited to continue to populate the Bay Area ramen scene, but to do it with my particular ethos on what ramen should be: quick, delicious, inexpensive, and really, really fun.