Katsuji Tanabe is the onion of kosher chefs– every time you think you've figured him out, you find there;'s a whole other layer.
Tonight Katsuji held a party at the Mexican Consulate near downtown Los Angeles to screen the episode of the Food Network show, “Chopped!” on which he appears as a contestant.
I first met Katsuji when he was the chef at the kosher steakhouse Shilo on Pico. He stood out. Katsuji grew up in Mexico to Japanese and Mexican parents. He came to America at age 19 with no money, and worked his way into some of the finest restaurants. He isn't Jewish, but he was intrigued by the challenge of cooking kosher. It was clear he was cooking at a level that went unappreciated by many patrons. Katsuji was working up hand-chopped aged burgers with cashew milk blue cheese and authentic Baja style tacos with homemade habenero salsa. The clientele just wanted well-done steak.
Katsuji moved on to open his own place, Mexikosher, also on Pico, where those homemade salsas are center stage. It's inexpensive, delicious, and maybe the most inadvertantly healthy Mexican food in LA– no cheese, sour cream, lard. “99 percent of Mexican restaurants aren't kosher,” is the place's motto. “We are the 1 percent. Occupy Mexikosher.”
Katsuji's first on screen appearance on a food show was in a web series on jewishjournal.com, The Chosen Dish. He made Thai Tuna Tempura Matzoh Balls. The Food Ntework heard of him and made him a contestant on “Chopped.”
About 60 friends, family and colleagues gathered in a function room at the Consulate to watch the show with him. Katsuji was his ebullient self– dressed in fancier street clothes, his hair slicked back, he rushed to hug people and introduce friends to one another. The crowd was as eclectric as the chef. I met an attorney named Ottavio Olivas who moonlighted as the creator/chef of a pop-up called Ceviche Project. I met a producer from the Travel Channel who worked with Katsuji on his next top secret TV project. I met a guy who plays hockey with Katsuji.
“Oh, he's crazy competitive,” the guy said. “He plays in a league, like four times a week.”
Before the show started we ate hors d'oeuvres, including one based on something Katsuji invented for the show– schwarma mole. A mixologist poured a drink of tequila, pear liquor, ginger liquor, lime, soda and mint, with– as a nod to Mexikosher– a Manischewitz floater. There was also lots of beer– Katsuji likes to party.
Once we sat to watch the show, the Mexican Japanese Christian kosher cooking hockey playing chef's competitive streak really became apparent.
He trash-talked his opponents (“His plate looks like dog food.”). He got in their heads. (“I'm crazy enough to open a Mexican kosher restaurant, what can't I do?”) He talked smack. (“You look tired,” he said to one chef. “You should just quit.”)
But what he really did was cook like a demon. The gimmick of “Chopped!” is you have to make three different courses from three different sets of bizarre ingredients. You have 10 seconds once the ingredients are revelaed to start cooking, and 20 minutes to cook. The completed food sits for 45 minutes before the three-judge panel tastes it. The day goes from 5:30 am – 11 pm.
“They have you meet at a Starbucks in the morning. They want to get you hyped,” said Katsuji. Beforehand a friend had tipped him off that he should just drink water all day, no coffee. He said that helped him stay calm as the other chefs got more and more wired.
The results were three inventive dishes that drew less on his kosher knowledge and more on his mad Mexican cooking skills. If the hockey game in handy it was in being able to survive and long slog of competitition.
And when the onscreen announcer declared Katsuji the winner, the crowd in the Consulate erupted in applause. Katsuji stood in front of the screen, cradling his toddler daughter, beaming.
“Do you think you'll get first place?” the TV announcer had asked the chef.
“Is there anything else?” he asked right back.