Chef Taro Kobayashi dances to funk music and loudly banters with customers while slicing raw fish, shaping rice and rushing between the sushi bar, kitchen and dining area at his new restaurant, Akira, which opened two weeks ago.
Instead of an a la carte menu, Kobayashi only offers the chef’s choice each night, which he said he prefers because he knows what tastes best and what he wants to cook. Patrons choose between the omnivore, pescatarian and vegetarian options, and Kobayashi does the rest. The dishes are changed constantly. Customers dining at the same time can get very different meals; there is an element of surprise.
Akira uses the best ingredients available, and it shows in their food: carefully crafted courses of sushi and hot plates that are beautiful and delicious. The quality of the food also shows in the prices. A meal costs $35 to $75 per person, depending on the number of courses.
But, Kobayashi said that he wants his food to be accessible; building connections with people is his main goal, not making money.
He started at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy after a troubled past. He then worked as a dishwasher for a couple years and took any cooking positions he could get. But, he found his passion when he pretended he knew how to make sushi to get a job at a sushi bar.
Kobayashi said he immediately loved making sushi because it is really hard — and he likes a challenge. He knew he wanted to be a sushi chef after just a few days of work. He still loves the craft and wants to continue to get better.
“Everything is irrelevant before sushi,” Kobayashi said.
He attributes all of the success he’s achieved to hard work. He worked 18 hours every day when he started out, only stopping to sleep on a couple sacks of rice in the kitchen for a few hours.
During Kobayashi’s time at Mame, his old restaurant that closed last year, he provided great food and became friends with many customers. So, when it came time to open Akira, some of his previous patrons were willing to help him financially by paying for the building and equipment for the restaurant.
“This restaurant is a community-built restaurant,” he said.
Mame was a space where people helped each other. Customers would sometimes leave extra money on their bill for future diners who could not afford their meals. And, Kobayashi once donated a month’s worth of the sushi bar’s tips to the victim of a hit-and-run, to help pay for his hospital bills.
Although he makes expensive food now, and knows many people glorify chefs, Kobayashi insists cooking is a basic thing. He said it is challenging, but all someone has to do is work hard to learn.
“It’s like a peasant job, anybody can do this shit. Any crackhead, drug addict, con, whatever,” he said. “On my end, we welcome them all.”
Now that he is a successful chef, Kobayashi is trying to give back to people. “We don’t charge homeless people money,” he said. “Everybody has been told that if you’re hungry, come knock on our door at the end of the night and we’ll give you whatever we can.”
Many people don’t have shelter in Eugene, especially in the Whiteaker neighborhood where Mame was located. So, many of the locals would eat at the restaurant. People haven’t yet found out about this practice at Akira, but Kobayashi hopes they do.
Before anything else, he sees his restaurant as a place to connect with people. Secondly, as a place to make money.
“We say positive community, not business,” Kobayashi said. “I like being part of a community.”