The Zen Master of Beef

Totoraku has no Web site. The name on the sign belongs to a place that closed years ago. Reservations? More power to you because, unless you know Kaz, the chef-owner, or someone who does, you’re not getting in
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Kaz Oyama in his cramped kitchen. Photograph by Misha Gravenor.

Oyama was born in 1957 in Kanazawa, the second-largest city in Japan to escape the bombing during World War II. It is a town where centuries-old architecture and Japanese tradition, culinary and otherwise, have survived more or less intact. At home he learned to cook from his mother and grandmother (“First time I made a sushi plate, I was 12,” he says). Oyama’s father—a restaurant wholesaler—and paternal grandfather, who was a charismatic politician and wheeler-dealer, showed him how to maximize a night dining out on the town.

“There were restaurants most people knew and restaurants my family knew,” Oyama says. Mostly they were private clubs. “No sign, no reservation,” he says, “but incredible omotenashi”—hospitality. Oyama speaks with pride about venturing along on these outings. “As a kid, it was very interesting. A different world. You would open a door and it was like a jack-in-the-box. Performers, geishas, gambling, kaiseki meals. You were part of something exciting, something fascinating. It was the happiest life.” Oyama remembers his father plunking down more than $3,000 for dinner with six colleagues. “This was 1967,” he says. “At that time you could buy a nice car for that. It made me want to become a chef.”

Oyama came to Los Angeles in 1976 on a student visa and decided to stay. “I was a little punk and drank too much and needed a job,” he says, amused. A friend of his father’s got him work preparing kaiseki meals for first-class passengers on Japan Airlines, which led to employment on the kaiseki team at Kawafuku, the landmark Little Tokyo restaurant, since closed, that introduced the concept of the sushi bar to the United States. Oyama moved his way up from steaming rice and prepping vegetables to making sauces and tempura for 300 customers a night. On the side he learned about wine from watching what labels impressed the top clientele. “This was a place where the Japanese prime minister would eat when he came to town,” he says. “You had to understand how to serve at the highest level.”

In the 1980s, Oyama traveled back and forth between Japan and L.A. He got married, had a son, and did the yeoman work of slicing California rolls for packs of drunken roommates on Sawtelle. But the memory of those unmarked eateries of his youth lingered. Oyama reinvented the Teriyaki House Pico as Totoraku to bring some of that magic to Los Angeles.

“I like the idea, as in geisha houses, of selecting your own customers,” he says. “No reservations. Instead, invitations. No menus. Instead, surprise people each night with your talent and skill. I didn’t know if it would work in Los Angeles, but I didn’t care. I could not resist trying. Many people say, ‘Are you crazy?’ Maybe I am crazy, but it’s the only way.”

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Some of the most intriguing Japanese cultural experiences in Los Angeles are out of sight. Sequestered at the sleepy end of Centinela Boulevard near Playa del Rey, the Venice Japanese Community Center has been quietly celebrating Japanese heritage since 1921 with classes on shodo calligraphy, ikebana flower arranging, taiko drumming, sumi-e ink painting, and classical odori dance. The center supports a Boy Scout troop, a ballroom dancing association, a koto club, and a bonsai gardening club. Founded by Japanese Americans, the Venice Fishing Club trolled the waters of Santa Monica Bay, disbanding in 2006 with one final Fishing Club Chicken Wing fund-raiser.

Across Southern California more than 10,000 children, teenagers, and adults play in Japanese American basketball leagues, some dating back to the 1930s. A few, like the Yonsei Basketball Association, have strict entry requirements (students must maintain high grades and participate in cultural activities) and are as much about instilling traditional Japanese values as they are about three-point jump shots.


This feature was originally published in the March 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine.

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