If you work in the RTP Triangle, you probably know Akashi, a Japanese restaurant on 54 near 55, a two square mile area that’s home to more than twenty restaurants competing for the RTP lunch trade. Andy and Adeline Chen are the proprietors and their family-run restaurant has been successful in what may be the toughest and most demanding niche in the restaurant industry.
It happens that back in the 60’s and 70’s my father had a Chinese-American restaurant in downtown Sacramento that catered to state workers during their lunch break. It may be one of the reasons that Akashi is my 87 year old mother’s favorite restaurant, though the other reason is that after my father passed, my mother was married to a Japanese-American man for 28 years. Akashi’s food reminds her of the everyday Japanese food my stepfather and his friends used to enjoy.
MF: When my family first discovered your restaurant, our first reaction was that we were so happy to find a Japanese restaurant in the Triangle where the food was actually Japanese. So many of the Asian restaurants here seem to be pan-Asian, as in Thai restaurants serving sushi and Chinese restaurants with pad thai and pho on the menu.
Adeline: We’re actually both from Taiwan originally.
( A large percentage of American sushi restaurants are Korean. Often like Michael Lee’s M Sushi in Raleigh and Durham, they’re first rate. Sushi in the U.S. bears some similarity to east coast coffee shops, diners, and Italian restaurants often being owned by Greek immigrants; there will be little hints like moussaka being on the menu next to hamburgers, chef’s salads, and apple pie or maybe a stray picture of the Acropolis, but you sometimes have no idea where the owner grew up. America gets richer by absorbing various customs, flavors, and textures. Pizza, falafel, hot dogs, spaghetti, chili, and teriyaki all became standard “American food.” In the last ten years, sushi, something that once seemed quintessentially Japanese, has become an American fixture, especially as part of the dating ritual.)
MF: So Andy, how did you learn to make sushi and why does it seem so Japanese?
Andy: When I came to North Carolina in 2002, I spoke no English at all. My first job was as a dishwasher/busboy at a Japanese steakhouse, Kurama. Adaline worked there as a cashier. They liked me and decided to train me as a sushi chef. The chef there is Japanese and very well known; he taught me traditional techniques. We’re still very good friends.
I also think that when you try to do other types of cuisines, the quality can suffer. We try to stick to what we do well.
MF: I’ve noticed that you get Japanese customers… How long have you had Akashi?
Andy: The original owners of Kurama had been very good to us (Adaline and members of her family had worked there as well), but they sold to another family. About three years ago, our family heard that the previous owners of Akashi were interested in selling. Our family decided to start on our dream of having our own place.
MF: So, you didn’t name the restaurant.
Andy: It’s been Akashi for many years. The prior owners were Vietnamese. There are a few places in Japan called “Akashi”, including a city, a castle, a bridge, and even a sumo wrestler. We’re not sure which Akashi our restaurant was named for.
MF: I’ve noticed that the wait staff in particular is very invested: they always greet customers warmly, they’re very attentive, and they’re efficient. Are some of the staff family?
Adeline: Yes, my mother and sister help wait tables and my uncle works here too. Some of the others worked for the previous owners.
MF: Andy, you mentioned that you came to the U.S. on December 24, 2002. What did you do in Taiwan.
Andy: I worked for the gas company. I’d always loved cooking though. One of my relatives had a commercial fishing boat and at sixteen years old, I was the one who did the cooking on the boat.
MF: So, you really know fresh fish.
Andy: Sushi is very popular in Taiwan. I still miss a lot of the food there. (Taiwan was a Japanese colony for many years until the end of World War 2).
Adeline: He’s fanatical about our fish being fresh. He’s constantly checking it.
Andy: Japanese food, especially sushi, is rooted in simplicity. It starts with the quality and freshness of the ingredients. The philosophy is that chef does not transform food, the chef brings out its special qualities.
MF: And is your family ethnically Chinese or Taiwanese?
Andy: My family is Taiwanese. (During the Chinese Civil War, large numbers of mainland or Han Chinese emigrated to Taiwan and transformed it into the Republic of China, somewhat similar to Ashkenazy Jews emigrating to Palestine as it became Israel. There was a significant indigenous population that was initially disenfranchised. Some call the February 28 Incident of 1945 Taiwan’s version of Tiananmen, though its effects on the indigenous Taiwanese may have been more extreme and longer lasting. Taiwanese couldn’t speak about 2/28 publicly until about 1990. The Republic of China is currently about 91% Han Chinese).
Adeline: My family is from Zhejiang Province originally. They came to Taiwan and moved to the United States when I was about 15.
MF: How did you meet?
Adeline: I was visiting Taiwan one summer and we were introduced by a mutual friend. We fell in love.
MF: And you decided to make your future here.
Adeline: My parents had lived in America for a while, but in a few different places.
Andy: I got here on Christmas Eve of 2002.
MF: I take it that it worked out well.
Andy: We have two sons who are 15 and 6.
MF: Do they speak Chinese?
Adeline: They’re learning Mandarin.
MF: Have either of you ever been to the mainland?
Adeline and Andy: No.
MF: How do you see yourselves?
Andy: I think of myself as half-Taiwanese and half-American.
Adeline: I see myself as Taiwanese. We used to go back once a year, but running Akashi has made that harder to do.
MF: I have to ask, “Do you watch Fresh Off the Boat” at all? (sitcom loosely based on Eddie Huang’s memoir about growing up Taiwanese in Orlando in the 90’s)
Adeline: Yes, it’s pretty funny. Things like not running the dishwasher in order to save money are pretty familiar.
MF: So who cooks at home?
Adeline: We both do. It’s a combination of Chinese and American. Andy doesn’t feel it’s a meal unless there’s rice. We’ll do turkey at Thanksgiving, but it’s a mix of customs. We give presents at Christmas and money at Chinese New Year’s.
MF: Lucky kids :}
Adeline: Our older son loves going back to Taiwan for the food. He loves things like Taiwanese street noodles.
Andy: I miss family and friends most, but I also miss the fresh seafood, the roast duck, and the stinky tofu. (Adaline nods her head in agreement)
MF: Back to Akashi a little, my mother loves your tempura. I know one of the secrets is having a fryer that can get hot enough to get the texture right.
Andy: We have a good fryer, but it’s also a matter of using high quality batter. We don’t compromise on the batter and take care to keep the temperature constant.
MF: I remember my father struggling with some of those issues. Lunch places have to meet a price point, because so much of the business is people who won’t pay more than $13 for lunch (in my dad’s day, it was $5) and who want to get in and out in under 45 minutes.
Andy: It can be very tough. Last year, the price of avocados and beef went up a bunch. You have to make some tough choices. One time, the price of eel tripled. Even the price of good nori (the seaweed used to wrap sushi) can be a bigger deal than you’d think. We try very hard to stick with quality.
MF: Dad used to say that anyone can make good food on an unlimited budget; the challenge is doing it on a budget and with a quick turnaround. Given how busy it can get here, you seem to have done that.
Andy: We’re proud to say that we’ve doubled the amount of business. We’re up to 30 pounds of fresh tuna a week and five to six whole Scottish salmon. (inventory management is critical for any restaurant, but for Japanese food a restaurant’s success demands that it be done with extreme precision)
MF: Are there any dishes, you are especially proud of?
Andy: I love getting creative with special sushi orders, rolls, and platters. I also like doing seafood salads. Of the straight off the menu items, I recommend our spicy tuna roll, no mayonnaise. (while mayonnaise is common in American-influenced sushi rolls, it’s controversial for traditional maki sushi: spicy mayonnaise can cover over a lack of freshness, sort of like ketchup on steak)
MF: We order your spicy tuna roll frequently…Have there been any surprises with the restaurant?
Andy: I wouldn’t call them surprises, but we had to learn things like ordering, dealing with the city, and hiring and firing on our own. Getting it right is also very time consuming. I don’t get to spend as much time with the boys as I’d like, because I only have Sunday off. I also used to play golf, but now I just have enough time to go to the gym.
MF: So, what was your low score?
MF: When the two of you do get to go out to eat, where do you go?
Adeline: It’s usually for Chinese food.
MF: It’s interesting that your family is ethnically Chinese, but they’ve mostly worked in Japanese restaurants.
Adeline: The culture of the restaurants are different; it’s a little like the difference between stir fry and sushi. Things tend to stay simpler in Japanese restaurants. Our family likes simple.
MF: Where do you see yourselves in a few years?
Andy and Adeline: Some day, we hope to have four Akashis.