Interview with Jimmy Niwa, June 9, 2022

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Interview with Jimmy Niwa, June 9, 2022


Asian Americans
Cooking, American
Cooking, Japanese







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Betsy Brody


Jimmy Niwa

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5.4 Interview with Jimmy Niwa, June 9, 2022 2021oh002_di_016 00:49:35 ohdi Digging In di001 How Food, Culture, and Class Shaped Asian Dallas Becoming Texans, Becoming Americans This project is possible thanks to the support of a Mellon/ACLS Community College Faculty Fellowship. Asian Americans Texas--History Cooking, American Cooking, Japanese Jimmy Niwa Betsy Brody wav oh_dig_audio_niwa_jimmy_20220609.wav 1:|14(12)|32(5)|51(3)|69(7)|87(12)|101(11)|113(8)|130(3)|144(8)|157(14)|173(17)|189(4)|202(2)|213(5)|223(9)|233(3)|243(4)|251(7)|261(6)|273(6)|285(13)|299(3)|307(4)|319(2)|330(7)|340(12)|353(4)|365(3)|377(2)|386(7)|399(4)|411(5)|425(3)|436(13)|447(2)|458(11)|468(12)|480(2)|489(9)|502(7)|513(1)|520(11)|529(12)|542(3)|554(1)|565(9)|578(6)|588(4)|598(10) 0 Aviary audio 0 Introduction Asian Americans ; Cooking, American ; Cooking, Japanese ; Texas--History 32 Moving from California to Texas 117 Culinary school in California and teaching in Japan culinary school ; Japan ; yaki niku 170 Growing up in Orange County, California/Japanese comfort foods California ; comfort foods 265 Opening Niwa's Japanese Barbecue Deep Ellum ; Japanese ; Niwa Japanese Barbecue ; restaurants ; yaki niku 32.78907311570053, -96.78091741964128 17 375 Technical aspects of setting up a yakiniku restaurant permit ; yaki niku 516 Customer experience at Niwa Japanese Barbecue customers ; yaki niku 568 Changes in Dallas Dallas ; Deep Ellum ; Japanese ; Japanese restaurants ; Niwa Japanese Barbecue 698 Flavors at Niwa Japanese Barbecue Asian flavors ; barbecue ; flavor ; fried chicken ; fusion ; Niwa Japanese Barbecue ; pickles ; sushi ; trends ; Wagyu ; yaki niku 829 Thoughts on authenticity Americanized ; authentic ; authenticity ; burrito ; California roll ; crab ; Japanese ; pizza ; Wagyu ; western palate 1198 Impact of local sourcing on evolution of foods California roll ; educate ; education ; pizza ; sushi 1308 Reflections on impact of French culinary training French ; technique ; techniques 1413 Fusion cuisine and culture cultures ; fusion 1492 Role of food in transmitting culture culture ; diversity ; ethnic food ; food ; immigrant ; Japanese ; Japanese food 1622 Decision to go to culinary school cooking ; culinary school 1705 Asian food in DFW Asian restaurant ; Dallas ; Deep Ellum ; Monkey King ; noodles ; poke ; trends ; western palate 1801 Learning about barbecue and Asian food in DFW Asian flavors ; Asian food ; Asian restaurant ; barbecue ; flavor ; palate ; photography ; Yelp 1921 Customers customers ; Deep Ellum ; diversity 1968 Yelp reviews/Social Media negative reviews ; reviews ; social media ; star ; Yelp 2124 Thoughts about professional restaurant reviewers educate ; negative reviews ; restaurant reviewer ; restaurant reviews ; Yelp 2379 Expansion and growth COVID ; expansion ; growth ; Plano 2424 Asian food community in Dallas Asian community ; Asian Grub in DFDub ; Asian Night Market ; Asian restaurant ; Bomb Factory 2616 Impact of weather and COVID on business challenge ; challenges ; cooking kits ; COVID ; Deep Ellum ; electricity ; ice storm ; neighborhood ; pivot ; power outages ; shutdown ; Texas grid ; tornado ; weather 2750 Celebrities celebrities 2797 Relationships with neighbors in Deep Ellum Deep Ellum ; neighborhood ; neighbors 2850 Reflections and lessons on the food industry appreciation ; chefs ; food ; industry |00:00:04| Brody This is Betsy Brody. Today is June 9th, 2022. I am interviewing for the first time Mr. Jimmy Niwa. This interview is taking place in my home office in Richardson, Texas. This interview is possible thanks to the support of a Mellon/ACLS Community College Faculty Fellowship and is part of the project entitled &quot ; Digging In: How Food, Culture, and Class Shape the Story of Asian Dallas.&quot ; Thank you so much for sitting for this interview. Let&#039 ; s start out just by talking about where and when were you born? |00:00:36| Niwa Absolutely. I was born in Michigan, small city Cassidy in 1981. |00:00:47| Brody What brought you to Texas? |00:00:50| Niwa I was living in Los Angeles most of my life. And I moved to Japan for a couple of years, over two years. And upon returning to California, my business partner and I decided to open a restaurant. And Texas was one of the three choices. |00:01:11| Brody What were the other two? |00:01:12| Niwa Colorado. The Denver, Colorado area. And then Portland/Seattle area. |00:01:17| Brody What drew you to Texas? |00:01:20| Niwa Oh, I guess quite a few things. One was the business, small business benefits here. California is a very difficult state to do small business in. And then also the diversity, the growing diversity I think in Texas. But also at that time, we felt like there was a lot of missing food that we would love to bring out here. And yaki niku or Japanese barbecue was one of them. |00:01:57| Brody Tell me about your time in Japan. What were you doing there? |00:02:00| Niwa I was teaching at a culinary school in Yokkaichi which is kind of a smaller city in Mie ken, which Mie as the prefecture. I was teaching at a culinary school there doing mostly Western style cooking for about two years. |00:02:23| Brody So you already had a culinary background at that point? |00:02:27| Niwa Yes. And I did go to culinary school in California, at Le Cordon Bleu. |00:02:34| Brody What did you specialize in? |00:02:36| Niwa The program is French cooking. |00:02:41| Brody But you wanted to...You wanted to do Japanese barbecue? |00:02:45| Niwa Yeah. Just because of my background. My upbringing. |00:02:50| Brody Yeah. Tell me about your upbringing. |00:02:53| Niwa Well, both parents are Japanese, born in Japan, so I&#039 ; m second generation Japanese. You know, when we grew up, it was a lot of...I grew up with a very diverse community in school all the way from elementary through high school. I think Asians were still less than ten to fifteen percent. But it was a very diverse school. |00:03:19| Brody In Los Angeles? |00:03:20| Niwa Yeah, I was actually in Orange County. |00:03:27| Brody So did you eat a lot of barbecue when you were growing up? |00:03:30| Niwa Not a whole lot. I did eat a lot of Japanese comfort foods, which is what I got me into cooking. But Japanese barbecue was, you know, even then, a treat to go have and there would be quite a drive. At that time, I think there was only a couple in Orange County and then a few in Los Angeles as well. |00:03:53| Brody So how did you learn the ins and outs of doing it? |00:03:57| Niwa By eating it. No. From culinary school, I kind of cooked everything I could, worked wherever I could. I worked in the hotels, I worked at restaurants, kind of wanted to learn it all. My first job in the industry was in an Italian pizza restaurant, so from there, I just wanted to learn as much as I could. |00:04:25| Brody Great. So tell me about your business. |00:04:28| Niwa It&#039 ; s a Japanese barbecue. It&#039 ; s also known as &quot ; yaki niku.&quot ; &quot ; Yaki&quot ; in Japanese translates to grilled and &quot ; niku&quot ; translates to meat. So it&#039 ; s kind of just a literal translation of &quot ; grilled meats.&quot ; . |00:04:43| Brody You mentioned a business partner earlier. Do you? Did that business partner carry over into the current restaurant? |00:04:49| Niwa Yes. Yeah. |00:04:50| Brody Yeah. So what is the name of the restaurant? Where is it located? |00:04:54| Niwa It&#039 ; s Niwa Japanese Barbecue. We&#039 ; re down in Deep Ellum. It&#039 ; s about a 4000, little over 4000 square foot restaurant, about 120 seats. |00:05:07| Brody How did you decide on that location? |00:05:10| Niwa It actually kind of came about...Funny because we were, we were searching all over the place with ta yaki niku style restaurant, there&#039 ; s a lot of penetrations in the ceilings and there&#039 ; s a lot of saw cutting in the ground. And most second generation spaces, there&#039 ; s very little benefit to us. And if anything, it&#039 ; s more of a hassle or a workaround. So we typically want to find a first generation space that also doesn&#039 ; t have anything above us because we need a lot of air conditioning or ventilation. So we had been searching around for quite some time and we got a call from our current landlord, Madison Partners. And Jon Hetzel called us and said, &quot ; We got some information saying you&#039 ; re looking for a space and we think we might have the perfect one for you.&quot ; And that was previously a auto glass repair store. So it wasn&#039 ; t typical for that to turn into a restaurant, but it was perfect because it was just a cold, dark shell. |00:06:15| Brody So walk me through the ins and outs of how you, you know, how you set up a yaki niku restaurant. |00:06:23| Niwa There&#039 ; s a lot of cutting. All the tables, what we use is what&#039 ; s called a downdraft system. Excuse me. So all the tables are, all the grills are built into the table and the downdraft system sucks the air down, and then it drafts up and outside the building. So every table has to connect through this kind of chain of mechanical ducting that goes out of the building. So it&#039 ; s a tedious project. Our general contractor, Southlake, were great. Definitely had some challenges that they had to come across. And, you know, first time building something like that is pretty difficult. |00:07:09| Brody It sounds like it. Were there any challenges, particularly about sourcing the grills and so forth or permits for building that? |00:07:19| Niwa This is pre-COVID, so sourcing the grills was no problem. It did take about three months to get here, but we obviously were building. So it actually came a little bit earlier than we had expected. So we had to store it offsite. Other than that, yeah, it was just more or less finding the right materials. But these systems are kind of complete packages in general. |00:07:46| Brody Great. What about with the city permits and things like that? |00:07:50| Niwa Yeah, we were fine all the way up until our final inspection with the fire inspector, and at the last minute, he thought he might want us to have a what&#039 ; s called the kind of an Ansul system which extinguishes fire with foam. And he thought he may want us to put one into the table that would have kind of a like a hose that looks like a faucet for your kitchen and obviously a huge eyesore for us. So fortunately, we were able to show some documentation for restaurants across the nation that did that that did not need that. There&#039 ; s extinguishing from above through the fire sprinklers and then each unit has their own Ansul system built in. So we&#039 ; re very lucky they didn&#039 ; t require that. |00:08:36| Brody So from a customer perspective, walk me through the customer&#039 ; s experience when they get to your restaurant. |00:08:42| Niwa Sure. For some, it may be a little daunting at first. There&#039 ; s a grill in the middle. Of the table. And half the food that we make comes out from the kitchen. The other half is going to come out raw and ready to cook at the grills. We do provide some times and tags there so everyone knows what kind of meat they&#039 ; re eating and how long it takes to cook. But it&#039 ; s a very interactive process. It&#039 ; s a very fun one. You can kind of eat what you like and it kind of breaks up the monotony of traditional steak, potatoes and a veggie kind of dining. Not that there&#039 ; s anything wrong with it, but this just gets a little more fun and you can really kind of create your own meal. |00:09:28| Brody That sounds fun. What was Dallas like when you got here and when you were trying to establish this restaurant? |00:09:35| Niwa Oh, well it&#039 ; s definitely changed since now. I was one of the few Californians at the time that now I complain about as well. But yeah, I mean traffic was not as bad. The construction was really booming at the time, and it still is, but not as apparent as it was then. Deep Ellum was kind of a risk for us. We had looked through the history of it and it had gone through many ups and downs. But at that time we thought, well, it does look like there&#039 ; s quite a bit of resources being put into this and some efforts. And since then we&#039 ; ve had some challenges, but overall, it&#039 ; s been a very great location for us. |00:10:22| Brody What year was this? |00:10:23| Niwa This was 2015 to 2016. We opened in late 2016. |00:10:31| Brody In terms of other Japanese restaurants or other yaki niku restaurants, or did you have much competition when you got here? |00:10:39| Niwa No, we were the only ones in Dallas. We found out right as we moved here that another big chain out of Japan was franchising a restaurant out here, too. But they were in Addison. So at that time, there was only the two of us. Now there is one more in Dallas, and I think a couple more in the suburbs. |00:11:01| Brody And the other Japanese restaurants that already existed. It&#039 ; s a totally different thing or did you perceive them as being competition? |00:11:10| Niwa Actually, one of them is a company that I used to work with. Before and very popular in Japan. They have, I think, maybe 600 plus locations, maybe 30 or so in the States. Very well run machine, but just a little bit different. We thought we could do a little better as far as quality goes and some of the flavors as well. |00:11:38| Brody Yeah, tell me about the flavors. |00:11:41| Niwa So we you know, we wanted to have as much of the true to nature yaki niku style items, but we also wanted to do a little bit of a twist on some of them. So a few of our dishes are kind of fusion style dishes. We have a Wagyu deviled egg, for example, which we use shiso, which is a mint leaf instead of typically like a parsley in the deviled eggs. And then we top it with a little bit of Wagyu beef and some nori, which is Japanese seaweed, and then shichimi with or togarashi, which is a chili powder. So just kind of our take on a classic deviled egg. |00:12:23| Brody Yeah. That is something that comes up a lot in a lot of the conversations that I&#039 ; m having for this project, the challenge of sort of staying true to the traditional recipes or techniques, but also of adapting to, you know, to the time and place that you&#039 ; re in or the desire to to push the, you know, the recipe forward. What are your thoughts about those balances? |00:12:52| Niwa You know, I think food will and always has been a work in progress and will remain that way forever. I think there&#039 ; s always a surge in certain styles or types of dishes. We see fried chicken here in Dallas. That&#039 ; s that&#039 ; s got a huge revitalization, I guess you can say. You know, sushi has gone through the same kind of cycles. Pickles are another one I think that kind of keep coming about just in different ways, and I think that&#039 ; s going to continue to happen forever because we&#039 ; re also dealing with the same foods and, you know, typically the same ingredients and we just had to find different ways to make them work. So I think we&#039 ; ll see that continuously. |00:13:50| Brody What about that concept of authenticity? Where where do you stand on that? I mean, what you&#039 ; re doing is very, you know, something that&#039 ; s a very traditional Japanese method. What do you think about that? |00:14:03| Niwa The word authenticity is a tough one. I think everyone has a very strong opinion on what that word means. For me, it can go so many different directions. I think what I try to live by is should anyone be offended by this? For example, a burrito was not created in South America. You know, I believe the history of it is from San Diego. So who has the claim to right for that is very questionable. You know, what&#039 ; s an authentic burrito is also a very hard thing to come about. And what&#039 ; s the difference between a burrito and a wrap? You know, these are conversations that I think chefs always have, quite often, mostly out of curiosity. But at the same time, we don&#039 ; t want to necessarily offend anyone. If you say it&#039 ; s authentic, then I think it needs to be very true to nature. Once you take away the key components to what made that dish what it is or you take away from the history of it, I think that&#039 ; s where it can become offensive. Pizza may be another example. Pizza. You don&#039 ; t really...Who really gets the claim to fame for it? It&#039 ; s Italian? I think by nature. But you rarely will see pizza in Italy. And if you do, it&#039 ; s very different than what&#039 ; s here. And if you go to New York, you see New York style pizza. And there&#039 ; s...You know which one&#039 ; s authentic when two of them on the same street next door to each other may be entirely different. So I think it&#039 ; s really a question of what makes us authentic or inauthentic. California rolls are not typically what any Japanese person would call sushi. And that developed from, you know, local ingredients or what was on hand. So should it be considered sushi? I think that&#039 ; s really just, you know, a question of who you&#039 ; re asking. I think the point where it becomes offensive is, you know, typically a California roll will be rice with seaweed and then crab, avocado and cucumber. I think as it developed, masago, which is the small eggs were wrapped on the outside or sesame seed. But I think if you were to take the cucumber and use zucchini and take the crab and use shrimp and call it a California roll, then I think it could be considered offensive. Who would be offended by it? I&#039 ; m not sure, because I don&#039 ; t think many people claim the California roll as theirs. But I think that&#039 ; s really kind of an example of when it becomes offensive, you know, when you&#039 ; re talking about traditional style dishes. Then I think you should really stick to what it is. For example, the deviled eggs, we very clearly wanted to make a Wagyu deviled eggs because we don&#039 ; t want it...Someone to expect something entirely different. And I think that&#039 ; s really what it is is the expectations. We deal with us a lot with Wagyu beef, too. I see the term used everywhere incorrectly. &quot ; Wagyu&quot ; translates literally into &quot ; Japanese cow.&quot ; So if it&#039 ; s not from Japan, it really should not be considered Wagyu. It&#039 ; s kind of semantics, but once it&#039 ; s, once the cattle is no longer in Japan, then it would be an imported Wagyu. So for me, being a second generation Japanese, you know, I&#039 ; m American born. So if someone asked me if I&#039 ; m Japanese, then yes, my ethnicity is Japanese, but I&#039 ; m American. And I kind of think of it on the same lines with beef as well. So there are a lot of American Wagyu or domestic Wagyu products that are being made, which were from the genetics of Japanese Wagyu. But when comparing them side by side, there&#039 ; s really no comparison and really there shouldn&#039 ; t be. Australian Wagyu is getting to the point where it&#039 ; s incredible, very similar to Japanese beef and the beef marbling scale or the grading systems. But even at that point. I think it still should be called Australian Wagyu. And not because Japanese Wagyu is better, but more because that&#039 ; s just what it is. So everyone should be educated in that way and be able to make the comparisons on their own. I think the problem with claiming authenticity when you divert from it so far is that now the expectations are that. So somebody who may have never had or have had Wagyu beef here in the States, that was not true Japanese Wagyu was American Wagyu, if they were to go to Japan and eat Wagyu or have real Japanese Wagyu, they may be genuinely confused. And I think that happens quite often, you know, as foods become Americanized. There&#039 ; s a reason for it because that&#039 ; s where the tastes levels are, those are the sources we have. But I think to claim authenticity is where it becomes a little bit offensive or misleading, I should say. |00:19:58| Brody Thank you. Several people have mentioned that in devising their menu, they&#039 ; re, you know, approaching it, you know, as you just said, from you know, let&#039 ; s call it an accessibility, you know, perspective, what people&#039 ; s palates are, you know, prepared for, ready for. But also, you know, with an idea toward educating customers through the menu about, you know, different things that aren&#039 ; t, you know, aren&#039 ; t the ones that that everybody&#039 ; s heard of. Is that something that you&#039 ; ve considered? |00:20:36| Niwa Yeah. I think it&#039 ; s very difficult to source a 100% ingredients from anywhere outside of the US. So naturally, there&#039 ; s going to be a difference from here to there. The New York pizza again, for example, everyone believes that the pizza dough tastes the way it does because of the water in New York. And I&#039 ; ve seen stories of chefs that are bringing water from New York to make sure that they create the right kind of dough. In any case, I think, yes, sourcing is part of part of the natural evolution of these foods. Going back to California roll, I think it&#039 ; s fair because it was called a &quot ; California roll.&quot ; It didn&#039 ; t, it wasn&#039 ; t, you know, claimed that this is the new sushi or there was nothing offensive I think in that nature. I think when people get offended and say &quot ; California roll is not sushi&quot ; I think the question that has to be asked of &quot ; who said it was?&quot ; you know? And I think that&#039 ; s just the problem there is the education level is that&#039 ; s not sushi by any means. But there&#039 ; s nothing wrong with the California roll. |00:21:49| Brody Your training as a chef and going to culinary school and learning French techniques. How has that informed the rest of your life as a restaurateur? |00:22:02| Niwa Well, this comment might get me hated by many. I think that&#039 ; s actually a perfect example, is... French food typically is very true to nature. The five mother sauces they&#039 ; ve created are still commonly used. Many of the techniques are exactly the same as they have been for hundreds of years. And I think that&#039 ; s something to be appreciated on its own. I think this is also why a lot of French food is either it becomes a fusion style or needs some kind of huge change in it to make it different. You know, we talk about some of the things like a paté or terrines or some of those you typically don&#039 ; t see too much swing away from the original. Like a coq au vin is just... I&#039 ; ve rarely seen a fusion style that&#039 ; s better than the original. But it also makes French food, I think, a little bit stale in that aspect is there is not a whole lot of evolution from there. So I feel as if, you know, what you&#039 ; re getting into when you walk into a good French restaurant is you should know exactly what you&#039 ; re getting. |00:23:34| Brody That concept of fusion is one that&#039 ; s also kind of slippery or controversial. What do you think? What does that word mean to you and how do you think it&#039 ; s best done? |00:23:46| Niwa I think fusion is, can be a great thing and can be a terrible thing. I think if you can understand and you have a history or a clear understanding of both cultures and both foods that you&#039 ; re infusing, or fusing, I should say, not infusing would make it okay and better. I think a lot of times we see that&#039 ; s very controversial is people that have no clue or understanding of the original dishes and then fusing them because there are some similarities and calling it a fusion dish. There are some fusion dishes that are incredible and there&#039 ; s a lot that are terrible. So I don&#039 ; t necessarily think it&#039 ; s about whether fusion food is good or not. I think it&#039 ; s just about the food. |00:24:51| Brody Speaking of food, what role do you think food plays in transmitting culture? |00:24:59| Niwa I think a huge amount. You know, growing up in such a diverse community, I went through a lot of, a lot of what I&#039 ; m sure children of immigrants went through is &quot ; Do I hide this food from my friends and enjoy it on my own time? Or do I bring them in and share this with them? Will they like it? Will they not like it? You know, will they think I&#039 ; m weird?&quot ; You know, Japanese food, I think, is less intense than many other foods out there, but I think that&#039 ; s something that really is something that, you know, is huge into the culture of food and how we how we view it. You know, growing up, many of my friends were very open to it and tried a lot of it. And some of them absolutely hated some things and some of them were absolutely loved it. And I could never gauge why or how it just you know, I think it just happened. |00:26:03| Brody The other way around. Did you growing up in such a diverse area, did you get a chance to try food from other cultures? |00:26:10| Niwa Yes. I had a very terrible relationship with food when I was very young. The dinner table was something I hated because I was always in trouble. I didn&#039 ; t care much about food and I just wanted to play. So I was always in trouble for either not eating all my food or for eating too fast or eating too slow or making a mess or whatnot. So it wasn&#039 ; t until I was probably in high school where I really started to appreciate food and really had an interest for it. And that&#039 ; s where I started cooking a little bit. But I did get the opportunity to eat all kinds of foods, you know, because a lot of my friends were from different areas. |00:27:03| Brody How did you decide to go to culinary school? |00:27:06| Niwa I went to school for mechanical engineering and I did a part time kind of internship. And just a couple of weeks into the internship, I realized, I cannot do this for the rest of my life. I don&#039 ; t think I could sit still. I don&#039 ; t think I could sit at a desk for, you know, eight to ten hours a day. It&#039 ; s just not in my nature. So I decided...At the time I was working at that Italian restaurant while going to school, and so I just focused a little more time and energy there and I kind of moved up very quickly. And, at the time, the owner of the business, we had some issues with some staff that didn&#039 ; t come in and were unable to come in. And so we ended up closing one of the restaurants for a day, and that&#039 ; s where kind of a light bulb hit my mind, thinking if I were to ever own a restaurant, I can&#039 ; t allow that to happen. So I need to understand all of it, every aspect of a restaurant. So that&#039 ; s when I decided to enroll in culinary school. |00:28:25| Brody Interesting. About Asian food in particular, when you arrived in DFW, what was the landscape like as far as Asian restaurants? |00:28:38| Niwa There was a lot of, oh, geez, I&#039 ; m going to say it. There wasn&#039 ; t a whole lot of authentic Japanese restaurants. You know, I think Dallas in general can be a few years behind Los Angeles in the food industry especially. So some of the trends that we were, that I saw when I got here were things that were already happened in Los Angeles. Poke was one of them, I think at the time there was only one. And in Los Angeles, there is, you know, a ton. And so I think it was it was a little bit scarce. The reason why we chose Deep Ellum, too, is actually Monkey King. You know, he was doing Taiwanese beef noodles and he was busy. He was extremely busy. So, in my mind, I thought, well, you know, our food is not that out there. There&#039 ; s nothing that will make people kind of scratch their head. It&#039 ; s just meat grilled on a table in general. So I thought, well, if he has that much success, I don&#039 ; t think ours is a far shot for giving it a chance here in Deep Ellum. |00:30:02| Brody You know, yaki niku is a variant of barbecue. And you came to Texas, which is a barbecue capital. Did you find yourself exploring the barbecue world or the Asian scene or both? |00:30:20| Niwa Both. I ate at every barbecue place I could for about a month. And Asian food wise, I tried as many as I could. But I think really, you know, nowadays photos can tell a lot. So, you know, through Google Earth or Yelp, we were able to kind of see, okay, is this a place that we should try and see if there&#039 ; s, you know, that this is competition or at least what the direction is or what the taste profiles are? |00:31:00| Brody Yeah. Were you trying, in visiting all those restaurants, trying to sort of see, gauge the palate of the diner? |00:31:07| Niwa Yeah. And still to this day, I think, well, now you know, I think of myself as being very Texan as far as taste wise goes. But when I first came out here, my initial reaction was that everything was very salty and still, when we get people from New York or California or from Japan, especially, that come here to eat, that&#039 ; s typically the first response is how&#039 ; s the food is &quot ; Well, and everything here is a little bit salty,&quot ; but for me I don&#039 ; t see that anymore. Maybe because I&#039 ; ve been here for so long, but yeah, that was definitely something that I had to learn really quickly was, you know, I think Texans love flavor so if the flavor is not there and right in your face, it may be considered a little bit bland. |00:32:02| Brody Who are your customers and how do they find you? |00:32:06| Niwa I like to say our customers are ones that like good food. Kidding, but I think our diversity is pretty big in the restaurant as well. We have you know, people that drive from quite a ways and we have a lot of locals that dine quite often, even locals from the Deep Ellum neighborhood itself. But honestly, I don&#039 ; t think I can say that there&#039 ; s an overwhelming majority of any category, age wise, ethnicity, anything. The demographics are really spread out I think. |00:32:48| Brody You mentioned Yelp a minute ago. And in talking to people we&#039 ; ve been, I&#039 ; ve been hearing a lot about, you know, the relationship between both professional reviewers coming to restaurants and the impact of social media and sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor and things like that. What are your experiences in that area? |00:33:11| Niwa Well, Yelp, I think, is a love-hate relationship. It&#039 ; s done an incredible job as far as putting dining on the map and how we can approach it. There are a lot of drawbacks to Yelp. One being that there&#039 ; s no confirmation there. So anyone can write a review about any place for any reason. There&#039 ; s other sites like Open Table. That platform that you have to have a reservation, the restaurant has to see to do before you make a review. So they&#039 ; re a little bit more genuine then because also that&#039 ; s your profile. As far as Yelp goes, I think that&#039 ; s given a lot of people who just want to voice their opinions, a platform to do so. For many people, I think it&#039 ; s just a place to be angry and very, you know, you can see people who only write bad reviews. And there&#039 ; s also people who when we write good reviews, when we discuss in our pre-shift meetings or manager meetings about Yelp reviews and all of that, we typically focus on the four stars and two star reviews. The five stars are great to know how we&#039 ; re doing and we feel appreciated. The four stars, there&#039 ; s a reason why someone left a four star and we need to pay attention to that. Sometimes it&#039 ; s not even in the Yelp review because it may be a petty reason or they feel it&#039 ; s a petty reason, so they don&#039 ; t want to voice it. And then the same thing goes for a two is, I think instead of leaving a one star review, I think the reason why people leave a two is because there&#039 ; s some kind of element there where they feel like, okay, they don&#039 ; t, they didn&#039 ; t deserve a one or zero, so they might give them a two and then follows the rant or the reason why. But I think those are the ones that we really have to pay attention to because they tell us that there&#039 ; s more to it than what&#039 ; s actually being written. |00:35:24| Brody That&#039 ; s interesting. The difference between a Yelp review or something like that and a professional reviewer is that, you know, that their professional reviewer has sort of context in which they&#039 ; re trying to to write their review. They&#039 ; re educated about, you know, restaurants in general, about the type of food and so on. Whereas a Yelp reviewer is based on their feelings that day and not necessarily grounded in research or knowledge. Where, you know, what are your experiences? What impact have professional reviews had on your restaurant? |00:36:09| Niwa I think professional reviewers have more of an obligation. They have an obligation to their readers to do the right thing, to write an honest and genuine article. But more than that, they have an obligation to their publication or to their supervisors to write something that&#039 ; s read worthy. So in doing so, I think a lot of professional writers feel the need to find an interesting story to tell. It would be boring to just read &quot ; This restaurant was okay, you should try it.&quot ; So naturally they&#039 ; re going to find things that they can really kind of put a spotlight onto. My restaurant has not had great interactions with a few writers. I&#039 ; m a strong believer in educating people and, you know, in the foods that we have and giving them all the information we can. I think there&#039 ; s a few writers that were in Dallas that did not do that, and I did voice my opinions to them. I think it was built partially out of laziness, and I think another part of it was really just trying to show off when there was no need to. So we did have a little bit of a going back and forth with one of the writers in Dallas. |00:37:50| Brody Did any of that have an impact on your business? |00:37:55| Niwa We did get a lot of support from the community, especially chefs and owners that also feared this lady because, you know, at the time she could make or break your restaurant. She&#039 ; s no longer a writer in Dallas. And it&#039 ; s a terrible thing I think, for any restaurant owner or chef to have to feel is that that pressure, you know? I think even in the Michelin level, many chefs are trying to go away from that because that amount of pressure for one person&#039 ; s opinion is just too much. You know, and I know very well that there&#039 ; s tons of restaurants that I love that are not hugely popular and vice versa. I see a lot of restaurants that there&#039 ; s a line out the door and I can&#039 ; t understand why. And I think as a writer, that&#039 ; s kind of their obligation is to just write the simple truth and the facts. There&#039 ; s a lot of writers, you know, that write about the food and because they understand, some of them were chefs or some of them are in the food industry, and they understand the efforts that go behind making these dishes. They understand the cultural aspect of it. And those are great writers to me. And those are the ones that I think, you know, we should continue to read from. But I think also, as our attention span shortens, you know, we tend to focus on just the good and the bad and want that information as quickly as possible. |00:39:35| Brody Right. Less nuance. Are you thinking at any point of expanding or are you involved in other restaurant ventures? |00:39:44| Niwa Yeah, we have still a few plans. We&#039 ; re hoping to open up one more in the DFW area. We&#039 ; re also looking out in other areas as well to expand and even a couple of different concepts. But one concept that we had planned for Plano was kind of rail...derailed because of COVID. So now we&#039 ; re kind of picking up the pieces and going from there. But hopefully in the next couple of years we will have expanded it quite a bit. |00:40:21| Brody Great. When you think about the Asian community in Dallas, if you and especially the sort of dining aspects of that, you know, how would you characterize the the Asian community in Dallas? |00:40:47| Niwa You know, I don&#039 ; t...I can&#039 ; t say as well as many others. I&#039 ; ve only been here for seven years now. And my exposure to the Asian community has been just through the people that I have met. So I definitely am not the one that can give most of the information for...We did the Asian night markets. I think that started in 2018. And our goal for that was to get that exposure out there and especially for restaurants that did not have the budget for a huge PR or marketing agency. Actually, my partner in that was Teresa who had a PR, has a PR agency. So our goal on that was not to make money, it was to get exposure out there. Our first big event was at the Bomb Factory and the purpose in doing that was to get, you know, 14 restaurateurs that we felt need the exposure. They have excellent food. They are the kind of people that were in their shops every day. And that was the point of doing it. Bomb Factory at the time, the owners there were very, very kind and said, &quot ; Let&#039 ; s just do it. Let&#039 ; s worry about the cost later. If it makes money, we all make money. If not, then we all suffer together.&quot ; So we did it and fortunately did not lose money, did not make much money because that was not our goal. But following that, there was quite a few events that popped up that I think kind of piggybacked off of our success. But it also hurt us from being able to do it continuously because the rest of these funds, I think, were mostly for profit. And so it became harder and harder and we stopped doing it. So my, my, but the support there from the Asian community was amazing. You know, people would come out and support and want to try new foods. So I think there is a strong, strong Asian community here. I think tying it all together is a challenge, you know, but I think it&#039 ; s it&#039 ; s a good it&#039 ; s great. I mean, the Asian Grub page is huge, you know, and they&#039 ; re doing a really good thing for the most part for Dallas, DFW. |00:43:35| Brody Great. In Dallas, in the last few years, during the time that you&#039 ; ve been here, we&#039 ; ve had quite a few weather related issues- the tornado, the ice storm, and then, of course, not weather, but COVID and all the things that came from that. How has your operation and your business been affected by any of those? |00:44:00| Niwa Yes, by all of them. The weather continuously plays a role in general actually. When we have any drop of rain, we lose about 50% of our reservations. But as far as shutdowns, I can&#039 ; t even count the many times now we&#039 ; ve had power outages. We had a couple of roof leaks. Yeah, I think kind of everything has definitely played a role. |00:44:35| Brody And COVID. |00:44:36| Niwa COVID, we were shut down for quite some time. I think a better part of about six months, during which time we tried to pivot and we did a little supermarket there for the Deep Ellum area. We had the space so we could do kind of a social distancing shopping there with some fresh produce and, you know, the essentials, especially at a time when toilet paper and gloves were very difficult to come by. We also had made some masks during that time, and then we also did what we call the shelter boxes. There were Styrofoam boxes that we filled with some of our meats and dishes that were marinated, but you would have to cook at home. Some days was great. Some days we didn&#039 ; t sell many. But, you know, it was, it was a challenge. But, you know, it wasn&#039 ; t the worst thing. You know, we survived it and we built a lot of a team ethic and we finished our patio deck during that time. So. |00:45:49| Brody Right. A lot of the people I&#039 ; ve spoken to have stories of celebrities and sort of memorable events happening in their restaurant. Do you have any stories like that you&#039 ; d like to share? |00:46:05| Niwa Yeah, nothing crazy. We get a lot of celebrities in there. You know, we try not to bother them much because they&#039 ; re there to eat. As far as any crazy events, nothing super crazy, but I guess I&#039 ; ve been in this industry for quite a while. |00:46:33| Brody That&#039 ; s true. How about your relationship with the neighbors? It sounds like you&#039 ; re pretty involved in Deep Ellum and the community there. How would you characterize how that&#039 ; s been? |00:46:49| Niwa Yeah, Deep Ellum&#039 ; s a great neighborhood. Everyone watches out for each other for the most part. There&#039 ; s always someone who&#039 ; s upset with someone, but it&#039 ; s kind of neighborly. We you know, it&#039 ; s difficult to stay up, keep up with everything because there&#039 ; s just so much happening in Deep Ellum. And it&#039 ; s a lot of what happens in Deep Ellum are not at the same time frames as us. And also we&#039 ; re kind of down at the end of the street. So we usually hear the news last. But Deep Ellum&#039 ; s been a really great neighborhood for the most part. |00:47:29| Brody That&#039 ; s great. So as we wind this interview down, I just want to ask you, are there any lessons or reflections that you&#039 ; d like to share? |00:47:41| Niwa Oh. I mean I guess as lessons maybe for all of us is to just be better towards each other. You know, I think there&#039 ; s a lot of criticism towards everyone in the industry. And naturally it&#039 ; s, could be on a competitive level in some aspect and some of it because of what we talked about, the authenticity and someone&#039 ; s offended. But I think the bottom line is it comes down to food and people just trying to make a living. So, you know, I think. I think chefs, especially and restaurateurs and people who are working twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours a day, five, six, seven days a week, I think there needs to be a better appreciation towards each other. And that and, you know, we do a service industry on Monday nights and admittedly it&#039 ; s kind of swayed away from its original purpose. Original purpose was for those people who, you know, are working six days a week, mostly, usually off on Mondays. You know, we offer a huge discount for them to come in and dine on Mondays. But I wish there was a little bit more of that and I wish there was a little bit more of, you know, that professional courtesy towards each other. |00:49:13| Brody Yeah, that would be nice. So I really appreciate you coming in and sharing your memories and your experiences. Is there anything that I didn&#039 ; t ask you that you&#039 ; d like to add to this interview? |00:49:28| Niwa No. No. Well, thank you for taking the time. |00:49:30| Brody Fantastic. Well, thank you very much. I appreciate it. All rights to the interviews, including but not restricted to legal title, copyrights and literary property rights, have been transferred to the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. audio Interviews may be reproduced with permission from the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. 0




“Interview with Jimmy Niwa, June 9, 2022,” Digging In Dallas, accessed July 12, 2024,