By MIEKO BEYER
Philip Hirose, co-owner of Azay — a Japanese fusion restaurant in Little Tokyo, which he runs with his mother Jo Ann and father, Akira — faced not just the challenge of opening a new restaurant, but also coping with pandemic shutdowns just six months after opening.
“Lunch was our busiest time due to the city government workers,” he explained. “Now with them not in their offices — it was a huge blow.”
Azay opened on Sept. 14, 2019 and is located at 226 E. First St (near San Pedro Street) in Little Tokyo. It took Hirose and his mother a year of hard work to take the space from room to restaurant. Previously the location was Red Wing Shoes (which relocated to Chinatown), so the Hiroses had the tall task of reinventing the space into the hidden gem of gourmet, fusion cuisine it is today.
The ripple effects of COVID-related shutdowns on the local economy have thrown many small businesses for a loop. However, giving up never crossed Hirose’s mind. “Closing was never an option,” he said. “We had already invested so much time and energy into the restaurant.”
The incredible effort and talent behind Azay has definitely caught the attention of foodies all over. With a kitchen helmed by the highly experienced Chef Akira Hirose, the outstanding quality, cultural authenticity and originality of their dishes make Azay shine brightly. Akira Hirose’s accolades and training are at some of the highest levels a chef can achieve — something that his son Philip speaks about with great pride and knowledge.
“He first started training in Azay-Le-Rideau, a town in the middle of France,” said Hirose. “It’s one of the towns that has a chateau. There’s a string of towns in the middle of France that have chateaus that royalty would vacation at. Then he went to a Japanese hotel in Paris, the Paris Nikko Hotel, working for a chef that ended up being regarded as the chef of the century, Joel Robuchon… He has a pretty high pedigree from working at top restaurants. He was chosen to serve the emperor and empress of Japan during their visit to Los Angeles in the ’90s.”
French fusion is a huge part of Akira Hirose’s expertise as a chef — from the reference to his start in French cuisine in this new restaurant’s name to the 20 years he spent as owner and chef of Maison Akira in Pasadena, it’s clear that Hirose senior has established a venerable reputation as a top chef in French-Japanese fusion.
Chef Hirose’s fusion goes far back, way before fusion became a trend. It is rooted in traditional, first-hand culinary training from both cultures — and he’s equally at home creating fusion dishes as he is traditional French and Japanese fare.
In fact, Azay is one of the few restaurants you can find in Los Angeles serving a traditional Japanese breakfast set, which caught the attention of Richard Addison, food critic at **The Los Angeles Times** (https://www.latimes.com/food/story/2020-01-11/tasting-notes-traditional-japanese-breakfast-los-angeles).
After closing Maison Akira in March 2019, a closure that Philip attributes in part to the waning popularity of fine-dining, white-tablecloth type restaurants in Los Angeles, he hoped his father might take some time off. However, while Philip and Jo Ann toiled at creating everything from the physical space to operations to packaging for Azay, Akira took on catering jobs and was keen to get into the kitchen at Azay as soon as possible.
The multigenerational team behind Azay has been an adjustment for all but also a major part of its success. “I help my dad break out of the mindset of being super strict,” noted Hirose. “I don’t want him to feel bound by that. We keep working on the menu — it’s what brings people in. We don’t just serve traditional Japanese food, we include other types of food.”
Azay has certainly begun to craft a unique and exciting vision, one that Hirose is extremely proud and excited to continue developing in the heart of Little Tokyo, where the family has many community ties.
You might see Jo Ann, who is Sansei, at Azay wearing her scrubs — she stops by during her lunch break sometimes from her job down the street, where she is a dental hygienist. The storefront of Azay is part of a building over 100 years old that is also home to The Oregon Hotel, an affordable housing unit complex managed by the Hirose family.
Historic Anzen Hardware has since moved down the street, but it was once one of the storefronts in the four-story building. This 75-year-old hardware store was originally a hotel supply store that supplied many hotels in the Little Tokyo area housing Japanese Americans who had lost their residences when sent to concentration camps during World War II.
The Hirose family’s stewardship of the building continues to make a huge difference and positive impact for the Little Tokyo community. In the extremely expensive Downtown L.A. housing market, The Oregon Hotel is able to provide affordable residences for people who actually work in the neighborhood and not force them to move far out, potentially having to leave their jobs or have an extremely long commute.
Young Hirose did not start out in the culinary world. Originally he considered opening up a Los Angeles branch of the Kyoto-based accounting firm started by his paternal great-grandfather. However, after earning his Bachelor of Science in business administration at California State University Northridge, he decided to switch career paths.
“There wasn’t a lot of pressure,” laughed Hirose on his decision not to pursue accounting. “Everyone is unaffected.”
Instead he began to explore the world of TV and film production, a career path that may have never taken off if not for the critically important help of Robert Miyamoto, a family friend. “I was extremely lucky to be brought to his set,” said Hirose. “It’s hard to find that connection.”
In the competitive, often network-based industry of TV and film, finding someone to make your first introduction is a hurdle that’s difficult for anyone new to overcome, and it can be particularly daunting for minorities due to a historical lack of representation in the industry.
Luckily for Hirose, it happened that Miyamoto had broken into the industry many years prior, working for many years as a key grip, first on film sets like “White Men Can’t Jump” before moving on to TV commercial productions (shorter in production time) after starting a family. As he was about to retire, he gladly took young Hirose to commercial sets, helping him make those all important connections to directors and production managers.
“Without opportunities you can’t have experience,” explained Hirose. “There’s a lot of gatekeeping that limits people’s capabilities…Still today on most commercial productions I’m the only Asian American.”
Today Hirose has progressed from an entry-level production assistant or “PA” to well-established, in-demand freelance coordinator for TV commercial productions. “I take care of logistics, creative materials as well as pretty much all information that’s needed for the crew and the job,” he said.
Whether creating new menus or dealing with agencies, Hirose’s career has kept him out of the typical nine-to-five cubicle life. Despite the hard hits both restaurant and production work have taken due to the pandemic, he is an inspiring example of how people are staying creative, patient and positive.
Most of all, Hirose’s efforts have not just been to keep his own business and career afloat — he’s been focused instead on how he can continue to help the causes and communities he cares about. Whether on set or in Little Tokyo, his community involvement and leadership provide the inspired support that’s rare to find and especially needed right now.
Azay, 226 E. First St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, (213) 628-3431, is open for outdoor dining, pick-up and delivery. View their menu online at https://www.azaylittletokyo.com. To place orders go to their website or find Azay on DoorDash and Grubhub.