By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
Hansei, the name of Chris Ono’s pop-up restaurant at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, translates as self-reflection, a fitting name for a menu concept that embodies Ono’s journey as a Japanese American, a journey that diners lucky enough to get a reservation are happy to share.
“My goal with doing Japanese American food is that hopefully the younger cooks could see that as something they want to pursue as well,” Ono said.
A graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Ono started at Roy Yamaguchi’s Roy’s in Newport Beach. His foundation is in high-end French cuisine, Edomae sushi and also modern kaiseki, and he has worked at some of the top Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, including Morihiro Onodera’s Mori Sushi in Los Angeles, Eleven Madison Park in New York, and RyuGin in Tokyo.
As we talked, Ono prepped for the next day’s service: big filets of tuna, fresh crab and bright red tomatoes rested in crates in the kitchen. A Yonsei, he was born in Culver City and is active in the Venice Japanese American community. Early memories were of his mom, Janice Higashi, and grandmother, Margaret (Taiyama) Otsuji, cooking in the kitchen.
“I remember cooking wontons, more simple stuff, washing rice. I do remember the chicken wings with the cornflake crust, baked spaghetti and a lot of American dishes like shepherd’s pie and meatballs. Things that were easy, packaged things in the ’80s and ’90s, mainly processed and canned. It’s changed a lot,” he said.
The ingredients at Hansei are fine dining, but Ono’s first experiences in the restaurant industry are much more down home.
As a kid, he would help out at Kenny’s Café, the famed diner on Centinela Avenue on the Westside, which was owned by his uncle, Kenny Yamanaka, and later his cousin, Ray Yamanaka.
“I was exposed not to the cooking part but bussing tables. I was pretty young, maybe 13. We would go Sundays and bus tables. For some reason I just remember the really greasy chairs,” he said with a laugh.
“They did Hamburger Royals, Chinese chicken salad, Spam and eggs. It was one of those places that served 20 to 30 items but it was actually just five ingredients.”
He explained that because the family, including Kenny and Ray, did all the cooking, the flavors and quality remained consistent.
“The flavor was very JA, a lot of great rice, good miso soup and tsukemono. But the Royal was something different. For that neighborhood that was the thing to get after basketball games,” Ono said.
When everything shut down during the pandemic and the Venice Hongwanji Buddhist Temple needed help, Ono and Ray Yamanaka were quick to volunteer by organizing and preparing bento for two fundraisers for the temple. The menu naturally featured the legendary Royal and was a big hit. A pilot program sold out within hours.
At the 2020 Obon fundraiser they prepared 1,400 plates of the Kenny’s Royal. In 2021, they did the Hawaiian Royal featuring chashu made from scratch and Portuguese sausage. This summer he also prepared the chicken teriyaki for the return of the Venice Obon Festival, giving the volunteer cooks with the Adult Buddhist Association a break.
“If Chris does it, it’s a plus. Everything he has done has been golden. Venice Temple is very lucky and fortunate to have him. Chris says he’s thankful to be able to do this. To have that passion is really what it’s all about,” said Dale Noriyuki, former VHBT president.
“Just watching him was amazing, to work with that kind of volume. He never got uptight, he was so even-keeled, this was what it was like to be a top chef,” said Cary Tokirio, VHBT treasurer, with admiration.
With the temple unable to host its annual Obon, the help was vital.
“It was critical. Activities like Obon Festival represented a good chunk of the operating budget revenue so to have him come forward and say let’s do this. That really helped in terms of helping the budget,” Tokirio said.
As Ono has looked to the foods enjoyed by Japanese Americans, he finds inspiration in what he calls a treasure trove: his mom’s church cookbooks.
“It’s almost like a religious thing for me, having these treasures. Mom said I have all these cookbooks I want to give you. It was the perfect time as I was getting really oriented at the JACCC, learning the history of the (James Irvine Japanese) Garden, and being around more JAs.
“These are treasured books, they’re from Seattle, Centenary, West L.A., OC — they’re from all over the place. I’m still navigating through the books to fully understand these dishes. Tamale pie, green bean casserole. They are very common throughout the community, even to the East Coast.”
Ono’s grandparents were incarcerated in Manzanar and Topaz. He said the camp experience left its mark on the foods we eat.
“It definitely had an influence on our cuisine, especially because there was no Japanese product coming in at the time. That influenced JAs to be more American and to assimilate. With cuisine itself it definitely stunted the growth of JA food,” he observed. “Even in my generation there weren’t that many looking towards becoming chefs until maybe the mid-2000s.”
For Hansei, he has created his own spin on the cornflake chicken. His training and background have prepared him for this exploration of his heritage and JACCC is the ideal venue. The simple, humble recipes in the church cookbooks speak to a community that experienced war and incarceration and show the resourcefulness of the cooks.
“It harkens back to our immigrant heritage,” said Jane Shohara Matsumoto, JACCC director of culinary arts. “One of things for me is we become an incubator for new JA chefs and we are able to use our kitchen so the community is able to meet and see and experience JA chefs that are evolving from this whole big culinary explosion that is happening in L.A.”
“Looking back, I wish I went to J-school,” Ono said. “I don’t regret not going into the traditional kaiseki. Because I have a mix of things. Living in Japan I felt very American. I think trying to understand my cultural identity is also a reason why I focus on JA food. I’m trying to understand who I am and who we all are and there’s definitely a stock progression of JA food. No one has taken it to the next level where a lot of young chefs in their own ethnic groups have.”
As an example, he cited Anajak Thai in Sherman Oaks, which was honored in August as Restaurant of the Year by The L.A. Times. Chef Justin Pichetrungsi took over his family’s restaurant and broke away from traditions, reinventing Thai American cuisine.
“I would love to open Kenny’s Café, but I’ve always told my cousin that it’s your thing. But that’s something I would love to do, I almost did it during the pandemic,” he said.
He says in the future he would like to do more collaborations and he cites many Japanese American chefs as friends, including Brandon Kida of Hinoki & the Bird, Go Go Gyoza and Gunsmoke and Ray Hayashi of RYLA. During his time in Little Tokyo, he has had the opportunity to connect with Brian Kito of Fugetsu-Do, Don Tahara of Sake Dojo and Akira Hirose of Azay.
Hansei is open for service. Reservations can be made online and sell out quickly. Besides work, Ono and wife, Joan, a pastry chef at the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills, are raising two young children.
“Coming here has meant being flexible for the kids,” Ono said.
“During the pandemic and even before then, I always wanted to just cook what I wanted to cook. Obviously my training would influence that but at the same time focus on Japanese American food, trying to refresh the ingredients with the same seasoning was my way of trying to present a new style of JA food, which is not like doing anything to disrespect the past, but to carry it on and refresh what we were doing.”
Photos by MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo