January 29, 2022
"Sushi is very simple. It's a slice of a fish and rice, you know?" Kevin Yanaga said, laughingly, to explain what draws him to the traditional Japanese dish. "But that's why it's really easy to tell if it's good or bad."
He's standing in the narrow, basement kitchen of his new restaurant in Fishtown, Izakaya by Yanaga, which opened in September. An omakase room is planned for a space off the modern, industrial dining room – and soon will be his crown jewel – but construction delays have postponed its opening.
"You always have to make sure your process is right with sushi," he adds. "Otherwise, you can mess it up really easily."
Yanaga talks on the subject with the authority that comes from years of experience. His resume includes tours of duty at some of the most beloved restaurants in Philadelphia. He has captivated palates along the way, entrenching himself as one of the finest sushi chefs the city has to offer. Nothing points more clearly to this than the nickname given to him to describe his artistry: The Sushi Whisperer.
He embraces the moniker. It is plastered all over his social media pages. On his LinkedIn profile, Yanaga forgoes the traditional label of executive chef in favor of this mystical status. But who could blame him? When a name like that is bestowed upon a person, it would be sacrilegious to waste it.
In Philadelphia, Yanaga has exhibited the kind of diligence and tenacity that separates exceptional chefs from the simply good ones. After coming to the city nearly 14 years ago as an embryonic young cook, he has matured into a master of his craft.
Yanaga was born in California but spent the majority of his upbringing in his mother's native Japan. He grew up in Kawasaki, a city that sits about 10 miles south of the bustling metropolis of Tokyo. From the time he was able to work until he left the country, he manned the stoves at several izakaya – a type of informal bar that serves small snacks. This experience, among others, has enabled him to discern various techniques and flavors, melding them into something distinctly his own.
"What makes chef Yanaga so skillful is his ability to take from different cuisines and time periods," said Tom LoMonte, second-in-command at Izakaya by Yanaga. "If he is interested in a dish or method, he will research it in all outlets. He reads more cookbooks than any man I've ever met."
Yanaga made his way to Philadelphia around 2009, after short stints in Salt Lake City, New Orleans and Southern California. His career here began at Masaharu Morimoto's flagship and namesake restaurant in Old City, where he met Hiroyuki "Zama" Tanaka, who had been helping out part-time due to a staff shortage.
Zama saw potential in Yanaga and asked him if he wanted to come work for him and help lay the foundation for Zama's forthcoming eponymous restaurant in Rittenhouse Square. Yanaga accepted.
"At that time, I already worked in a few places but I never experienced the opening of a restaurant," Yanaga said. "I thought it would be interesting building a place up from scratch."
His time there would prove to be a formative period on his path as a sushi chef. Zama took Yanaga under his wing and taught him meticulous preparation, the importance of sourcing, and the fundamentals of omakase – a tasting menu for which the chef selects the dishes.
"The omakase is the chef's ego," Yanaga said. "It's all about what the chef can do."
Zama pushed him to think deeply and more creatively about the dishes he served. Yanaga said he owes a great deal to Zama. The repository of knowledge he gained from him is something from which he continually draws inspiration.
"In those years, I could see chef become more intrigued with taking traditional concepts and recipes and molding new methods in their place," said LoMonte, who also worked with Yanaga at Zama.
Yanaga was then introduced to Michael Schulson, who was looking for someone to run his restaurant at the Borgata Casino in Atlantic City, called Izakaya. He offered the position to Yanaga, who saw it as an opportunity to produce a menu entirely of his design. Being away from Philadelphia and his family for long stretches led to feelings of isolation, and it afforded him abundant time to think about food.
"The equipment there was amazing, so I utilized all of it," he said. "I started experimenting with a lot of different things."
Three years passed before Yanaga returned to Philly to help Schulson with the creation of Double Knot in Center City. The restaurant opened in 2016 to widespread acclaim. Inquirer critic Craig LaBan awarded Double Knot a commendable rating of three bells and dubbed Yanaga a rising star chef. Thrillist honored him as one of the best chefs of the year, and Philly Mag named Double Knot best new restaurant.
"It was a good year," Yanaga said. "I felt like everything was finally paying off. It was really overwhelming."
But with two floors and nearly 130 seats, the sprawling Double Knot ultimately proved not to be exactly what he wanted. "I really like to do a more personal, focused service," Yanaga said. He desperately missed the intimacy he had with patrons at Zama. He stuck it out for a few years and then left for Stephen Starr's Pod in University City with the promise of an omakase in his future. That promise went unfulfilled.
"They just kept delaying it," he said. "I was tired of working (at Pod). I was really bored."
After a quick spell back with his mentor at Zama, he took a meeting with Tim Lu, of Glu Hospitality, who was looking for a new partner. The appointment proved to be fruitful, and a concept soon emerged that would allow Yanaga to do the two things he loves most – an izakaya and omakase.
"We went into this having the confidence that given the support and resources, he would create the best offering," Lu said. "I have the highest regard for chef and his passion and enthusiasm."
This is Yanaga's first foray into having control over nearly every aspect of a project. "It's awesome, you know," he said. "You get more input on what you'd like to do."
Although the role does come with more responsibility, an ownership stake, and the pressure of the sign hanging above the front door bearing his name, Yanaga is taking it all with appreciation and pride.
Izakaya by Yanaga opened on Labor Day weekend and the chef anticipates the omakase will debut in March. While he said he thoroughly enjoys the izakaya, he is most eager to get behind the bar of the omakase, especially one he can call his own.
"I really like it because you work in an open kitchen and you interact with the guests." he said. "It's not only your skill with sushi. You also need to have people skills, so that you can read what your guests want, what your guests like."
His career in Philadelphia restaurants has been in pursuit of this singular goal to showcase his talents at an omakase. Yanaga's chance to do that appears to be approaching.
The small room at the back of the restaurant soon will be filled with people watching him slice fish with expert precision. He will mold those pristine pieces onto mounds of delicately seasoned rice, as guests joyfully anticipate being served by the chef known as the Sushi Whisperer. And at the end of the day, that's all Yanaga wants.
"That's what keeps me going," he said, "when I see that my guests are happy."