When we first started Ate 6 Media, we knew one thing: that we wanted to eventually start interviewing our friends who are chefs around Sacramento, and we knew that Binchoyaki Izakaya Dining would absolutely have to be the first. Our friends, Craig and Toki, are co-owners and chefs at their Japanese “pub,” that has quickly become one of the best spots in town to go for a casual dinner date with friends and family. Craig’s inventive Japanese comfort food dishes are constantly changing, with each one as flavorful and unique as the last, and Toki is a master at the grill, serving up whole fish, oysters, and all parts of the chicken. Read on for a little closer insight into the heart and soul of Binchoyaki.
Ate 6: What made you want to open a contemporary Japanese izakaya?
Craig: I decided to do izakaya because it’s something that’s not here in Sacramento, and we were the first ones to do that. It’s something I’ve worked at in my career down in L.A., and when I went to Japan to train, we did izakaya there. It’s something I fell in love with and really enjoy. I like the fact that there are small plates, and you don’t have to commit to a big entree of food. You can share with friends or family you are eating with, and everyone can have a bite, rather than just you getting a big old pork chop, or steak.
Ate 6: It’s very community oriented.
Toki: It’s like a gathering, right? And I also moved back to Sac, and told Craig there’s no Japanese comfort food here. I grew up down in L.A., and they don’t have just sushi and teriyaki as Japanese food, they have izakaya, and that was when I was growing up down there. When I moved up here, I also wanted to eat Japanese Comfort food, not just me always cooking my own Japanese food. So Craig said, “let’s just open one.”
Ate 6: Did you have plans of opening a restaurant before then under another concept?
Toki: I think it was when we first met in Culinary school, we dreamed of opening up our own shop at some point. We were friends first, then got together, and said someday we would open a mom and pop shop.
Craig: We’d both been to Culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu, and we were both back of the house. Toki wanted to get out of the back of the house to gain experience running the front of the house, so when we opened a restaurant eventually, we would have that experience of managing service staff, tipping, etc.
Ate 6: I’m sure you’ve both been around FOH managers who *haven’t* had that experience running back of the house either, and can’t understand or relate to those positions, and don’t have as much of a well rounded experience as you have had.
Toki: It’s always when there’s an issue that back of the house or front of the house blame each other. It doesn’t matter who’s fault it is, we are all on the same team as a restaurant.
Ate 6: Well it is a one of a kind concept. Nobody else in town is doing what you’re doing that I know of. There are other “Japanese” spots… but they all serve sushi. You are do offer amazing sashimi plates here, Craig, and are capable of making sushi right?
Craig: I can. I’m not super great at it, but I’ve always been more of a kitchen guy than a sushi guy. I have learned it and trained how to do it. My head chef that taught me a lot was a sushi chef.
Ate 6: Obviously fish is a huge part of your menu here. I am appreciative of the fact that you guys feature it in so many different ways. You serve the whole fish which not a lot of restaurants do in Sacramento.
Toki: Most everyone is familiar with fish being served as sushi or sauteed, but there are so many ways to cook it. It could be chopped up, made into a dumplings, or cooked whole. You asked what food trend we will never do? A food trend we will never do and compromise on is to serve sushi.
Craig: Billy from Kru is one of my good friends and we hang out a lot and chit chat about work, and one thing he always says to is “a real izakaya doesn’t put fish with rice.” So having the hand rolls or the nigiri sushi is one thing that makes you specifically a sushi spot.
Ate 6: You guys decided you didn’t want to compromise or muddy the role of your restaurant as being an izakaya dining spot.
Toki: We are not technically “Authentic.” we put Izakaya Dining so it could be out of the box. Chef Craig was trained in French culinary, and it shows in his saucier skills. Even just to make the ramen sauce, he has his own special way of creating it. We are not serving just authentic Japanese food, we have our own flavors.
Ate 6: The flavor profiles here at Binchoyaki are very unique… I can see how you honor the more traditional dishes, but put your own twist on them with the flavor profiles your grew up with or learned in culinary school and your time down in L.A. What are you impressed by Sacramento enjoying culinary wise with your dishes?
Craig: At the beginning it was a little bit of a hard sell. We were making dishes they may not be used to. Even though there is a large Japanese population here, some of the foods that we’re presenting are different than what they are used to. So I think there was a bit of training involved in getting people to taste and see what we are trying to do. There were numerous older generation guests who actually brought me out to the table to scold me and tell me that I’m doing it wrong. I had to explain that maybe this dish was done a certain way in their family, but I’m cooking from many different regions in Japan. Toki is from Osaka so she is used to that style, for instance. I trained in Tokyo and worked with a lot of different people… It’s just different in how they use their ratios and styles of soy sauces and flavorings.
Toki: A lot of people thought we had sushi. People called and would try and order rolls. It was almost a whole new cuisine for people to get used to what we were making.
Ate 6: I think that two years in, you guys have garnered a faithful crowd of customers that really enjoy the current tastes you are putting out on the menu… are you constantly looking for new ways to push the taste profile a little more for Sacramento?
Craig: Absolutely, and changing it a little more here for what it is. I think that a lot of the training is with our repeat customers allowing themselves to receive the food that we are putting in front of them. They have opened up to letting me try new things, and they receive well. That allows us to continue being creative and constantly try new things.
Ate 6: I’m sure you guys could name a couple more, but I think there are very few restaurants in Sacramento that are as highly seasonal as you guys. I’m sure much of your repeat business revolves around the excitement of seeing new dishes come out almost nightly from the kitchen.
Craig: We change with the seasons… we like to give people that different, comforting seasonal soul food. It’s almost like Japanese home cooking presented in a nice fashion.
Toki: I think it’s because of your technique and my different way of thinking about dishes that allows us to play with our food so much, and experiment.
Ate 6: It’s nice to balance each other out, and be able to work closely to perfect your dishes.
Craig: The fun of it is that we are here in Sacramento and we have the opportunity to use the produce from farms that are so close. We are driving the nation in produce and are the first ones to get it. We don’t have to try to be farm to fork because we live farm to fork. It makes my job way easier to have some of the best tomatoes in the nation and not have to do anything to them to make them taste better.
Toki: We never compromise on our ingredients… we want to bring out the best in our ingredients and make them live in each dish vs. using too many. We want each product to be served at it’s peak.
Ate 6: I have been to many restaurants where they “had” to keep a dish on the menu because it’s a staple on the menu, but they are serving ingredients that are not in season and past their prime. I feel bad for the people who spend their money on those dishes.
Craig: Over the years, and building menus, we saw what worked and came up with our base menu. Many things on our base menu don’t revolve around seasonal ingredients, like our Ramen, or Oyako Don bowls so we don’t have to sacrifice quality on those dishes. They all sell and move evenly, too.
Ate 6: What’s the hardest part of running a small operation?
Craig: We don’t take reservations. That can be challenging at times… we don’t know how many people are going to come through the door. 6:30 -7: pm hits and we can be packed. Trying to feed everyone all at the same time with a small kitchen can be a challenge. Yesterday, I thought I overbought on oysters for Wednesday Dollar Oysters, and by the end of the night, I had 10 oysters left.. we burned through 350 oysters yesterday. We normally go through 250.
Ate 6: Either a few people were eating a lot of oysters, or a lot of people were eating a few oysters.
Craig: A lot of people were eating a few oysters. The challenge is that we only have a few people in our kitchen and have to dedicate one person to just shucking oysters.
Toki: As Craig said to me when we opened, “like 2PAC says, ‘it’s just us against the world’.” And that’s how we’ve always been together, going through all these challenges, and that’s just how we’ve got to make it work as a small business.
Ate 6: I’m sure it’s one of the better parts of running a small business, it’s not you against the world, AND your investors/crummy business partner you wish you’d never signed with. It all falls on you, hard as that can be. What has been the best part of running a small operation?
Craig: One of the big things for me is that I’m making food that *I* enjoy, and other people are trying it and enjoying it, and telling me this, and I appreciate that. The biggest thing I want to do is make good food that people enjoy eating. I don’t need to be a famous chef, I don’t want to be a famous chef, I just want to make food that people love. So for me, that’s my biggest give-back is that people tell me how much they like it. It’s nice to have other chefs and restauranteurs come and eat the food and come back again and again.
Ate 6: One thing that I’m always happiest to see is other chefs from around town who love to come and eat here. They just want a really good, Japanese comfort food meal. Another big difference I’ve noticed between here and other restaurants is, there’s no real “curtain” between the dining tables and the kitchen operation… you’re back there, but you come out and interact daily and nightly with your customers. It feels much more intimate here.
Craig: I think that’s something we tried to envision in the first place. In a Japanese home, having a BBQ or fire pit where friends and family gather to eat is a normal thing. So for us, building the BBQ in the center and close to the guests gives us that same feel. We are inviting all of our guests into our home and to eat with us. And it is a more intimate dining experience instead of being solitary. If we do good, they watch us do good, if we screw up, they watch us screw up, and we have to own it!
Toki: We have customers who wouldn’t normally hang out, but they come here to spend time with each other. Our servers have their own customers that come just to spend time seeing their favorite server. We are somewhere people come so they can talk and unwind and enjoy each others’s company.
Ate 6: How do you see the Sacramento kitchen scene operating differently than larger scale cities? In good and bad ways?
Craig: I like the Sacramento restaurant community. I did primarily worked in L.A. for the most part of my career. It’s very cutthroat and competitive. It’s mean, and many of them want you to fail and do bad. Whereas here in Sacramento, literally from day one, it was not that way. I’ve had other restauranteurs come in and offer help and support. Billy from Kru was one of them, Randall from Sellands, then South, Urban Roots, Low Brau, Canon, Beast and Bounty, Mulvaney’s, Taro from Mikuni. They’ve always been great, and it’s nice to have this community. For me, that’s crucial as business owners to be able to have that support.
Toki: We were nobodies when we first opened, and they all came and introduced themselves and asked if we needed help with anything.
Craig: For us, the restaurant community has been awesome, and everyone has that same mindset that Sacramento itself is a bit of a smaller town. So collectively, we are working towards the same goal to build the food and restaurant scene here. Ultimately, it will be better for all of us as we bring more people out to dine. I also tell people to go to Localis and Kru, and Canon, and Beast and Bounty.
Ate 6: What are some things that Sacramento restaurants could improve upon right now?
Craig: With new restaurants opening, we still don’t have a lot of concepts here… and new restaurants should stay focused on their concept and their menu, rather than being the jack of all trades, and become scattered. Our restaurant is not that beautiful, per se, but we are focused on trying to create the best food and customer experience for our diners.
Ate 6: Toki, what would be a word of advice and encouragement to women who are in the kitchen or looking to be a part of the kitchen in Sacramento?
Toki: It’s hard work. This culinary industry takes not just guts, but a commitment, it’s a passion and dedication. Just because we’re women doesn’t mean we can’t achieve what men can achieve. Now they talk about mental health and sexual harassment. In my 16 years, I have been sexually harassed working on the line as a woman, but I fought back in my own ways. There was no protection like there is now. We worked with no insurance, so if you got a knife cut, your partner is the nurse, or you have to fork up money for stitches. Even with sexual harassment, there is much more of a light now being shone on it than there was then. You have to fight back and believe in yourself. Never give up, there’s always good and bad times. I still love this industry, and love that I get to go to my job. I’m lucky to have a partner in this kitchen who understands, and can count on me, and vice versa.
Ate 6: Sticking with that commitment to yourself about being treated equally, no matter what, is super important.
Ate 6: So what’s up with all the pickle jars?
Craig: Try a sample platter. Pickles are a big part of Asian and Japanese cuisine, including fruit. We are getting these nice seasonal ingredients and wanted to try and give people more flavors through pickling them. For me, it’s something we can offer everyone and they get to see the fun of pickling it. Pickles are also great for your health. They’re also great with alcohol. An Izakaya is a Japanese pub — sake, shochu, beer is part of the dining experience. Perhaps we will put on a pickling class eventually.
Ate 6: Last question. What’s your favorite nightcap?
Craig: Whiskey and a beer.