By Alison De La Cruz
As a foodie and a producer of “One Night Only,” I sat down with Chef Glen Ishii of JiST Café, East West Players’ newest neighbor in Little Tokyo and chef catering our special event “One Night Only: Tim Dang’s 20th Anniversary” on August 17, 2013.
How did you get started as a chef?
Glen: I guess I got started working for my mom, when I was a kid helping her out in the kitchen at Tokyo Garden doing prep work and cleaning. I then went to college for Hotel & Restaurant Management, and after I went to Japan for a year. It was while I was there that I decided: I think I’ll do this as a career. Then I came back, worked at a restaurant in Marina del Rey and learned classic French cuisine. After, I was just building my work experience.
What was it like growing up in Mom’s kitchen in Little Tokyo?
Glen: Part of it was convenient. I went to elementary at Maryknoll, it’s now St Francis Xavier school, and then I would walk over after school. As a kid it was fun, something about the kitchen seemed fun. But as a teenager, I always had to work on the weekend so it sucked. Especially during Nisei Week, when all the friends would visit.
You have such a deep history in Little Tokyo. Lots of people are talking about how Little Tokyo is shifting, what are your thoughts?
Glen: Before, everyone used to know each other in Little Tokyo, people knew who my mom was, and I was, because of the area and the restaurant business. But now it’s completely changed. Whether it’s better or worse, I’m not sure, but for business it’s okay. It’s tough from generation to generation, not sure if the younger generation cares anymore. To preserve Little Tokyo, (pause) its tough, most Japanese Americans or Japanese businesses are going to other locations. Working in downtown, I’ve seen the changes. The older generation, like my mother’s, are getting tired and not everyone is going to do what their parents did.
Caroline Shin, Glen’s business partner joins us in the conversation.
So, knowing how Little Tokyo is changing, is there where you always wanted to start your own restaurant or were you looking at other locations around L.A.?
Caroline: It organically worked out that way. When we first started playing with the idea, we didn’t know what kind of restaurant, we just knew it was going to be something. It was just the right timing, his uncle was retiring. But Glen wanted to come back to Little Tokyo, but never planned to come back. In the end, it was kind of like a path that he needed to take.
Glen: It just seemed like it was meant to be for some reason.
Can you tell me about the name JiST Cafe?
Glen: We came up with the name. Caroline had the idea for Gist. Caroline had a J in her name, and it also is a nod to my mom’s name. We wanted to keep the T for Tokyo Café for Tokyo Gardens.
What was your inspiration for JiST’s menu?
Glen: We talked about doing a different kind of concept, but I felt that breakfast was an area that people do right. Plus, I wanted a change of lifestyle; I had been working a dinner service schedule all the time. So I thought this concept of breakfast, doing it this way, would be better for me.
Glen: I want people to come in here and have things that are done right, as far as breakfast. People put extra emphasis on dinner, because of a high ticket price, but breakfast is difficult. As a chef, the first thing you learn to make are eggs. People think eggs are easy. But eggs are very difficult, very sensitive. And going back to our conversation about Little Tokyo, I realized that what Little Tokyo was missing was a breakfast place. I do have some Japanese elements, but Little Tokyo is a mixed crowd, and for the business, I want to cater to a broad crowd.
You’ve been open for a few weeks now, how’s it been going?
Glen: The customers that come in, it’s amazing how many people come to see my mom. And how many people come to see her. People I grew up with, I haven’t seen them in over 20 or 30 years and they’ve come by. It’s just amazing.
Timing with the restaurant, with our partnership, it just seemed like the right time. In life, what I’ve learned, opportunities are always coming your way. If you keep your eyes open you’ll see it. If you don’t, they’ll pass by. When opportunities come, it’s about whether you have the guts to take it. Business is very risky. Caroline was the one who said, “If you don’t take the risk you’ll never know.”
Right now, it’s just fun. Our timing to open this place just happened to fall into place. The timing was right on.
JiST is located at 116 Judge John Aiso St, Los Angeles, California 90012
Phone: (213) 792-2116
Hours of Operation: Tues – Fri: 5am – 3pm Sat& Sun: 8am – 4pm.