Restaurateur-Rama: Q&A with Jeff Osaka

Jeff Osaka packs in diners with his popular ramen, conveyor belt sushi eateries.

jeff-osaka

Photo by Annette Slade

Jeff Osaka, one of Denver’s most personable and talented chefs, has done his part to elevate the city’s restaurant scene. Twelve, his debut effort—a 50-seat, white-tablecloth eatery that opened in the Ballpark neighborhood on Election Day 2008—remained a popular destination for foodies for the next six years.

But the restaurant, so named because its menu changed every month, may not be gone for good, Osaka says, noting that it could resurface somewhere on down the line, albeit with a new twist. After Twelve, the Southern California native helped ignite the local ramen craze. His Osaka Ramen, with locations in RiNo and Cherry Creek North, is packed at lunch and dinner. His Sushi-Rama, where guests decide what to eat not by perusing a menu, but by plucking whatever looks good from an assortment of possibilities that whisk by on a conveyor belt, was a hit from the moment it opened in late December. Osaka also is a partner with developer Ken Wolf in The Central Market, a 12,000-square-foot food hall that’s scheduled to open soon in the historic H.H. Tammen Building at 2669 Larimer St. He says the 13 stalls will include a bakery, produce counter, charcuterie and cheese bar, ice cream stand and his own Silva’s Fish Market, named for Sushi-Rama’s executive chef Jesus Silva.

Denver Life Magazine recently sat down with Osaka at his Cherry Creek North restaurant.

Was it always your dream to become a restaurateur? No. I switched careers in 1992, when I was 28. I started out in the grocery business, bagging groceries with the Vons supermarket chain in Southern California when I was in high school. Ten years later I had worked my way into management. I was making decent money, so I dined out often, enjoying great food in Los Angeles’ hottest places.

So, eating all that wonderful food is what inspired you? In a roundabout way. One night I was at DC3, a restaurant at the Santa Monica airport, and I passed by the kitchen on my way to the restroom. I saw a brigade of guys in white, pans flying and just a whole bunch of hustle and bustle. I knew then that I wanted to be a part of it, so I asked the hostess if they were hiring and she gave me an application. Mind you, I had no previous restaurant experience, but when I met with the chef, he saw something in me and hired me on the spot. I was getting $6 an hour, and after working two or three days a week for six months I was hooked. Then, for a year and a half—to see if I really liked the restaurant business—I worked as a short-order cook at a truck stop in Salinas, cooking basics like eggs and biscuits and gravy in the mornings, and then moving on to a full-service restaurant in Monterey in the evenings.

Then what? Once I was sure I wanted to become a chef, I enrolled in culinary school. I couldn’t afford the $30,000 it would cost to attend the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, so I looked for a trade or technical school that was more in line with my budget. I picked Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California, because it had a very highly rated program and was located near San Francisco, over in the East Bay. That was a big year for me: I moved from my hometown, got married and changed careers.

Editor’s note: Following graduation, Osaka worked in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for a few years, then it was back to Los Angeles, where he and a partner opened a restaurant that flourished for six months and then closed. Subsequently, friends in Colorado talked him into moving to Denver. It wasn’t a difficult choice; Lynnette, who would become his second wife, grew up in Arvada and was anxious to return. The couple wed one year after Twelve opened. It was a small ceremony, he recalls, “and I made the cake for our reception.”

Describe the segue from Twelve to Osaka Ramen. We couldn’t have picked a worse time to open a restaurant like Twelve. The economy was horrible, but we stuck it out and were successful for a period just shy of six years. We had good reviews and loyal clients. But everything—from baking bread and working the line to writing the menu—was done by me, and eventually it became too much. The neighborhood in L.A. where I grew up had about 150 ramen shops and so after closing Twelve and taking a break to do some research, I decided introducing the people in Denver to the more traditional and authentic Japanese style of ramen would be my next move.

Yet, with three restaurants and a soon-to-open market, you must still be plenty busy. I have good people in place so that I don’t have to do everything. I mentor, train and hold the businesses together. I still cook; just not as much.

What’s your favorite dish at Osaka Ramen? The spicy miso ramen.

Do you cook at home? Rarely. Although I did make a great slow-cooker corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day.

Do you have a favorite restaurant? Ah, that’s a hard one to answer because there are so many and I’d hate to leave one out. For Chinese, Vietnamese or Mexican food we go to the places along Federal Boulevard. Closer to home, Alex (Seidel) does a great job at Mercantile Dining & Provision at Union Station. We also like ChoLon, and of course everything that Justin (Brunson) does at Old Major and Masterpiece Delicatessen. We love Sushi Den and all of Troy Guard’s restaurants. It’s important to support our fellow chefs.

What’s the next big trend in dining out? I don’t believe in trends too much, but I’d have to say simplicity. Let the food speak for itself.

If you hadn’t become a chef, what would you be doing today? Building something with my hands. In high school, I was preparing to be an architect. If I were to retire, I’d pull my car out of the garage and turn it into a workshop. But I have no plans to retire; only when it stops being enjoyable will I quit. Sure, there are challenges, but I like to figure out how to make things better.

Is there a life lesson that you’ve gained from being a chef? It would have to be that flexibility is key. You’re a cook, a plumber, a dishwasher … you have to wear many hats and be prepared for anything.

Any advice for those starting out? Be observant, be well-prepared and make sure you are well-financed. Always have some extra financial padding. And take things one step at a time. Don’t try to advance more quickly than you are ready to.

sesame-green-beans-osaka

Sesame Green Beans Photo by Annette Slade

SESAME GREEN BEANS Courtesy Jeff Osaka
(Serves four)

INGREDIENTS
⅛ cup soy sauce
⅛ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 pound blanched green beans
¼ cup black and white sesame
seeds
Kosher salt to taste

DIRECTIONS
In a small sauce pan, combine soy sauce, sugar and black pepper. Over medium-high heat, bring to a simmer and let cook until completely dissolved. Strain, and refrigerate to let cool.

Using a large mortar and pestle, grind sesame seeds until most seeds are broken. Add beans, sweet soy and salt to taste. Toss all ingredients together, making sure beans are well-coated with ground sesame seeds and sweet soy. Transfer to a serving bowl and enjoy.

Visit Jeff Osaka’s restaurants:

Osaka Ramen
2817 E. Third Ave.
2611 Walnut St.

Sushi-Rama
2615 Larimer St.

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