Living Proof: How Chef Katsuji Tanabe Turned Risk into Redemption
When he came to America in 1999, he was a penniless immigrant with no command of the English language and no one to help him find his way.
Born into a wealthy family, the son of a Japanese father and Mexican mother, he led a lavish lifestyle in Mexico that would leave him ill prepared for his hardscrabble existence in the United States. Forsaken by his father, who forbade him from pursuing his dream, he was left to his own devices to navigate a new life.
The risks seemed high and rewards remote, yet Chef Tanabe persisted, taking whatever cooking jobs he could find. At one stage in his extraordinary life, his bed was a park bench in Los Angeles, near an eatery where he worked long hours to learn as much as his could about the restaurant business and hone his cooking skills.
Through sheer talent and perseverance, he eventually landed a spot on Bravo’s Top Chef television series, where his energetic personality and culinary creativity made him a popular contestant. He parlayed his exposure on the show into a springboard to foodservice stardom, building an empire of 6 acclaimed restaurants, including The Nixon Chops & Whiskey, a steakhouse with a distinctively Mexican flair, located in Whittier, California.
Chef Tanabe proudly wears his trademark #itookarisk embroidered on the sleeve of his chef’s jacket. “Sometimes you have to take a risk in order to be successful,” he said. “I think I have learned more from my mistakes than from my wins.” He attributes his success to “calculated risks that I have taken, from coming to this country, to choosing this career, to opening my first restaurant.”
From Taking Risks to Sharing Success
Another of Chef Tanabe’s mantras is: “Immigrants cooked your food and served you today.” Printed along with #itookarisk on every check given to customers in his restaurants, it recognizes the hardworking immigrants he proudly employs, and points to his own immigrant experience on his long road from down-and-out dreamer to world-class chef and restauranteur.
A devoted husband and father, Chef Tanabe views his staff as his extended family, and emphasizes the importance of making the right business decisions to ensure that they all can share in his success. A man of caring and conscience who is always concerned about the thin line between success and losing everything, he is determined that any risks he takes yield optimal rewards.
Chef Tanabe offers living proof that no matter how many obstacles may block the road to success, drive and perseverance pay off in the end. “Chef Tanabe is an inspiration for chefs and foodservice professionals everywhere,” says Dan DeBari, General Manager for Waring Commercial. “Being a chef is no easy calling, but he and the other culinary masters profiled in Living Proof show that with the right attitude and resolve it can be profoundly rewarding on many levels.”
Chef Tanabe plans to come full circle and open a restaurant in Mexico City. He would regain a presence in the land of his birth as a man who has fulfilled his dream and looks forward to even greater success. As Jon Ashton points out toward the end of the episode: “It’s not how many hurdles you jump; it’s how you handle them that directly affects your future.” Chef Tanabe has handled the hurdles admirably, and continues to reach new heights of success.