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Fu-Ga Serves Up Hospitality, Japanese Style

By Alanna Lin
Published: Wednesday, September 01, 2010, at 11:05AM
Mamoru Tokuda and Ken Taka of Fu-Ga Derek Van Oss

Manager Mamoru Tokuda and head chef Ken Taka in the kitchen of Little Tokyo's Fu-Ga.

I’m not a restaurant writer. I ended up at Fu-ga in Little Tokyo when a friend and I decided to have dinner within walking distance from my place. The restaurant has taken up residence in a space previously occupied by a dive bar that served mostly locals. The last time I was there, I made my way down to a small room that served as a stage to a drunken Japanese tourist with whom I sang Karaoke.

This time, it was a very different experience.

Apart from the transformation of the space from somewhat sketchy basement bar to pleasant, glimmering dining lounge, what struck me most was the tasty food served by quite possibly the nicest wait staff I have ever encountered. I scheduled an interview to find out what remarkable human resource program was in place to cultivate such noticeable hospitality.

I spoke first with Mamoru Tokuda (restaurant manager) and then with Ken Taka, the head chef.

ALANNA LIN: Can you tell me a little about this history of the place?

MAMORU TOKUDA: The owner owns Shogun, which has 8 locations, but this is the first time to open in Little Tokyo, first time to open Izakaya tapas bar.

AL: Japanese style tapas?

MT: Yes, small plates, small dishes. We have a full bar, for drinking eating...and talking.

The thing is, lots of people people think that Izakaya is more traditional Japanese food, but it is not. So some of them are. . .not disappointed. . .but they expect more traditional. If the sign says "Izakaya" they expect it to be more traditional.

AL: Because it’s a Japanese word?

MT: Yes. (laughs)

AL: So how about you? Where are you from?

MT: Kagoshima, very Southern part of Japan. Right next to Okinawa. Do you know Okinawa?

AL: I’ve seen it in the movies. Karate Kid. Do you know that movie? (Mamoru shakes his head -no.) That's okay. Did you move directly from Kogoshima. . .

MT: To L.A. I never been to Tokyo.

AL: Really? No kidding.

MT: I just stopped by at the airport on my way to L.A.

AL: Is Kagoshima more city or rural country?

MT: Country, country. I was very countryside. I didn’t like city culture.

AL: You didn't like it, so. . .

MT: So I came to. . .

AL: L.A.?

MT: L.A! (laughs) I like America. Culture-wise, the weather. . .Since I’ve been here, I don’t want to go back to Japan. Because I really like it here.

AL: Tell me why you like it.

MT: If you’re in Japan you feel like you’re in the cage of culture. Your parents and neighbors –they all care about you all the time, you have to act a certain way, there is no freedom and the countryside is even more traditional. . .

AL: Old-style, traditional.

MT: Yes. That’s why I escaped.

AL: Escaped is quite a word. . .

MT: Here there is more freedom, more opportunity. You can see all of the world in L.A., right? You can eat any kind of food, you know?

AL: Mamoru, one thing I really noticed is that the staff is very pleasant and friendly and personable, they have a really nice manner and I wondered about that. . .It struck me as a particularly nice group of people. How did you find your staff?

MT: At the beginning when we were hiring people, 200 people applied. We interviewed all of them.

AL: Seriously?

MT: We had two days of open interviews. Total hours – 15 hours. And we talked to everyone. American, friendly service can be good. But since all the management is Japanese, we tried to be strict about manner, i.e., friendly communication with customers.

AL: So, how did you figure out if they would be that way?

MT: We had some questions, tried to make them talk. . . It’s hard to describe how we found out how the people were. . .

AL: Can you try to describe the process because it’s something I really noticed. There’s something consistent about the people here, they way they look at you. I think it’s an interesting quality.

MT: You can tell if people are honest, they look at your eyes. Some people when they are lying they don’t see your eyes. Or when they’re talking, smiling-talking was something we looked for. Also, if I gave them a question that was hard to explain, if they started very quickly to try to respond--that was good. Some people just sat there, quiet. . .thinking. Not so good for customers service. That’s how we figured out who we wanted to hire.

AL: How long did each interview last?

MT: Less than 5 minutes. . .There was a long line! Now, I have a very good team. They help each other, they respect each other.

AL: This is strange question to ask, but do you have staff development, do you help them improve as they work with you? Once they learn their job, how do you maintain such a high level of service?

MT: We have meetings. Each of the departments meets, then the head server, head bartender talk to each other and bring ideas to management meetings and then we adjust system and rules. Everyone knows what each other is thinking about. Also, sometimes we try to rotate the positions, so they can feel what each other needs.

AL: That’s great.

MT: Also, now we have Yelp. So you can see from customer comments what we need to improve. It’s very helpful.

AL: What do you feel you do especially well? What do you feel is really special about your place?

MT: We’re very flexible, neutral. . .and we accept everyone. Also we have a very great chef, so the food on the menu is. . .one of the good things. And everyone says the prices are cheap. . .a good deal. Maybe we need more ads to tell people we’re here. (smiling)

Mamoru had to leave to attend to affairs in the dining room but Ken Taka, head chef, soon appeared in the back room to be interviewed.

AL: I was here the other day and I was so happy to eat your food and so happy to be treated so well by the staff that I wanted to interview you.

KT: Thank you very much.

AL: Where are you from?

KT: Tokyo.

AL: The big city.

MT: Yes, big city.

AL: How did you become a chef?

KT: I love food, to create it. Food, architecture, I love it.

AL: So when you were very little did you know this? When did you realize this was what you wanted to do?

KT: High school. A part-time job where I helped in a restaurant and then oh my god I love it. (laughs)

AL: What are you most proud of?

KT: I created and served a meal to the Emperor and Empress of Japan in 1994 when they visited the United States and came to Los Angeles. I was working at the Japanese Consulate, so I served them.

AL: What did you make for them?

KT: California cuisine. French style courses. But I included a California roll as an appetizer. Because they had never had a California roll.

AL: Because they don’t have California rolls in Japan.

KT: (nodding) Yes.

AL: That’s so funny! Ken, I’m so happy that you love what you’re doing because it shows.

KT: My heart is hospitality to the customer. Customer enjoy, I’m really happy.

IZAKAYA FU-GA / 111 S. San Pedro, Little Tokyo / 213-625-1722 / izakayafu-ga.com

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