Tokyo has long been recognized as a culinary capital of the world, boasting the greatest number of restaurants conferred three stars by Michelin, the famous gastronomic guide.
But one new restaurant is in a class of its own: Chana’s Place, the country’s first-ever glatt-kosher restaurant, opened in December by Rabbi Mendi and Chana Sudakevich, co-directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Tokyo for nearly 15 years now.
“We’ve wanted to have a restaurant for a long time, but there was always something more important to do first,” explains Chana Sudakevich. Since arriving in 2000, the couple has inaugurated a new synagogue and a mikvah, in addition to providing a spiritual home for many of Japan’s 2,000 or so Jews.
Keeping kosher in Japan is challenging. Its cuisine traditionally features shellfish, pork and other non-kosher ingredients, and only a handful of international supermarkets carry kosher-certified products. With the establishment of the restaurant, kosher consumers can now select from an Israeli and Jewish-style menu with classic dishes like falafel, hummus, shakshuka (eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce) and schnitzel (boneless breaded meat, usually chicken).
Long before opening their restaurant, the Sudakeviches worked hard to provide kosher food for Jewish residents of Tokyo, in addition to the several thousand Jews who visit the country each year for business and leisure. They offered catered meals and packed lunches for visitors and tour groups, including preparing food last spring for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his staff when they visited Tokyo.
Until recently, all of this was done out of the small kitchen in the couple’s home, which they share with their six children, in Tokyo’s Minato neighborhood.
A chance meeting between two tourists—one from Israel, the other from California—in the summer of 2013 gave the Sudakeviches the push they needed to get the restaurant underway. The travelers, who had both reserved catered meals at Chabad, struck up a conversation about the lack of a kosher restaurant in Tokoyo. Learning of the couple’s plans to start one, they both pledged significant donations for the effort.
It took more than a year of renovations on the ground floor of their building to get the space ready, including installing a large professional oven and range, new floors, and redoing the bathroom and the general decor.
“It was a lot of work,” acknowledges Chana Sudakevich. “Japan has a great deal of bureaucracy, so it was many documents, many things to do. It’s not easy when you are a foreigner and don’t speak the language. But in Japan, as long as you do things correctly, it’ll work out.”
The restaurant is “very Japanese in size,” she says, meaning that it’s quaint, with seating for 14. (As business grows, they hope to expand into an adjoining space that doubles as a dining room for Shabbat meals.) Its color scheme is red and black, and the sign in front, featuring a Japanese-style chrysanthemum, references the double entendre of the restaurant’s name—“Hana” meaning “flower” in Japanese.
An added bonus: It is headed by a French-born chef. However, if patrons request kosher Japanese food in advance, such as sushi, special arrangements can be made to bring in a Japanese chef.
After a “soft launch” with reservations-only dining, Chana’s Place is now open for dinner Sunday through Thursday, from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Lunch is also available with a reservation. So far, most of the patrons have been travelers and Jewish locals, which are their target audience, but Chana Sudakevich says she hopes that the restaurant will attract some Japanese foodies as well.
After all, she notes: “Japanese people like to try new things.”
‘A Very Exciting Development’
Rabbi Hertsel Simantov, a 25-year Tokyo resident who works in the kashrut industry and as a medical doctor, says the restaurant will have a huge impact on kosher travel.
“People traveling to Japan won’t have to bring a suitcase of food with them anymore,” he says. “It’s going to be a big change for people who keep kosher.”
Liane Wakabayashi, an American writer and teacher who has lived in Tokyo since 1987, echoes Simantov’s sentiments. “The restaurant is a very exciting development,” she says, and offers “more opportunity to know and practice Jewish life” in Japan.
David Leibowitz, who owns a tuna exporting company, moved permanently from the United States to Tokyo with his family five years ago. Leibowitz says he, his wife and three children have been regulars at Chana’s Place since it opened.
“Not just having a kosher restaurant, but one with great cooking,” he declares, following the fare set by the Sudakeviches, “is a double blessing.”