Interview: Chef Tokiko “Toki” Sawada of Sacramento’s Binchoyaki Izakaya Dining
Chef Toki Sawada and her husband and business partner chef Craig Takehara own Binchoyaki Izakaya Dining, which features Japanese comfort food. Izakaya (which means “pub”) dining involves small plates of mostly cooked items. Chef Toki is one of the most successful women in the Sacramento’s popular restaurant scene. She proudly notes that some of the restaurant’s customers drive from hundreds of miles away to eat this style of Japanese food.
The Daily Meal: How did you get into cooking?
Chef Tokiko “Toki” Sawada: I learned to cook traditional Japanese food from my mother. I attended Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, California, where I expanded my cooking skills and appreciation for a variety of styles. That is also where I met my husband. It was a good experience in many ways.
Do you have a specialty dish?
My personal specialty is what I call “Japanese comfort food.” This includes dishes that Japanese people grow up eating, such as braised (nimono) vegetables and meats, curry, noodle dishes; and of course, pickles. These items are favorites on our menu, especially for people who remember eating these dishes in Japan.
Our restaurant specializes in modern Japanese-style barbecue. Our cuisine is based on a style of Japanese cooking called sumiyaki (sumi or bincho is Japanese charcoal and yaki means grill) or better known as yakitori (tori is chicken). The charcoal imparts such a unique flavor to the food. We serve these items in small servings, so customers often order a variety to share.
Do you prefer a particular style of cooking?
I enjoy cooking from around the world. I enjoy making cured trout with pickled daikon, and curry dishes served over rice or noodles. These are not the dishes that most Americans associate with Japanese food, and they are delicious.
At home I cook not only Japanese food. My husband really loves my albondigas soup, Thai green curry, roasted Bolognese. My son is a pescatarian, so I also enjoy cooking specialty dishes for him.
What kind of atmosphere do you create in the kitchen?
I believe in putting love into your food. I know it sounds corny, but it does make a big difference. Love and enjoyment are the keys to soul food. Our kitchen is organized and friendly. My husband, Craig, is more technical, and I am more creative.
What do you look for when you hire other chefs to assist you in the kitchen?
I look for people with a passion for food and a commitment to doing their best, with a “team player” attitude. I also look for honesty and transparency.
What keeps you in cooking?
My family and my customers keep me cooking. Food gathers our family together and nourishes our soul. I do most of the cooking at home. I like to make sure that my family is well fed and ready for the day. I cook more than Japanese food at home.
Customer enjoyment is the most rewarding part about owning your own restaurant. We appreciate it when customers drive a great distance to in our restaurant because they desire traditional Japanese food. We like to see customer appreciation — it is what keeps us going as chefs.