Ann Arbor's ramen restaurant Slurping Turtle debuted in April 2014 to quite a bit of fanfare. Now heading into its second year, chef/owner Takashi Yagihashi is considering how his Michigan restaurant will adapt now that it's no longer the new kid on the block. Yagihashi is trained French and Japanese cuisine and spent nine years at Tribute in Farmington Hills before moving to Chicago to begin his own projects. He now operates multiple restaurants in the Chicago area and is in the process of opening new noodle bar at Macy's Herald Square in New York. In December, he surprised everyone by shuttering his Michelin-starred Takashi restaurant.
Eater sat down with the chef to talk about how Slurping Turtle plans to grow in its second year, how the Ann Arbor location compares to the Chicago original, and why he said goodbye to the Michelin-starred Takashi restaurant.
Why did you decide to bring Slurping Turtle back to Ann Arbor?
I had been in Michigan nine years and Ann Arbor is one of my favorite places to come on my day off. My restaurant, Tribute, was Sundays and Mondays off. So, sometimes my wife and my children and I would come here on a Sunday afternoon and hang around, go to Zingerman's, and get a sandwich. The University of Michigan is a big cross-cultural university, so we can feel that very international feeling about this town. That's why I fell in love with this location.
How has the Ann Arbor location operated differently from its counterpart in Chicago?
The location in Chicago is one of the busiest locations we have and we have so many business offices, that lunch business is a very good . . . It's a great town, great location for that. Ann Arbor is almost the same. We can see that foot traffic is very heavy here, but I would say that in Chicago we don't have any students there and Ann Arbor here has so many students . . . Talking about the business side we don't sell alcohol as much here. Mostly it's food, food, food. In Chicago is much more wine, beer, and sake. So it's two different businesses if you think about it.
Were there any surprises for you, opening this location?
Last year, we opened at the end of April and we were a brand new restaurant so many people came. So we didn't have that slow down of business for summer. But this year we're not a brand new restaurant anymore so that business is a little bit slower when students aren't around. We're doing very well, but those are the things we need to figure out. We're supposed to know, but we didn't know it was going to be such a big difference.
What are your plans for moving forward and adapting to the ebb and flow of students?
We'd like to get connected more with the [Japanese community] and we'd like to be more a part of that culture. There are so many Japanese companies around the Ann Arbor area because of the automobile industry — Toyota, Nissan. Japanese companies already exist here and we'd like to make those connections.
Ann Arbor and Chicago are very different cities. How do the menus compare?
Each location has a different chef. So the specials running here and in Chicago are totally different . . . Here it's much more fun. The farmers market is so close. So we can sometimes grab things from the farmers market and use them the same day. In Chicago, we don't have those kinds of things.
Recently you closed Takashi in Chicago. Why did you choose to let your Michelin-starred restaurant go?
The restaurant business is always an emotional thing and we did more than 7 years [at Takashi] . . . We achieved a lot of good things there — a Michelin star and a Zagat listing where we got rated second best in Chicago restaurants and the other restaurant is a much more expensive restaurant. So I think on the culinary side we achieved a lot. The business side was always struggling and especially after I opened a restaurant here, it was a lot to do. I was running five restaurants. Of course, it's sad but I feel good that I can take a day off sometimes.
How would you say that your style in the kitchen has evolved over the course of your career?
At one time I wanted to be a French chef more than anything else. I wanted to be French more than French people. It's kind of weird to say, but I was so interested in French cooking. Fortunately I had the chance to go to France twice, making sure I was doing the right things.
These days I'm more focused on cooking everyday food like soul food, street food, and home cooking. It's fun actually. Fine dining is a challenge. But every day here is the other challenge. I think I'm very, very happy that sometimes I can do both things. Also I can do pastry too. Still I'm learning.
Have you come across any other cooking styles recently that you've been exploring?
I'm very interested these days in Central and South American food. I've went to Argentina about six years ago and I realized I don't have a knowledge about Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Peru. That's my weakness. I don't know much about that, so that's what I'd like to learn next.
More and more restaurants seem to be offering ramen. What do you think is fueling that trend?
I think sushi became an American food and now everyone's less afraid of eating raw fish. So now American people are wondering what's next from Japan? So it's ramen. I think ramen and sushi do very similar things. If you go to one restaurant you have kind of their theme. That's the beauty of ramen and the sushi. If you go to one restaurant that chef is going to present something in his own style and the ramen is exactly the same. At Slurping Turtle we have our own style . . . Some ramen is more authentic. Some is a little bit funky.
How has running restaurants in Chicago changed over the course of your career?
In Chicago 10 restaurants open and only three survive so competition is very, very high these days. And especially chefs in the kitchens are very, very hard to find steady people and to keep them happy...These days good people are hard to find.
How do you attract a really strong team?
I think we have to keep continuing to teach them what we want them to do, what we want them to achieve, and what our standards are — from the culinary to the sanitation side. I think people love to learn and as long as they feel that 'I'm learning something' I think they're going to stay.
As a chef, how do you communicate with your team in the kitchen?
A lot of people still expect that crazy chef in the kitchen, but that time is over. Nobody wants to work under the crazy, yelling, swearing chef. I don't understand it.
Were you ever like that in the kitchen?
Probably in some moments. When I was much younger I thought that passion made everything change. But I realized that's not it. How much passion I have in myself and how I communicate with other people — if there's a disconnect there, it doesn't work. These days, if I find you not doing the right things I approach you like 'What the hell are you doing?' I don't do that. I just say 'Hey. Let me show you what I want.' I show them exactly what I want. There's nothing wrong and everyone makes mistakes. You don't need that emotional [response].