Nobu Kobayashi has had quite the life, but at the same time, he's just getting started. Born in Japan and trained there as a chef, Kobayashi made his way to the United States in his 20s and worked in Chicago for two years before heading back to Japan. He then worked for many years in high end Japanese restaurants specializing in kaiseki, a traditional dinner consisting of 10 to 15 courses. In his 30s, Kobayashi came back to Chicago to work as an executive chef before going out on his own as a freelancer, being contracted to open Japanese restaurants in states like Tennessee and Delaware. His culinary journey then took him to Africa where he met his wife Hakima, and after 7 years together in Japan, they made the trek back to the U.S. and to Chicago when disaster struck. The coronavirus pandemic began, and most of Chicago's restaurants shut down, including his own.
"A friend asked me to open a restaurant in Arizona, and she already had the property," Kobayashi says. "The project got canceled, but I decided to stay here and work on my own. There weren't many people going out to eat, so we thought takeout would be a good idea."
The couple opened up Umami Tokyo Curry at the CloudKitchen facility off of 5th Street in Tempe just a few weeks ago. The property is home to both stand-alone delivery-only kitchens like Umami and kitchens for business owners that already have existing brick-and-mortar restaurants or food trucks. Third party delivery services like Postmates and UberEats pick up from there, and walk-in customers can order food from any of the kitchens or at the food trucks that park there.
The name umami refers to that savory fifth taste discovered over a century ago in Japan. Curry was actually brought over from India to Japan by the British and became popular there in the late 1960s. Japanese-style curry now has a following in Los Angeles and New York City but not as much in Arizona. Although it's on the menu of several Japanese restaurants here, Kobayashi's kitchen is believed to be the first place specializing in it, and his has a flavor all of its own.
"Most Japanese restaurants serving Japanese curry use a roux, but ours is a big, different taste," Kobayashi says.
Kobayashi constructs his curry out of ingredients often found in Japanese dashi stock. He makes his own soy sauce and adds it to a mixture of kombu help, dried bonito flakes and dried shitake mushrooms. It's poured over rice and served with different types of meat like pork cutlets and sausage, thin sliced beef and fried chicken. It can also accompany crispy panko shrimp or vegetable croquettes or be eaten in the style of an udon noodle soup. Kobayashi is additionally serving up appetizers like shumai pork dumplings and edamame, seaweed and squid salads and traditional rice cake desserts.
Kobayashi has been a resident of Tempe for less than a month but is already making an impact, even though he's new to this type of business. His goal is to eventually open up a sit-down restaurant and introduce more and more Arizonans to a whole new cuisine. In fact, part of the reason that Kobayashi ended up in Tempe was to connect with the younger crowd living in the area and attending Arizona State University.
"We want to connect with young people," says Kobayashi. "Japanese curry is kind of a young people food, for teenagers, people in their 20s, 30s, maybe early 40s, so that's why we decided on Tempe close to the university."
Umami Tokyo Curry is located at 1900 E 5th Street, Tempe. Order from DoorDash, GrubHub, Postmates or UberEats or pick up at the main entrance. For more information, visit www.umamitokyocurry.com.