Every year, Cizuka Seki, one half of the daughter-father team behind Izakaya Seki, takes a vacation to Japan to visit family. This year, however, she decided to do something a little different.
She’d heard about Den, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in the older Jimbocho neighborhood of Tokyo, through word of mouth and from international blogs that track some of the world’s best dining establishments. Similar to Izakaya Seki, it’s a family operation (run by a wife and husband rather than parent and child duo). So she emailed them to see if she might be able to stage—meaning work for free and learn—for a week. “They’d never really accepted a stage before because it’s not common practice in Japan the way it is here,” Seki says. But they invited her to come anyway.
So Izakaya Seki closed for a week, and Seki spent that time working 16-hour shifts in a kitchen across the globe. Unlike other chefs who stage at restaurants around the world, Seki admits she’s a bit of a late bloomer. The 37-year-old has only ever worked in restaurants with her father, Hiroshi Seki. She never went to culinary school; before opening Seki, she worked for the World Bank and environmental organizations. At Seki, she primarily works in the front-of-the-house, and her father runs the kitchen. But eventually, she says, the intent is for her to take over his job.
“The only world I know is the one I’m in now as far as restaurants,” Seki says. “And I just needed to get out of my brain space and see what another kitchen experience is like.”
Seki says she went thinking she could observe, but ended up getting her hands dirty, too. “They let me basically be part of the team,” she says. “I got to touch stuff.” Among her duties: cleaning sea urchins and helping to plate dishes.
While you won’t find any new dishes on the menu at Izakaya Seki inspired by the trip, one of Seki’s biggest takeaways was the restaurant’s dedication to a Japanese principle meaning “the customer is God.” Seki explains: “Not in the sense that they can just do whatever they want, but you treat them like they are a guest in your house…It’s just inspiring.”
Seki wants to maintain a relationship with the restaurant so she can keep abreast of what’s going in Japan and bring a piece of that to D.C.
“I hope to go back every year,” she says.
Photo from Den by Cizuka Seki