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Tips from a Restaurant Kitchen

Kawa Ni's Kitchen is a Master Class in Efficiency

Article by Robin Moyer Chung

Photography by Tomira Wilcox

Originally published in Westport Lifestyle

During deep-cleans at The Whelk, Bill Taibe and his team used to munch on Philly cheese-steak egg rolls purchased at the Chinese Restaurant across the way. 

One day Bill strolled over to purchase a few of his favorite snack treats and a sign forced him to stop in his tracks: “CLOSED.”

So Bill spoke to the landlord and rented the space

The sliver of a restaurant became Kawa Ni, an eatery designed after izakaya (family pubs) in Japan. It became wildly popular, so Bill doubled its size when the space next door became vacant, which doubled the diners. Though the kitchen remained roughly the size of a crawl space, it churned out the same excellent quality dishes to twice as many guests.

Then the thought occurred to us: perhaps we can translate some of his kitchen’s form and efficiency into our own kitchens? 

So Westport Lifestyle, Designport, and CT Bites interrupted Bill’s hectic lunchtime rush to learn a bit more and gather some tips. 

Dishes: 

Izakayas are, typically, small family-owned and operated gastro-pubs. As such, they reflect the culture and upbringing of the proprietors. Bill wanted Kawa-Ni to feel authentic, as though it were part of a family heritage that had “been around forever.”

Vintage dishes help create this aura of establishment. Primary sources for this china are BorrowedVintageStyle.com, auctions, and gifts from customers (“people drop off china all the time,” states Bill.)

Tip: Collect china from consignment shops and markets. The varying colors and patterns make a lively, interesting table, and any broken dishes can be easily and cheaply replaced.

Decorative Touches:

The Japanese art of Kintsugi is mending broken dishes with gold lacquer to highlight rather than hide its journey. In this spirit, stacks of lightly chipped china liven up Kawa Ni’s shelves and teacups with broken handles are repurposed as candle holders. 

Tip: Just because a dish is chipped doesn’t mean it’s no longer beautiful. Re-purpose them as decorative elements, using cups for candles, bowls as vases, and patterned dishes hung on the walls or stacked near the cookbooks. If the dish is in shards, consider applying the art of Kintsugi, or just toss it in the trash and buy a new one.

Use It or Lose It:

After Bill bought the Chinese Restaurant (of note, that’s believed to have been the actual name of the joint), he decided to go Asian. Fortunately, the kitchen was already decked out with woks. Unfortunately, he realized he nor his cooks knew how to cook on woks, so he tore them out and installed a hotline. 

Tip: You don’t need fancy equipment to cook interesting meals. Use what you know and don’t pack your cabinets with ebelskivers, egg poachers, and induction frittata pans.

Smart Storage:

Chefs use Tupperware just like real people, except theirs has a fancier name. With it, they create “kits”: storing together the different ingredients used to create a certain dish. For instance, a kit may include fresh tuna, creamy spicy sauce, daikon, and nori for Spicy Tuna Nigiri. 

Tip: Chances are good you’re not whipping up tuna nigiri for your kids’ lunch, but if you have a go-to, such as sandwiches or pasta, consider storing ingredients together so you don’t have to poke through a pile of groceries every time you make it. 

Minimal Space:

Every cook has about three feet of space in which to prepare their plates. Everything they need is readily accessible, including refrigerated ingredients beneath their counter space. 

Tip: The kitchen in Bill’s home is spacious, but he only uses a fraction of the space for cooking. Two steps to the stove, to the sink, to the countertop. The fridge is about four steps away. This small workspace ensures precious few people plow through and disrupt his process, and allows guests plenty of space to reconnoiter without bugging him.

Lastly, a droplet of wisdom from our enterprising yet humble restauranteur, “It all comes down to how I feel. If I like it, I get it.”

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