New horizons | Monocle

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Edo López is hooked on opening new ventures. “I get addicted to it, because it’s about creating something and each one is different,” he says, over the insistent rhythm of Japanese music playing in his sushi restaurant. “If it was just a case of ‘copy and paste’ then it would be so much easier.” It explains why López’s hospitality empire, the Edo Kobayashi Group, has expanded so rapidly. Starting with Rokai, a tiny Japanese diner in Mexico City in 2013, López now has ventures on three continents, comprising 30 Japanese-influenced restaurants and bars, mostly in Mexico City, plus a ryokan. He also has a hand in more hotspots in cities such as Madrid and Miami, as well as in Shibuya, in the heart of Tokyo. It’s no wonder some are saying that this restaurateur could be the next Nobu.

The name of his group, Kobayashi, comes from his mother’s side of the family. López’s grandparents fled to Tijuana from California in the 1940s at the height of the Second World War, a dark chapter in US history when citizens of Japanese origin came under the suspicion of the government and were put in internment camps. Imagining and opening restaurants, López tells monocle, is his way of exploring his roots. We meet in Sushi Tatsugoro in the St Regis hotel in Mexico City, which has huge windows behind the counter with a view of the street’s purple-flowered jacaranda trees. Blowing and bright in the spring breeze, these trees were planted in the 1930s at the behest of Tatsugoro Matsumoto, a former gardener to the imperial palace in Tokyo. After emigrating to Mexico, he was hired by Pascual Ortiz Rubio, the president at the time, to give the capital’s main boulevard stateliness and colour. 

Mexico City has no shortage of izakayas and Japanese canteens; some add local spice into their rolls and robata. López doesn’t dabble too much in fusion. Instead, he explains, he wanted to share a pure experience of the cuisine and the “simpleness” of dining done well in Japan. It is about being fastidious with ingredients, seasoning and chefs but never fussy.

Behind a sliding door in Mexico City, Le Tachinomi Desu is a standing bar where regulars prop themselves up over crisp wine or Omurice that’s indulgently heavy on the truffle oil. Upstairs is Tokyo Music Bar, where the bartenders mix drinks and spin vinyl. López’s recent opening in Madrid is Mateo Honten, which he describes as a cocktail bar-meets-tavern. His best-loved places capture the easy hospitality of a true Japanese public house; somewhere to drop in and stay late. 

Though he started out as a chef, López doesn’t say much about the food. Instead, he steers the conversation to people and places that have inspired him, from the omakase masters he has met and, in some cases, brought onboard, to hunting down the best Japanese restaurant in Bogotá. Here he talks to monocle about his journey so far and the future of the Edo Kobayashi Group. — L

You have had a hand in more than 30 restaurants. What inspired the first?
I’ve wanted to run restaurants all my life. With my first opening, Rokai, I wanted to bring purity to Japanese food in Mexico City. I began with just a bar, two tables and a small refrigerator for wine. That was it. At first it was hard but, luckily, the Japanese embassy was only two three blocks away; word spread.

How did you expand from there?
I opened a second place in Mexico City that served only ramen. The next eight restaurants came quickly: I did a joint venture in the States and then four restaurants followed over there. I have the new one in Madrid, and, with my business partners, I’ve done some hotels too. 

Has building these restaurants been a way to explore your family roots?
Exactly. I was born in Tijuana and always felt lost in translation. I was a junior Olympic swimmer when I was young; I spent a lot of time around Americans but never felt American. Then, in Tijuana, I wasn’t Mexican, either. I began to work in music and that took me around the world. In every country, I would seek out underground Japanese restaurants or go to the homes of Japanese families. When I opened my own restaurant, I wanted bring that “real” taste here in Mexico. To get it right, I used to smuggle fish into Mexico, carrying it back from Los Angeles in bags. I’d smuggle in wasabi too.

Have you found any connection between Mexican and Japanese food?
I don’t know much about Mexican food. I know what a tortilla is but not how to make one. It’s one of the hardest kitchens in the world. That said, I fell in love with the seasonal approach to food in Japan and that’s found in Mexican cooking too: there’s a season for every ingredient. 

Did your investors come in early?
My business partners didn’t come on until I had about 10 restaurants. I began with $50,000 of my own money. Whatever I saved, I put it back in. It was fun, you know, like playing cards – opening another one, another one, another one. At one point I said, “When am I going to fail?” And, of course, you need to fail once. 

What advice would you give yourself starting out?
It’s a business but when you have some love for it, it’s going to mess you up. You have to be a little bit of an asshole to have that on you.

Is your ambition to be the next Nobu?
No. I started my first restaurant when I was 32 and now I’m 45. I was a bit too late to the prom for that.

Yet you’re running restaurants on four continents. How do you manage?
You can have a big army but you must have generals you can trust.  

Is Mexico City a good place to test an idea?
You can see how many young chefs are working here now. They’re constantly building relationships outside Mexico. Then you have Tao [Group Hospitality], which has opened a Ling Ling here; Nobu is here. I’m proud when people from outside Mexico open here.

What’s next?
I have an exciting opportunity in Mexico City and some offers in Europe and the UAE. To do that, I would be looking back to my first restaurant.

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