People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Yuji Haraguchi: Changing the gourmet rules

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

It’s surprising just how far some fishy connections can get you.

In 2004, Yuji Haraguchi, originally from Utsunomiya in Tochigi Prefecture, left his job as a salesman in Japan and headed across the Pacific to Boston to take up a position with True World Foods, one of the biggest fish distributors in the U.S. The sudden change in work turned out to be the first step toward a whole new vocation.

Like many fresh graduates, Haraguchi had quickly discovered that the first job he had landed — in this case selling complex multimillion dollar machine parts — was not something he wanted to spend his whole life doing. Perhaps that helped highlight what he did enjoy doing, though, as at the same time, he made another discovery: He was a foodie.

It was while living with his younger sister in an apartment close to her university and his company that he realized neither of the two were doing much in the way of cooking. So he took it upon himself to try his hand at it.

“I started loving it, like crazy,” he says.

He soon found himself spending nearly his entire paycheck on food or food-related material. He would hang around supermarkets on the weekends to watch the fishmongers cut up fish; visited fancy restaurants to train his taste buds; bought stacks of magazines about restaurants and recipes; and shelled out on knives that he admits he had no idea how to use. He even bought beautiful handmade ceramic dishes. “I thought they would make my food look nice,” he says. “I started to really believe that I would be opening my own restaurant straight away.”

Looking back, Haraguchi says his behavior was “really funny.”

The restaurant didn’t happen “straight away.” Haraguchi did, however, quit his sales job to get into the food business by joining True Whole Foods in Boston.

It wasn’t Haraguchi’s first stint in the States. He had spent nearly three years on the West Coast as an undergraduate at Willamette University in Oregon. But he found the move this time a totally different experience.

“It was more like going to another country rather than going back to America,” Haraguchi says of relocating to Boston. “Between the West and East coast, the cultures are very different. The climate is very different … and I had zero friends.”

But it didn’t stop Haraguchi hitting the ground running.

For his work, he would go to the piers where the trawlers landed to check their hauls of fish, while also organizing imports of fish from Tsukiji in Tokyo for distribution in America.

“Within my first three years in the fish industry I learned so much more than I ever imagined I would,” he says. “I was able to compare the different cultures of the two countries, especially when it came to fish handling.”

When two Japanese baseball pitchers — Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima — joined the Boston Red Sox in 2006, Haraguchi’s newfound knowledge also allowed him the opportunity to indulge in another passion.

A self-confessed baseball nut, he became a regular at Fenway Park, the Red Sox’s venerable home ground, though not in the regular way.

“They (The Red Sox) hired a Japanese chef to provide lunch and dinner for all the players, including the two Japanese signees,” he explains. “The chef called our company looking for good fish and I became their salesperson, so I’d regularly have to deliver fish to Fenway Park.”

Haraguchi ended up getting tickets for many games, including the World Series. “That was so much fun, especially as I didn’t expect fish could be connected to baseball,” he says.

After what he calls three “crazy years” in Boston, Haraguchi moved to New York to take up a higher profile position in national marketing with True Whole Foods. The move marked the second chapter of his career, one that eventually allowed him to realize his dream of opening a restaurant — or rather nearly half a dozen restaurants, on two continents.

In New York, one of Haraguchi’s duties was to generate new ideas for fish dishes. That’s when he first thought up the concept of fish ramen.

“I just didn’t want to share that idea with anyone,” he confesses. “So I thought I should do it myself and see how it goes.”

In 2011, he launched Yuji Ramen. The venture started out as a pop-up at a friend’s bar two nights a week, where Haraguchi served ramen with soups made from tuna bone dashi stock. Having worked with fish for so long, he says he was “sick and tired of seeing so much of the fish wasted,” and saw an opportunity to use what was usually thrown away.

“In America at that time, there was so much about tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen” he adds, saying that he was looking to give customers something new. Even though he admits not liking ramen while growing up, he also hoped to create something that was healthy and that he would personally want to eat everyday.

Haraguchi’s idea turned out to be a winner. Following a write up in Time Out New York, the word got out and Haraguchi could quit his day job to become a full-time ramen chef.

Whole Foods, the upscale American supermarket, next signed him on to keep Yuji Ramen going, opening it inside Bowery Whole Foods, and when his contract ended, Haraguchi was ready to move on to a new project.

For Haraguchi, doing things differently is key — whether it’s trying to cut down on food waste or moving beyond the holy trinity of Japanese food in the U.S. — sushi, tempura and tonkotsu ramen.

When recently asked her opinion on Haraguchi, the New York-based food writer Akiko Katayama describes the chef as having “vision.”

“He sees things with positively skeptical eyes to improve what exists right now — and he takes action,” she says. “It sounds easy but not many people can do it and it is very inspiring to see what he does persistently.”

For Haraguchi’s next idea, Okonomi/Yuji Ramen, which he opened in 2014 in Brooklyn, he explains that he wanted to showcase the healthy side of washoku (Japanese dishes). He decided to improve on teishoku, the standard lunch sets found in many restaurants across Japan. Instead of serving it as lunch, though, he chose to offer it for breakfast, switching to Yuji Ramen dishes in the afternoon and evening. The restaurant swiftly became a local favorite.

Inspired by customers and his wife, who had moved from Japan to New York, asking him where he sourced his fish, Haraguchi next opened Osakana — a fishmongers, also in Brooklyn.

Now, Haraguchi, who once dreamed of opening just one restaurant, owns a small fleet of them — and not just in the U.S. In 2018, he opened a Yuji Ramen in Tokyo and Lorimer, a sister restaurant of Okonomi in Kyoto. This year he plans to add Okozushi, a take out sushi shop in Brooklyn, to his empire.

Overseeing 30 staff in two countries, he inevitably goes back and forth to Japan every couple of months. But the U.S., he insists, remains his base and his home.

“American customers are so open to new ideas and I’m really passionate about bringing something new; surprising them and making them happy,” he says. “I know I can succeed in America, because of my personality.”

Profile

Name: Yuji Haraguchi

Profession: Chef and restaurateur

Hometown: Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture

Age: 38

Key moments in career:

2004 — Leaves job in Japan to take up a position with True World Foods, Boston

2007 — Moves to True World Foods New York for a national marketing position

2011 — Starts Yuji Ramen as a pop-up and is featured by Time Out NY

2013 — Opens Yuji Ramen at Whole Foods Market

2014 — Opens Okonomi/Yuji Ramen in Brooklyn, NY

2016 — Opens Osakana in Brooklyn, NY

2018 — Opens Lorimer in Kyoto and Yuji Ramen Tokyo

2019 — Set to open Okozushi take-out sushi in Brooklyn

Best advice ever been given: “American fish and Japanese fish are both the same when they are in the ocean. People add value in the way they handle them after catching them.”

Things I miss about Japan: “The availabilty of a variety of shellfish, such as akagai (ark shell), and squid, like aoriika (bigfin reef squid).