People | 20 QUESTIONS

Takashi Omae: Uplifting his community through udon

by Matt Kaufman

Contributing Writer

Takashi Omae, 45, is the owner-chef at Awajiya, an udon and soba restaurant in Osaka. A ramen chef for five years, he enjoys coming up with ramen-udon fusion recipes. Omae places a great deal of importance on volunteering in the community and has begun donating food to help people in need.

1. Where did you grow up? I’m from Hashimoto in Wakayama Prefecture. It’s a beautiful place that is famous for delicious kaki (persimmons) and saba (mackerel). I live in Osaka now, but still go to Wakayama often because I have a second home in Inamicho. I can open the front door and walk to the sea in 10 seconds.

2. Do you have any formal training as a chef? None at all. I knew I wanted to make ramen, but I wouldn’t allow anyone to teach me because I didn’t want to copy their style. In order to learn the basics, I went around to different shops and observed things like how they cut and washed the chicken bones to make the dashi.

3. How did you come up with your own style of ramen? I kept experimenting until I developed something that I was proud of. It was a clear soup that packed a dashi-flavored punch. I then decided to open my own ramen restaurant in Hirano Ward, Osaka.

4. Was it hard to attract customers as a first-time restaurant owner? I got a lot of customers through word of mouth, including some celebrities. One day a television producer came to my shop and tried my ramen. He liked it so much that he invited me to make ramen on the TV show “Oh! Sore Mio” hosted by comedian High Heel Momoko.

5. Why pivot to an udon and soba shop? After owning a ramen restaurant for five years, I wanted to try something new. I opened Awajiya in Nishinari Ward in Osaka in 2017. My wife, Katherine, who is from the Philippines, runs a small karaoke bar next door called Mabuhai.

Takashi Omae (right) and his wife, Katherine | TSUYOSHI TAGAWA
Takashi Omae (right) and his wife, Katherine | TSUYOSHI TAGAWA

6. Is the name of your shop related to Awajishima in Hyogo Prefecture? No, I just thought it sounded like a good name for an udon shop.

7. Which is the bigger seller, udon or soba? Udon by a mile. Only a third of our customers order the soba. A lot of regulars love the gyūdon (beef bowl) or the curry and rice.

8. Do you still get the urge to make ramen? I’ve been collaborating with Mr. Kyoto Akkie, a popular YouTuber who loves ramen. We hold a ramen matsuri (festival) outside Awajiya and Mabuhai every two or three months that attracts around 150 people.

9. Has owning an udon shop influenced the way you prepare it? Yes. I decided to make a sutamina ramen (noodles made with ingredients that supposedly increase energy) for a recent event using the same soup base I use for my udon. I added garlic and Korean miso to the soup. Then I stir-fried some pork and added vegetables. It tasted just like ramen and you’d never know the difference (in the broth).

10. Has COVID-19 affected your business? It’s affected everyone in this area. Our sales are down 90 percent across the board. A lot of people are out of work and worried about their next meal. I felt I had to act quickly to help uplift the community, so we started offering free bowls of kake udon (noodles in warm broth) to anyone in need.

11. Have many people come for a free meal? It’s still in the early stages, so we’re averaging around five a day. We are aiming to help more families with children. All of our seating is outside so we are able to avoid close-contact settings. I plan to continue this policy for as long as possible.

12. Your nickname is Pogi Baboy. What does it mean? It’s Tagalog. I lived in the Philippines for two years. Pogi means “handsome” and baboy means “pig,” because I’m fat.

13. Who gave you that nickname? I gave it to myself. My wife simply calls me buta, which means pig in Japanese.

14. Is Tagalog a difficult language to learn? The pronunciation is difficult. But I studied very hard on my own for three months. I refused to go out drinking with my Filipino friends until I could speak some of the language.

15. Can you prepare any Filipino dishes? Yes. My specialty is chicken adobo with red onions. My wife loves my Filipino cooking and is surprised at how authentic it tastes.

16. Did you do any sports when you were younger? I did shoot boxing for two years. I was a lot thinner back then.

17. Who is your favorite anime character? Tetsu from (the manga) “Jarinko Chie” (“Chie the Brat”).

18. Can you tell me about your recent film debut? I was invited to appear in the movie “Osaka Shojo” (“Osaka Girl”) by director Takahiro Ishihara. I play a violent customer at an udon shop. It was filmed at Awajiya and is set to release in June.

19. Did you find acting difficult? Not really. I ad-libbed most of my lines. Say, do you think I could make it in Hollywood?

20. What if I said yes, but only if you played an evil henchman who gets beaten up by James Bond, or shot by John Wick? I could do that. No problem.

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