Summer Restaurant Week is officially over in D.C., but some spots have extended their special menus and deals through this coming weekend. Happily, this includes Tonari, the popular (and first) Japanese-Italian restaurant in the city. Their Restaurant Week offering is a doozy: The entire special menu nods to both seasons of The Bear. From the “Berzano Christmas” Oysters Rockefeller to “Mikey’s Family Meal” Spaghetti to “Carmy’s Silent Contemplation of a Mound of Cannoli,” the options are “totally inspired by the show,” chef Katsuya Fukushima told us. “But it makes sense because we are somewhat of an Italian restaurant.”
We reached out to the chef to talk about developing a menu entirely inspired by the Hulu hit. From trying (and failing) to recreate a somewhat infamous chocolate cake, experimenting during a self-imposed busy season and lessons learned from a TV show, Fukushima is serving the best parts of The Bear. But not The Original Beef of Chicago. There’s no Italian beef at Tonari.
InsideHook: Does Restaurant Week allow for more experimentation?
Katsuya Fukushima: You know, Restaurant Week is the worst time to go out and eat. Yes, I said it. But we as chefs and owners need to take part in Restaurant Week. We end up giving bargains to entice guests and dumbing things down to keep up with the volume, or we stick with what we know and slim down our current menus.
Restaurant Week is actually the worst time to experiment. Keeping up with the volume of prep and executing any new dishes is insane. However, this might be the one shot you have to gain new followers. So at Tonari we end up staffing extra, with chefs working 60, 70 hours for six days. We end up straying out of our comfort zone, and even our identity a bit. It’s risky, challenging and exhausting, but it’s our way to show our range, potential and intent. Then, hopefully, we satisfy the majority of guests that choose to come through our doors. And hopefully we impress some.
The Best Chicken Parm You’ll Ever Make Is Ready in 8 MinutesOkay, some prep is required, but the final result is worth the sourcing, the dredging and the overnight refrigerating
Do you actually like The Bear?
I love the show. Season two wasn’t as exciting to a lot of people, but I thought it was an important season. It touched upon mental illness in and out of the kitchen, how it affects us all. And how stressful it is every day in the kitchen. How perfection is the goal. How guests expect that. How physically and mentally taxing it is on us. People have no idea — we’re constantly under the radar. Up for criticism by everyone. How the hospitality industry affects our home lives, our relationships with friends and especially our partners. It touched on COVID — how our industry suffered and is still suffering. We can’t find cooks. Restaurants are poaching one another. Restaurants are closing. Established chefs are throwing in the towel. Even restaurants with a long history are closing.
The show also touched on staging in other countries and how you have to drink the Kool-Aid to be in a mindset of excellence. I definitely think it can be a little tough for people in the industry to watch The Bear because it hits real close to home. But I think it’s supposed to make people uncomfortable. That’s the point.
What aspect of The Bear is the most relatable as a chef?
How to be. How to be humble. How to be caring. Being patient. Being composed. Being generous.
Did you try any dishes that didn’t make the menu?
We tried Marcus’s chocolate cake, but it was just too taxing on us when we were doing 125 to 200 people a night with a five-course menu. We ended up going with doughnuts instead, which is Marcus’s other obsession. Crazy, but we ended up frying doughnuts to order. Dusted in sugar. Topped with apple butter and served with a warm local Fuji apple and yuzu toddy.
What do you hope happens in season three?
I hope they either get a [Michelin] star or not get a star. Either story that goes along with that will be enlightening. What stars mean to different people. Also, I hope they talk about “Yelpers” in general, and how damaging they are to us mentally and financially.
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