Chef's Thoughts on Tokyo:
A Homely Atmosphere in Tokyo through Soul Food

When LaTonya and David Whitaker threw their first Thanksgiving Party in Japan 18 years ago, little did they know that they were planting the seeds of something bigger. Soul Food House opened in 2015 and is now a lively restaurant in Tokyo, serving up classic southern U.S. soul food to a diverse range of customers.
LaTonya and David Whitaker opened Soul Food House in 2015.

Life-Changing Visit to Japan

While LaTonya was studying at graduate school in the U.S.A, she became friends with a Japanese pastor and his wife. When they returned to Japan, they invited LaTonya and David to visit during the New Year's holiday. "It was just the perfect trip," LaTonya reminisces. "The snow, the osechi (traditional New Year's cuisine), the onsen with views of Mt. Fuji—all of it."

After that first trip, the Whitakers visited Japan three more times before deciding to make the big move. The first few months in the capital were challenging for them, but things had settled by Thanksgiving. So when they were approached about hosting a Thanksgiving party, they readily agreed. That first year, about 30 people came to their house to celebrate, and ten years later, the number of attendees had swelled to nearly 150. The following year, they decided to open Soul Food House in the bustling Tokyo neighborhood of Azabu-juban.

LaTonya had always loved cooking, so it was a natural decision. Soul Food House was going to be a place for people to come together and feel like part of a community. "I love people and that's basically what it came down to," she says. 

Local Ingredients, American Style

Visiting Soul Food House is like stepping through a portal into the U.S., there is no doubt about that. From the atmosphere to the food, everything is authentic and honest. But perhaps surprisingly, the vast majority of the food is made using local Japanese ingredients. Yes, even the hot sauces!

The Whitakers cannot emphasize enough just how high the quality of Japanese ingredients is; even the eggs are more flavorful, they say. It is the secret to why their food tastes better than it does back home. LaTonya's experience running classes at Niki's Kitchen, a cooking school in Tokyo, together with David's enthusiasm for research, have allowed them to create an extensive menu of classic soul food that is made almost entirely from local ingredients. "Soul food, it was based on using what you had," LaTonya explains, with a nod to the cuisine's roots.

A delicious vegetarian plate of shimeji mushrooms and creamy grits (ground corn).

That, and love. "The love is in the food," says LaTonya, before going on to explain how they strive to keep their food authentic. They have "stayed true to the American style," which is something that customers appreciate. Whether they are expats looking for a taste of home, a Japanese customer wanting to revisit the memories of their time in America, or tourists in the mood for something familiar to eat, they are all grateful that the food has stayed true to its original flavor. 

US customers, especially, are pleased to find chitlins (a traditional dish made of pig intestines), grits, and catfish on the menu, things that are not common finds in Tokyo. These are alongside other southern classics like fried chicken, mac and cheese, and waffles. And of course, everything is made from scratch—even the waffle batter. 

A soul food classic—chicken and waffle. There are also vegan and vegetarian versions available.

"There's something about the city that keeps you here"

Like so many others, the Whitakers had not planned to stay in Japan for so long when they first moved. But, time passed, and 18 years later, they are still here. In LaTonya's words, "There's just something about the city that keeps you here."

Their now nine-year-old son was born here, and sometimes he seems more Japanese than American. "CoCo Ichibanya curry restaurant is his favorite, not this one," LaTonya laughs. He will only eat fried chicken from Soul Food House though, so he is "holding on to his American side a little bit."

Soul Food House is a place where everyone can come together to share delicious food and make memories.

They have also come to value the melting pot of different people in Tokyo. They get a lot of joy from seeing people from all over the world coming together at Soul Food House, sharing meals and getting to know each other. They have a good memory for their customers, and share vivid stories about them, from homesick students to couples who first met at the restaurant. For the Whitakers, there is something special about making all these people feel loved and at home.

But away from the bustle of the restaurant, they also treasure moments of quiet. LaTonya shares a memory of a park they used to visit where they could just sit and enjoy the calm. David, meanwhile, speaks passionately about the top deck of Tokyo Tower. As a photographer, he loves going up there at night: "It's just amazing seeing all the buildings and lights and the cars and people moving around across such a long distance ... the lights are peaceful to me."

There are challenges too, of course. LaTonya speaks openly about the difficulty of finding clothing that fits, and a salon that can do African-American hair. Not to mention the stresses of running a restaurant—David has barely had a chance to sit down during the interview. Their busiest season, Thanksgiving, is always booked out.

"When people come in and they want to open a restaurant, one of the things that I will ask is, 'do you have a passion for it?'" says LaTonya. "Because hard times will come." David has finally joined us, and now LaTonya is gesturing towards him. "You gotta have someone with you," she says. And this perhaps, is the crux of what makes Soul Food House special—it is all about making people feel that someone is there for them, wherever they find themselves in the world.

Interview and writing by Maria Danuco
Photos by Kuratani Kiyofumi