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A Ramen-Fueled Recovery

Chef and Restaurateur Alum Who Brought Authentic Japanese Noodles to D.C. Looks for Post-Pandemic Comeback

By Karen Shih ’09

A masked cook puts three bowls of ramen noodles on a counter

Cooking authentic ramen in a return to his Japanese roots led to incredible success for UMD alum Katsuya Fukushima (pictured below), who has opened five restaurants in Washington, D.C. since 2013. While the pandemic caused struggles, diners are now coming back—and he’s looking back to College Park for potential expansion.

Photos by Stephanie R. Cordle

As the days get shorter and the nights get cooler, restaurants around D.C. are scrambling to figure out how to draw in customers still wary of indoor dining amid the threat of COVID-19.

But for UMD alum Katsuya Fukushima, this is the best time of year.

As co-owner and executive chef of the Daikaya Group, a collection of acclaimed Japanese restaurants in the nation’s capital focused primarily on wallet-friendly but authentic ramen, cold weather means more folks ready to slurp some noodle soup—and that’s something his restaurants desperately need after the pandemic’s trials.

Business dropped by more than half since March 2020, despite his team’s efforts and innovations to offer satisfying ramen carry-out. It’s finally started to rebound this fall, to Fukushima’s relief.

“I’m feeling very optimistic lately. People are coming out. But we're not out of the woods yet,” he said, looking around at the lunchtime crowd from the charming, pandemic-friendly patio of one of his restaurants, Hatoba, in the Navy Yard neighborhood.

Before COVID-19 hit, Fukushima’s success first as a chef, then restaurateur, seemed boundless, as he opened concept after concept in some of D.C.’s hottest developments. That would have been shocking to his younger self entering the University of Maryland.

“I was a very, very bad student. I used to skip classes and sit at home and watch ‘Great Chefs,’ ‘Galloping Gourmet,’ Julia Child—all these cooking shows,” said Fukushima, who spent four years as a part-time UMD student in the mid-1990s. “I had four roommates, all girls, and they would come home and I would have dinner ready, the table decorated, and that was my thing. But I didn’t realize cooking was a career path I could take.”

Then a friend’s mom offered him a gig making canapés for a golf tournament in D.C. for some extra cash.

“I went in there and fell in love with it. As soon as I stepped in the kitchen and worked for a week, during that crazy time, I knew that was it. I enrolled in culinary school the next week, and never looked back,” he said.

Katsuya Fukushima sitting in a yellow jacket inside his restaurant Hatoba

After graduating from L’Academie de Cuisine in 1997, he found work as a cook for José Andrés, now a famed chef and humanitarian. At the time, however, Andrés had just one restaurant in D.C., and over the next 15 years, Fukushima helped him build his empire, opening restaurants for Andrés from D.C. to Las Vegas. Andrés even sent Fukushima to the famed El Bulli in Spain—named the best restaurant in the world for years—where he learned the innovative molecular gastronomy techniques that would become a signature at the ultra-high-end Minibar, the final Andrés restaurant that Fukushima helmed. 

But despite his success, the grind of a chef’s life—rarely seeing family or friends, constantly on his feet—was tough. Fukushima decided to take a break to figure out his next steps. He moved back to his parents’ house north of Baltimore, consulting for Impossible Foods in its earliest days (“I love the science of cooking”) and spending time with his niece and nephew.

Then in 2012, he received an unexpected offer: to become chef and partner for a traditional ramen shop in D.C., working with Daisuke Utagawa and Yama Jewayni.

But although Fukushima grew up eating Japanese food, he’d never cooked it professionally before. He and his partners traveled to Japan to explore noodle iterations across the country and learn from a “ramen master” at the factory from which he buys his noodles today. And he also leaned on his parents: His mother, from an island south of Okinawa, and his dad, a Japanese-American from Hawaii, are excellent cooks. He even ended up incorporating some of their recipes into his menus, such as his mom’s abura miso, a ubiquitous Okinawan pork-based paste that he now makes with eggplant.

“My parents were so happy when I told them” about his new venture, he said. Though they supported his career choice, only his mom had ever come to eat at his restaurants, and just once. “When I opened up Daikaya, man, they were there like once a month. It was very special.”

And it wasn’t just his parents who loved Daikaya, which featured not only ramen, but an innovative upstairs izakaya—serving tapas-style Japanese-influenced small plates—where Fukushima could put a playful spin on classic dishes. Tom Sietsema, The Washington Post’s food critic, called both parts of Daikaya a success and gave it three stars, and GQ magazine named it one of its “25 Best New Restaurants in America.”

Amid a construction boom in D.C., developers wooed Fukushima and his partners to open new concepts in their buildings, leading to Haikan, another ramen shop; fast-casual concept Bantam King, which serves fried chicken and chicken ramen; and Hatoba, a ramen and Hawaiian comfort food shop, honoring his dad. A fifth restaurant, Tonari, offering Japanese-style Italian, has been shuttered since March 2020, but is in the process of reopening.

Now, as COVID-19 cases fall and vaccination rates rise, Fukushima is eager to see business pick back up so he can return to what he does best: feeding hordes of hungry people. He’s even eyeing a possible return to College Park—this time, as a restaurant owner.

“Fried chicken and chicken ramen! That’s a great late-night meal for college students,” he said.

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