How A Japanese Chef Sold French Cuisine To Prairie Village, Kansas
Tatsuya Arai has been serving beef Bourguignon in Prairie Village in the suburbs of Kansas City for almost 40 years.
That’s when he opened his Tatsu’s French Restaurant in 1980. (Arai's nickname is Tatsu.)
Beef Bourguignon is classic French dish consisting of braised boneless short ribs with onions and mushrooms.
It takes more than five hours to braise the beef in the separate pot, and many more hours to make a special wine sauce that goes with the meat. Finally, when the dish is ready, Arai serves it with boiled beans, broccoli, and brings a loaf of the baguette.
“I make it more restaurant-style instead of boeuf Bourguignon like in France,” he explains. “They put it in a big pot, put the meat, and stuff, and then just scoop in a plate and eat. Basically, like family cooking.”
Learning French cuisine in Tokyo
Arai is from Japan. He learned how to make pastries while working in a French restaurant in Tokyo. He recalls that he was working for free at the beginning, in order to learn how to cook.
He also took a barista course in Tokyo. Everything just for one reason:
“That was my dream when I was working in Japan, to open my own restaurant,” Arai says.
Later, he was offered a job in a French restaurant in Chicago. And he almost rejected the offer.
“I didn’t think that America had a good food history,” he says with a smile. “Hamburger, hot dogs, you know…My dream was to go to Europe and to learn their cuisine, especially French cuisine.”
But eventually he took the job and moved to the United States in 1973. Four years later, he received another job offer, in Kansas City.
There, he finally made his life's dream come true.
Classic through the years
Just like his menu, Tatsu’s Restaurant is a traditional French-style place – with a small Eiffel Tower, watercolor paintings of violets, old bottles of wine, and a giant old map of France that takes almost the entire wall.
The map is a present from one of his first customers. And Arai has a funny story about it:
“When I opened, we didn’t have any pictures on the walls. And one of the regular customer tells me: "Tatsu, I have a map. Do you want a map?”
Arai didn’t know the word "map" back then. But he agreed.
“And two-three weeks later, an eight-wheel truck comes in front of the restaurant. And I say 'what, this is map? I was surprised,'” he says.
At first, the place had only 8 or 12 tables (Arai doesn’t remember exactly), but it was almost half of the size of the restaurant now.
But soon he found out that people in the Midwest need time to try something new.
“When I started business I brought sea fresh scallops, and customers said: 'I don’t like scallops!'"Tatsu recalls.
Then he said to the visitors: “Why? Did you try my scallops?”
“No, but I don’t like it,” customers replied.
So Arai offered them scallops for free, and they tried it.
He says that his visitors still have consistent tastes:
“Some customers eat always the same scallops, and some customers order only salmon with champagne sauce. I tried different things…It’s hard to make them switch to something new, you know!”
But Arai has really loyal clients. Some of them started coming to the restaurant when they were in their 50s.
They still come today, in their 90s.
Anna Yakutenko is an Alfred Friendly Fellow working at KCUR 89.3.