Sarah Gavigan is serious about ramen. As founder and head chef of Otaku South, a pop-up restaurant specializing in Japanese izakaya-style meals, it has been a true labor of love. Born and raised in Columbia, Tenn., her interest in the music business led her to Los Angeles, where she subsequently became 'Otaku,' meaning 'the obsessed,' with Japanese cuisine. After a move back to her home state with her family, she decided it was time to bring this elevated 'peasant food' to the Music City masses.
After spending 17 years in Los Angeles, you moved back to Tennessee in 2009. Was that a difficult transition?
It was much more difficult than I had anticipated, a big adjustment. My family is very social, and even as friendly as people in Nashville are, rebuilding our life in a new community that is polar opposite from LA was a challenge. And creatively, it took me about two years to get my feet back under me and have that creative stream flowing again.
What prompted you to start Otaku South?
I realized that Nashville and Middle Tennessee in general did not have anything that mirrored the izakaya experiences I loved so much in LA. I had been thinking about the concept for a while, and in July 2012 I ran into Miranda Whitcomb Pontes, owner of Burger Up, at an event. She knew that I had been toying with the idea of a pop-up restaurant, and she threw down the gauntlet and challenged me to start it. And that was that.
How has the overall business/reception been?
It's been good, but it is a constant moving target. This really all started as an experiment. I had the opportunity, and it was the right time to give it a shot. We are constantly evolving, trying new things. It's vital to keep pushing the boundaries and challenging people's preconceptions of what a Japanese meal should be like. Take the bento boxes we started offering over the past couple of months for example. We felt like it was the right time to put that out there, and the reception has been pretty good, but it's hard for a pop-up to evaluate success versus a brick and mortar restaurant. However, I feel like we are through the first phase, so now it's on to Otaku South 2.0.
I saw where you recently took part in a Japanese pop-up at Empire State South in Atlanta. How did it go?
Yes, that was my first out-of-town event, and it went great. Erik Anderson of The Catbird Seat went with me, and just being around so many great chefs, it was a real 'pinch me' moment. And all of the proceeds went towards The Giving Kitchen, which is just a really great cause.
Most people that have been following your progress are probably familiar with some of the debating, particularly online, regarding the quality/product versus price. Your food seems to have struck a particular chord with some people.
It's a very big conversation that frankly has very little to do with me personally. But it seems as though those detractors are trying to make a divisiveness between the diner and the chef. And I partially understand where they are coming from, because I used to be in a similar position. Having never worked in the restaurant business, I had no idea how much thought, time, energy and money was required to put out a single dish of food. But now, through my own experience, I have gained a real, true appreciation for the process.
One of the primary concepts/constructs you deal with is the thinking that food is cheap. It's just noodles and broth, why is it $13 a bowl? The real heritage of ramen is slow food. What we have to our advantage that so many other ramen spots do not is access to local farms, which supply fresh bone and protein for our dishes. This is very important to me. If we were making the broth from frozen bones shipped in cases from across the country, the umami would have to be simulated with MSG. It will not look, smell or taste like the ramen we make. So if you are looking for a $7 bowl of ramen, I'm sure someone will come to Nashville and do that soon enough. But that's not what I am interested in putting out there.
Instead of talking simply about the cost, maybe the conversation could be framed differently?
Absolutely, let's talk about how the food tastes. Did it satisfy you, did you feel happy eating it? If the answer is yes, then it was worth every penny. That should be the discussion.
You have said that you remember the first time you walked in to an izakaya. Do you recall the name of the restaurant and what you had?
It was a restaurant in LA called Itacho. I ordered the kara-age and thought I had died and gone to heaven. Being from the South, that particular dish rang a very serious bell for me.
Can you describe any other memorable, formative meals you have had that really made a lasting impression on you?
The first time I ate fresh seafood, it blew my mind. I was on the southern coast of Italy, right on the ocean. The mussels were harvested right off the shoreline. Being close to your food, it's so important.
And the first time I experienced a real omakase sushi meal. After years of eating cheap sushi, my mouth was agape the entire time. I had never been that close to a chef actually watching him prepare the dishes, and the whole experience was incredible. The fact that they chose the meal for me, I had to give up control. When you are being led like that, it's an art and transcends the dining experience.
Now for the big question that I know everyone asks: when will plans come in to focus for a permanent location?
Nothing permanent yet. We don't want to make a move like that unless it just feels right, and we are at the mercy of so many different things. But we are doing a stint serving lunch at the Nashville Farmers Market every Wednesday for the rest of the summer. And after that, we will just see what's next for Otaku South.
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