Jeffrey Ozawa’s company Tenzo offers a thoughtful and artistic approach to cooking and entertaining.
Editor’s note: This is first in a series of profiles of Nikkei entrepreneurs.
By MIEKO BEYER
With degrees in literature, history and poetry, Tenzo founders Jeffrey Ozawa, Jaimie Lewis and Saehee Cho may seem like an unlikely trio to venture into catering and a cookware business, but that is precisely what the talented threesome have done, fusing their skills for storytelling with a passion for food.
“It’s food as storytelling, our items are things we use personally, something from our travels, things that are meaningful to us,” Ozawa explained. “There’s meant to be a story behind every item.”
Tenzo, launched in November 2017, is an online store, catering company and travel journal for the stylish home entertainer, ambitious amateur chef, or just about anyone looking for a useful but also beautiful addition to their dining table or kitchen drawers. Each item on their website sparkles like a hidden gem, the kind of item you’d search for at a craft fair, come across while on a trip, or find in a high-end kitchenware store, then strut home in hand with, full of pride and excitement.
Items on their site, shoptenzo.com, cover a wide range of categories, but all share in common a high standard for both quality and aesthetic delight. From handsome paring knives with spalted maple or rosewood handles by Los Angeles artisan Nicholas Berkofsky, to a stoneware casserole dish in a cobalt blue that pops as cheerfully as a dash of watercolor in a Chihiro painting, to a sleekly made traditional rice cooker from Yokkaichi City that might tempt even the most devoted Zojirushi user.
“The technical items come from what we actually use,” said Ozawa. “But there’s a holistic aspect, it’s not just food but presentation.”
The company grew organically out of the Echo Park Craft Fair, where Ozawa and Cho met as catering company owners doing food stands, Ozawa for Gorumando, doing modern bento boxes, and Cho for SOO N, known for its delicately decorated cakes. They saw the potential in a collaboration. In combination with Lewis, who has a background in Southern cooking, the group that became Tenzo has a wide-ranging culinary knowledge.
“We came together with quite a bit of common ground, but with our own perspectives food-wise,” said Ozawa.
Shoptenzo.com evolved from their catering work, as clients inquired about how they created their dishes, impressed by both the flavors and presentation. “One of our main skills is presentation and design, we’re not necessarily traditional food people,” Ozawa said.
The online store excels at bringing all the resources an inquiring mind on their creations could desire. Aside from the store, the site’s journal features their travels, recipes, product care tips and behind-the-scenes looks at the artisans whose products appear on the site.
Their catering business meanwhile continues to thrive. “We love catering,” Ozawa said. “Catering allows creativity and exploration, it’s project-based and allows us to get in touch with new people every time — it’s grinding but it feels fun! Even though there’s the online business, a lot of our work is face-to-face. There are so many different ways for customers to engage with Tenzo.”
Tenzo also teaches classes. In what will be one of their biggest engagements yet, Ozawa will teach two 50-person groups of designers at a furniture company how to artfully assemble bento boxes.
Ozawa came up with the company name after reading a book recommended by a friend, “Tenzo kyokun” (Instructions for the Cook) by Eihei Dogen, founder of the Japanese branch of the Soto Zen Buddhist school in the 13th century.
According to Dogen, the tenzo, an appointed cook for a Buddhist monastery, is not just an ordinary cook. “The tenzo handles all food with respect, as if it were for the emperor,” wrote Dogen.
Ozawa’s modern-day Tenzo seems imbued with a similar outlook. The careful planning and selection behind everything from their catering to their online shop reflects not just the expertise and enthusiasm of its founders, but also their high regard for their customers and the art of cooking itself.
Being from a small Quaker town in New Jersey, Ozawa connected to Japanese culture primarily through his father, a chemical engineer from Osaka who earned his PhD in Texas. His mother, who is of Anglo-American descent, was a schoolteacher and housewife. Still a young child when his father retired, he looks back fondly at the time they spent together watching episodes of “Iron Chef,” which first sparked his interest in the career path of professional cooking.
His family’s connection between Japan and the U.S. extends all the way back to before World War II, when his grandfather, a Japanese textile businessman, lived in the U.S. while working as an importer of American cotton to Japan. Ozawa’s father was born in Brooklyn, New York but returned to Japan as a child during the buildup to the war. His grandfather remained longer and was ultimately arrested and briefly interned before being released to a neutral country, then returning to Japan.
“My brother looked up his interview and arrest record, I believe at the Japanese American National Museum when he was visiting me last,” said Ozawa. “I have it in a PDF somewhere, everything is in there, all his interviews. People wrote him letters of support to help get him out.”
Despite the grim circumstances surrounding their family’s departure from the U.S., Ozawa’s father always maintained an interest in returning to America. After some travels back and forth to the U.S. after the war and the completion of his graduate degree in the U.S., he decided to stay. His career however led the family to settle down in an area without many connections to Japanese culture and community, and Ozawa connected first to his Japanese heritage through food. His father cooked Japanese meals at home and found a Japanese restaurant near them.
“We never ate out, but when we did it was at a Japanese restaurant near Philadelphia called Genji,” he recalled. “It was very authentic, run by a tight-knit group of people from Tokyo.”
That sense for authenticity in Japanese culture and cooking shines through with Tenzo. “As a company the core is very Japanese,” he said. “Japanese cooking in particular is also very tool-based, but the non-Japanese customer may have trouble understanding, say, a Japanese knife. We’re helping to break down and demystify it a bit. A lot of it comes from my own attempts, to varying degrees of success, to be Japanese.”
After studying literature at Bard College in New York, he worked initially as a web designer and writer. He first became aware of the larger Japanese American community when living in Chicago, where a large number of Japanese Americans resettled after World War II. He eventually went on to work as a cook at a Japanese homestyle restaurant in Chicago, Sunshine Cafe.
Years later, Ozawa finds himself the co-founder of Tenzo, helping to bring many elements of Japanese cooking, and much more, to others.
For an opportunity to see Tenzo’s offerings in person, stop by their special pop-up store in the heart of Little Tokyo from 3 to 8 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 5, through Friday, Sept. 7, and 12 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 8, at 341 FSN, 341 E. First St., Los Angeles. They will also have an opening reception from 6 to 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 5, at 341 FSN that is open to the public.
This event is a partnership between @LASmallBizcubator, Sustainable Little Tokyo, and Little Tokyo Service Center’s +LAB. Part of Sustainable Little Tokyo’s “[email protected],” the event aims to invite entrepreneurs into Little Tokyo and be part of the legacy of Little Tokyo’s small-business community.