Sushi, steak, Shishito peppers, sake—contemporary Japanese cuisine colors Chicago’s culinary scene.
At Chicago’s Roka Akor, food preparation is more than just the focus—it’s the visual centerpiece. An 80-by-50-inch robata grill provides guests a front seat to the restaurant’s Japanese grilling methods.
“If you go into our restaurant, you’ll see people in the dining room watching the grill,” says owner John Kapoor. “There’s a lot of activity, and there’s this energy it gives to the restaurant. You can see the food being cooked right in front of your eyes. Steak, fish, veggies—it’s all in front of you.”
Roka Akor’s first year in the Midwest found it attracting the attention of everyone from foodies to casual diners. The restaurant’s first location in London is owned by Arjun Waney, a close friend of Kapoor, who brought Roka Akor stateside in 2008 with a Scottsdale, Arizona, location. Kapoor’s familiarity with the Chicago area and his home in nearby Lake Forest made the Windy City the clear choice for a second U.S. opening. Waney and his London team assisted in the Scottsdale location’s development, but the opening of the Chicago restaurant in July 2011 was led by Kapoor’s team.
Scottsdale’s executive chef, Ce Bian, made the move to Chicago to help build Roka Akor’s second U.S. location from the ground up.
“At first, it was tough to figure out the differences between Scottsdale, London, and Chicago,” Bian says. “Chicago is an amazing culinary city, with a lot of cool restaurants and lots of different clientele. There are corporate guys and regular working class—it’s really mixable.”
Bian seeks to cater to Chicago’s diverse guests, whether they’re looking for a corporate lunch or a birthday dinner. “The first thing is you have to know what they’re looking for, the second is to put your heart into it,” he says. “I want to create a special memory for our guests.”
For the foodies, Bian uses fresh fish imported twice weekly from around the world, and high-quality domestic and Australian Wagyu beef—Japanese-style beef cattle. However, he emphasizes the charcoal cooking style is Roka Akor’s main attraction. Popular dishes include robata-grilled Japanese Shishito peppers, butterfish tataki, and pork belly. Roka Akor also carries Azure sake, a unique offering for Illinois restaurants.
“We use special charcoal, the food is grilled, and the chefs’ sauces provide a very unique experience,” Kapoor adds. The grill uses Binchotan and mesquite charcoals. The former is a traditional Japanese white charcoal, native to that area, and known for its high-burning temperature and purifying qualities. “We believe that no one else is doing that at the scale we have, with the number of items we have,” Kapoor continues. “It’s really what drives our restaurant.”
Since relying on Bian and other members of the Scottsdale team to open the Chicago location, Kapoor has learned the importance of having the right people running his restaurants, especially in the kitchen. This realization speaks to Roka Akor’s other defining characteristic: Its internal culture. Kapoor says his focus moving forward is to maintain this culture, and continue the tradition of serving quality food that customers have come to expect at the Scottsdale and Chicago restaurants. To do so, he emphasizes training chefs in the Roka Akor system.
“I believe there’s a culture that we’ve created [around our] chefs,” he says. “We get one chef, want to move them to another site, and give them six months to train internally. If you go out and get a new chef, you lose culture. And I want our Roka Akor culture to grow and multiply. It’s very important that we have them trained by the head chef at each location and maintain culture.”
Kapoor gives chefs room to grow and develop culinary skills until they’re ready to take on a higher level of responsibility within the Roka Akor system, Bian says.
“That’s the beauty of the ownership here. Kapoor gives you the room to do what you want to do,” he says. “Having run this restaurant a year now, I’ve seen guys really growing up and becoming really good cooks—and those are the guys who will run Old Orchard [another location opening in Chicago] for us.”
“The kitchen is the life and blood of the restaurant,” Kapoor adds. “I believe our chefs are like artists, and my job is to promote what they’re doing.”
Kapoor plans to open two new restaurants by April—another Chicago location at Old Orchard mall and the company’s first location in San Francisco. Kapoor says he aims for 15 U.S. locations in the next five years.
“Opening a restaurant is a challenge and you just have to make sure you’re prepared,” he says. “Knowing our learning curve going from Scottsdale to Chicago and now to San Francisco, I feel very comfortable accelerating. We can handle it.”