Kenzo Ramen: Simulating an “Authentic” Japanese Experience
Written by Won Ki Lee
Standing outside of Kenzo Ramen, a popular Japanese restaurant located at 720 Burnhamthorpe Road West in Mississauga, I realized that I was in for a night full of surprises. By the time I arrived at Kenzo Ramen, it was 7:30PM. My experience that night began waiting at the end of a line that trailed outside the front door. My body was shivering from the cold, clouds of steam flowed from mouth, and the sky was pitch black. Through the darkness, the neon orange letters that spelled out K-E-N-Z-O seemed like a beacon of warmth for all those hoping to escape the cold. Above the bright orange Kenzo sign was an oval-shaped sign, with Japanese characters and a calligraphy drawing depicting a chef crossing his arms.
Prior to visiting Kenzo Ramen, I heard that this Japanese restaurant was Korean-owned. As I continued my wait, I looked through the restaurant windows for any sign that the restaurant was Korean-owned. However, Kenzo Ramen did a good job replicating an “authentic” Japanese atmosphere. Japanese lanterns hung from the restaurant’s ceiling and the walls were adorned with Japanese calligraphy paintings and wooden placards with traditional Japanese writing carved into them. Additionally the staff at Kenzo Ramen all wore shirts with Japanese writing on them. The atmosphere at Kenzo Ramen was warm and approachable, which made it seem like it would be a good spot for students, families, and couples to enjoy their meals.
While observing my surroundings, I accidentally stumbled across a hint of Korean in the restaurant. Above the thermostat that I found in a dimly lit corner, located near the top of a wall, was a tiny memo written in Korean. Had I not been carefully observing the restaurant’s atmosphere, I most likely would have missed discovering it.
While walking inside, Kenzo Ramen staff shouted “irasshaimase!” (meaning “welcome” in Japanese) every time the front door opened. The buzzing of conversations filled the room and I could hear the chefs cooking up a storm from the restaurant’s open style kitchen, while the tantalizing smells of Japanese cuisine teased my nose and made my mouth water. I noticed that all of the staff members were Korean and that the chefs were all male and the servers were all female. People of all ages were enjoying their meals, however the majority of the crowd consisted of 20 to 30 year olds. Additionally, most of diners were white, while there were also some South and East Asian diners as well, mirroring the demographics of Mississauga’s population.
The menu at Kenzo Ramen consisted of various ramen, rice bowls, and appetizers like onigiri, takoyaki, gyoza, etc. which varied in price from $6 to $30. After browsing the menu, I settled on an order of Takoyaki and a King of Kings ramen. When a waitress came to take my order, she was pleasantly surprised when I spoke to her in Korean. After finding out that I was Korean, the waitresses were even kinder to me. It felt as if we had created a shared ethnic bond that united us, regardless of the assumed Japanese identity Kenzo Ramen staff were portraying. They were merely acting out a role to create an authentic and exotic dining experience for their customers, however, backstage I knew they identified as Korean.
When my ramen arrived, it was accompanied by a set of wooden chopsticks and a wooden spoon. Visually, my ramen was very colourful. The broth was clear with a rich brown colour and had a robust smell and a very warm, umami taste. The saltiness from the nori sheets paired excellently with the freshness of the scallions. The richness of the egg paired pleasantly with the pork and chewy noodles. Then came the Takoyaki, which are round balls of batter that are baked until golden-brown on the outside and topped with a sweet and savoury brown sauce, a creamy drizzle of Japanese mayo, flecks of seaweed, and shaved bonito (fish) flakes. Inside each Takoyaki was a piece of octopus and cheese. Every bite of Takoyaki was just as good as the first and by the end of my meal, I was left craving more.
Exoticism and authenticity seem to be key ingredients for Kenzo Ramen’s success. Exoticism is about experiencing foreign foods that one would typically only experience in the country that the foods are native to. Authenticity is about food that is actually prepared by those well versed in Japanese cuisine and flavours. This exoticism and authenticity are legitimized through the successful execution of Japanese ethnic identity carried out by Korean owners and staff, which draws in customers and leads them to believe that Kenzo Ramen is a “legit” Japanese ramen restaurant.
Based on my online research and the conversation I had with the manager, I discovered that Daniel and Jane Park co-founded their first Kenzo Ramen franchise in Toronto. I was informed that the owner envisioned creating an authentic Japanese restaurant that would be popular in the Western market. Daniel and Jane Park named their restaurant after Jane’s extended family’s ramen restaurant Kenzo based in Hokkaido, Japan. By using the marketability and approachability of Japanese cuisine in the Western market, the owners wanted to target the locals near their restaurant and ensure that customers had an authentic and exotic dining experience. Their marketing strategy is so successful that Kenzo Ramen now has seven locations scattered across GTA, which attract numerous locals. On Kenzo Ramen’s Yelp review page, they have an average rating of 4.2 stars. Overall, Kenzo Ramen customers seemed to have positive things to say in their reviews. Many reviews mentioned the authenticity of the food served at Kenzo Ramen. One Yelper writes that Kenzo Ramen is “one of the best places to get authentic ramen.”
Won Ki Lee is an international student who flew over from South Korea and who is a passionate social science student at UTM.
For a similar practice of “assumed ethnicity” in restaurant work, see: Becker, Elisabeth. “Little of Italy? Assumed ethnicity in a New York City neighbourhood.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 38.1 (2015): 109-124.