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Inside MiHO Izakaya with Michael Miho

Posted on 10 August 2015

To test out our new Iwachu cast iron skillets we spent some quality time with Michael Miho, owner and head chef at MiHO Izakaya. MiHO is a beautiful Japanese pub housed in a century-old bungalow, distinctive and invitingly out of place on Interstate Avenue. To dig deeper into what izakayas are really about (hint: it isn't sushi), and how a Fine Arts major thinks about culinary creativity, we sat down for a talk with the chef himself.

Tell me little bit about your background and how you got to Miho.

MM: The short version is that I was raised in Hawaii, my mother and father met in college - my father is from Hawaii and my mother is from Portland and they met at University of Oregon. I came along shortly after they married, and I’ve been traveling back up here for breaks and vacation since I was born. I ended up relocating up here in 2000, since it’s always been a second home. As an adult I love the culture here, the affordability, the open space, the Northwest in general, but I really saw it with different eyes as an adult and I’ve been here ever since. 

This place opened in 2009. I’d been looking the entire time, plotting to open a restaurant. I have opened a lot of restaurants for a lot of other people, since I’ve been doing this since I was 17 and I’m 42 now. I was very lucky to get a summer job in high school, a washing dishes and scrubbing potatoes kind of thing, at a local health food cafe in Hawaii, and a little lightbulb went off. I couldn’t believe you could work in a restaurant for a living! Making food and serving people… I realized that there was that culture in my home, and there was a clear link. Japanese culture, Hawaiian culture, our family unit, they all revolved around food and the dinner table, and even more around the kitchen. So it all seemed very natural, and I was lucky to find that connection early on. I’ve tried other things but nothing’s made me as happy as the restaurant business. 

In that time I’ve worked in small independent places, large hotel chains, corporate environments, start ups, bars, coffee shops.. It all kept coming around to wanting a place of my own. We opened here in September of ‘09, so we’re going into our 7th year here!

Why start an izakaya?

I was quite certain I wanted to open an izakaya. In Japan an izakaya is really just a place to sit and drink sake, and in Japan they’re everywhere. Especially in the denser areas (which is most of Japan), there’s everything from tiny ones with only a couple seats to massive chains that are open all the time. Traditionally there are a lot of them between where you work and your house, and you stop in whenever you pass by it. Frequently, infrequently, you don’t have to pledge allegiance to one, it’s just a casual neighborhood spot you feel comfortable in that kind of becomes yours as a regular place to unwind.

I’ve heard them compared to tapas bars that are pretty casual, distinct, and prevalent in Spain. Does that hold up?

Yeah, each izakaya is a kind of snowflake with its own fingerprint. But we compare them to a lot in an attempt to wrap our brains around the concept and feel familiar with it, so I’ve always shied away from words like ‘tapas’ and tried to just break it down as simply as possible. Not only in the format and delivery of what we’re doing, but also in talking points, like, “Oh, you’ve never been to an izakaya? It’s Japanese soul food. Like southern, low country, or home cooking.” It’s familiar, and welcoming. It’s literally my home and I’m welcoming you into my home and serving you what we’re having for dinner. That’s the idea. It’s like I’m inviting you over for some drinks and food - that relaxed.

Is that part of why this space was so attractive to you?

Absolutely. The second I saw the house I knew I wanted to have it because it was literally the picture I’d had in my head. It was kind of shocking when I walked up and there was a ‘For Lease’ sign on it.

[The tone] is as much dictated by our guests as it is by my vision. I don’t want to fit them into a mold or what I do into a mould. The most important part is the culture of what an izakaya is and allowing that to translate so that you feel and understand it. Because it’s not just your spider roll or California roll… if there’s a challenge it’s that Japanese food is about way more than sushi. You don’t really do sushi at an izakaya. But sashimi, sure… it just depends on what’s nice at the market, and that’s what I make.

Has that been easy or difficult to communicate to your audience in Portland?

It hasn’t been very hard. The pub or public house culture in Portland made it seem to me like there were already a bunch of izakayas in Portland. That’s how the culture is, it was already there! And if I were to open a public house it would have to be an izakaya because it’s almost the exact same thing but with different seasonings. I think what we do is very approachable, the flavors feel comfortable, though we have things you wouldn’t find at the next bar over. Most people are surprised pleasantly that it’s more savory than bizarre.

So shocking or pushing people’s palates isn’t the point?

Oh no. That’s not to say I don’t slide some things in there, but I don’t want it to feel like you have to know something before you come in the door. I want you to feel cared for and accepted first and foremost: what I’m serving you is what we’re having for dinner, so please have some! It’s more about getting people comfortable with the concept so they feel free to try everything on the menu, even things that are a little more adventurous or that they haven’t considered before.

The small shareable plates really encourage that. Shared risk with social encouragement helps!

The european model is about choosing your meal or courses in advance, and then the procession begins, and when it’s all over then you’re done and you need to get up and leave. The izakaya concept is really different. You show up whenever you want, leave whenever you want, with friends, by yourself. If you want a meal, if you want a snack, a drink, whatever you’re in the mood for, we’re here for you to come in and relax.

We have neighbors who just stop in to say hi, chat and go home. We’re right in the middle between downtown and the north and the whole area is very dense with people from all kinds of backgrounds, occupations, lifestyles.

We have lots of kids here. I designed the place so that there’s no No Minors area, kids can sit at the bar. We have lots of “dad’s nights” where the kids come too and they sit at the bar - he can have a drink and they can have rice and everyone’s happy. We also have loud rowdy bunches who love to drink, and it can all exist in the same space. It’s all the sum of the neighborhood and who wants to be here.

Do you have other interests or hobbies outside of cooking that influence how you make space, or treat your food?

I don’t want to sound too cheesy, but the majority of my life revolves around this place. My hobbies outside the kitchen are the front of the house, taking care of the house itself, gardening. And just exploring the Northwest. I love to swim, fish, camp, hike, all those sorts of things. Most of the time though, I’m working. And beyond that I have a wife and son, and another girl on the way, so there’s plenty in my day.

But I like to paint and draw. In college I was a Fine Arts major and thought I’d be an artist. I really enjoyed pencil, ink and sculpture, and I still do them when I can. But it’s all connected. The tactile nature of the art I enjoy as a hobby is the same joy I have when I’m making food and serving drinks. It’s almost what I’d do sleepwalking, it’s just innate. There’s an outlet, and what form it takes is… whatever I can squeeze into a day.

Do you feel like you get a good deal of creativity in the way you cook and present food?

Certainly. As much cooking as I do here, I do at home too. There, and when we’re in test kitchen mode, it’s more about free association and that’s really fun, and it’s essential for making a good product. The playing is just as important as the consistency, repetition, organization. At the end of the day we have to make the same product consistently, and that is really hard to do. So we try to make food as delicious as possible, as consistent as possible, and be as price conscious as possible. There’s certainly more extravagant or expensive things we could do… but I don’t equate that with being more fun, expressive or creative.

There’s been plenty said about creativity being aided by constraint!

I’m definitely a believer in that. Within that framework there’s constant growth and newness. There’s always an element of us all throwing ideas in, trying to figure out how to do the same thing but better. From seasonal changes to how to balance overabundance of an ingredient. And that in turn has to do with how we’ve built and planted our planter boxes, and how we’ve cared for the soil.

Do you grow much of your own ingredients here?

Not tons and tons, but some Japanese ingredients that grow in this climate that are difficult to get. We grow shiso, shishito peppers, the wild type of arugula we use a lot of, cilantro, chives and garlic. Then lots of the usual stuff for home cooking too. Sometimes when you have a lot of tomatoes you have to come up with something to do with a lot of tomatoes! That type of necessity fosters a lot of creativity.

All of it is fun if you let it be fun. The challenge is not allowing yourself to get bored. It’s not the repetition, or the rote nature of things, it’s how we approach it. How you look at the same sky every day and see wonder, how you weed the yard and it’s not about your back hurting but about tending to and nurturing something that will give you much more than what you put into it. That kind of exchange in life is very important. It’s more of a philosophy than a business model, but I’m not trying to be the next Emeril Lagasse. I want my life’s work to be serving people, and making positive moments possible.

Which skills do you think are the most important in this kitchen?

I like to use the word ‘ethics’ a lot. It means a lot more than how people use it commonly. Its definition details an approach to your dealings in your profession, how you deal with your relationships, how you navigate your interactions with other people in life. Without a solid foundation of ethics it’s mostly just going through the motions. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a standard that I try to apply to myself and my work because I think it’s all connected. If those things aren’t in harmony or balance then they’re not sincere and they won’t bear fruit. When one is forceful, if one acts without thinking, if one cooks without tasting, when one serves without understanding the need, then you’re not in service you’re in action. You’re just doing, and I don’t want to just do. If there’s a thing I’m trying to do all the time in my work and in our little crew community here, it’s keeping ethics alive. Keeping the idea that it’s an entire lifestyle, not just “You need to do A, B, and C.” It’s a fluid thing that changes, and we’re all staying locked in together and ready for meeting or exceeding people’s expectations. Taking care of them and our environment that we need to sustain us, coming in happy and leaving happy.

The little details… that’s my job. There are laws and standards that have to be met, and I take care of that. But that’s just the nature of the service industry and restaurant business. The thing that’s important is recognizing that innate ability in people to see what’s possible beyond the bare minimum. It’s not just meeting the standard, it’s exceeding it. In that is the reward, in that is the exceeding the expectation, and being an exemplary professional, and growth and fun.

Interesting, that intentionality is apparent when you see the food at Miho, and it shows up in the comfortable feeling of the building itself too.

I hope that most people get that this house is over 100 years old! We realize that there’s cracks in the paint and dings in the floors and we know we really should replace the windows with double panes, and we’re doing little things all the time. But at the end of the day the finish on this table, or the style of the light fixture, really isn’t as important. I don’t mind that there’s some speaker wire showing. What’s important to me is that there’s music on! It’s not going to be the coolest or slickest or newest, or we’d be somewhere else entirely. We’re going for authenticity, not just style points.

There’s a lot of emphasis in some restaurants on controlling the aesthetics of the space completely, to the point where I think it detracts some of the focus from the food. It feels like the space has a part of how you use it here, which is homey and not hidden.

There’s no magic here. We have no secrets about how things are made or recipes or anything. Magic is just an illusion. There’s no secret process, it’s just hard work and trying with an open mind and heart that translates into something bigger than the sum of its parts.

On a less macro note, which tools are the most important?

Knives. Knives, for sure. Personally it’s really about being in that zone and focused on your ingredients and environment and everything, but yeah… it has to be knives.

What defines a good one?

The craft of the knife. The person who made that knife is what makes the knife. The materials are obviously very important, but the materials in the wrong hands would make crap. In general it’s the craft - just like the food - start with good ingredients, treat them with respect, and you’ll get something good. Quality steel handled properly will yield an exceptional knife that will last generations. I use knives that my great grandfather had! And my grandfather used, and my father, and that I hope to give to my children. Things like that, they really strike you as… they’re so useful and durable that with proper care they’ll last longer than we will! This useful thing that can do so much will out live me. I find that humbling.

As a skilled knife handler, how young do you think it’s ok to let kids start using sharp knives?

Ooh, I’m trying to remember how young my son was… Probably 3 or 4. Once they can get up onto the step stool, reach the counter and be present, there’s a process. If the interest is there the best we can do as parents is to try to teach and share that information. In the kitchen, the joy of making dinner with mom or dad, kids really hone in on that. If the interest is there they want to share in that. You just have to see the joy in their face or interest in their eyes and all you have to do is teach. I remember helping him hold a knife and chopping things for the mise en place. He took to it great, and now has an amazing palate and fearlessness with food.

Every kitchen is different, what makes yours feel like your own?

I have some borderline OCD issues, with organization and cleanliness, everything being in its place, checked and re-checked, so I found a career for those things to be positive. So I’m definitely not a mad scientist at all, I’m more of a method and focus oriented person, so my kitchen is very personal. It’s the original kitchen in the house, bumped just a little more more room, but it’s very small. It’s just two of us in there, but it’s very minimal.

I basically walked into the kitchen of a house, stripped it to the studs, and rebuilt it as what I thought would work really well. So in one respect it feels like mine because… I built it! Everything is where it is because that’s where it needs to be, fit together without cluttering up with gadgets. The whole place gets stripped bare every night and put back out each day. We change the menu and we change our techniques even if the menu items stay the same we keep tinkering with them. So it’s very modular so that things can be set up differently all the time. It’s very functional and flexible. It changes and evolves, and set up like that on purpose so we had the most flexibility possible, because things are going to keep changing.

Would you ever work in another person’s kitchen again?

Sure! Another of those vital skills is a student’s mind and a thirst for knowledge. I’m ravenous for food knowledge and industry stuff. I love cookbooks and books by cooks, I don’t know. I just love food! The decor and the drinks and the experience, it’s all so interesting and inclusive. It’s one of the most important dynamics in our social structure!

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