February 5, 2014

The Toki Effect

The struggles and successes of a Japanese restaurateur

When Toki Masabuchi got married, her father came from Japan to attend the wedding in Louisville. She ordered sushi from a health food store for the wedding, and her father was taken aback. “Is this what Japanese food is in Kentucky?” he asked. He encouraged her to think about bringing the flavors she knew well to her new home.

Toki is from Osaka, Japan, where food is celebrated and attributed to the joyful constitution of the people. She thought about her roots, and soon after the wedding, her father gave her a small loan that led to a takeout business at the now-defunct Seafood Connection on Bardstown Road.

The loan wasn’t without complications. A traditional Japanese man, Toki’s father was skeptical about his daughter’s ability to succeed. In 2003, he returned to the United States to assist her in opening her first full-service restaurant, Maido Essential Japanese Cuisine. Unfortunately, their personalities clashed so much that Toki’s father left for Japan before the restaurant even opened. In parting at the airport, he told his daughter, “You are going to fail, but you must pay me back.”

LOST AND FOUND
In the early ’90s, Toki Masabuchi boarded a plane with 100 other Japanese students to attend college in the United States. She had ambitions to master the English language and cultivate friendships with people all over the world. She had an urgent need to get away from her comfortable, sheltered lifestyle at home and broaden her horizons, which is, in part, how she landed at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Ky. For the next five years, Toki bounced between Japan and the United States, trying to find herself.

Aside from the international travel, her young 20s story probably doesn’t vary much from yours or mine. Like many young women, it includes heartbreak, long hours at sordid jobs, study and minimal sleep. She ultimately landed in Louisville to complete a degree in communications at the University of Louisville. During this time, she had also begun to study Buddhism. Her mother had urged her gently over these years to look into the religion, and when Toki finally began to study it in earnest, she felt a shift in her life trajectory.

In the midst of her Buddhist studies, Toki read about the “butterfly effect” in a Buddhist magazine. Simply put, the article discussed how one person’s energy could be infectious and affect the world around him. Toki determined that by balancing her own life and pushing positive “happy” intentions outward, she could contribute to making the world a better place. It ignited a deeper self-worth and respect, and a desire to spread that to others. It still wasn’t clear how she would project her renewed energy, but her intentions were set, and she firmly believed this was the path she would follow. Her interest in communications began to wane, and she became a committed Nichiren Buddhist.

THE FIRST YEARS OF MAIDO
Maido Essential Japanese, an izakaya (a Japanese bar with food), wasn’t an immediate hit in its Clifton neighborhood. If you visit Japan, you’ll find a range of izakayas — from the traditional and classic to more modern varieties with fusion cocktails and an update on standard cuisine. All feature plenty of drink options and a large menu of small plates. Maido was somewhere in between, boasting a modern interior, a craft beer list, a sake menu, sushi and small tapas-sized servings of traditional Japanese cuisine.

“It was a lot of struggle,” Toki remembers. Maido opened without a sign, credit card machine or liquor license because she had run out of money. Business was very slow. People complained it wasn’t their understanding of what Japanese food was, and that portions were too small. Former Maido and Dragon King’s Daughter employee Brooks “Jojo” Hocog recalls how, initially, all orders were taken and delivered to the kitchen by hand. During busier evenings, things could get a little messy.

Concurrently, Toki’s marriage and finances struggled, and her relationship with her father continued to be estranged. She sought strength in her Buddhist practice.

“I might look like I was in trouble. But I knew I was going to prove everyone wrong,” she says. “I am going to make it happen. I am going to be successful because I have gohonzon (devotion and commitment to Buddhist practice). This was a conviction of my practice. I knew I had to struggle so that I can show actual proof of my practice.

“Because I had to spend some days without power, almost kicked out of an apartment and had to quit smoking because I could not afford it, I made stronger connection with sensei (teacher). I can say, ‘Thank you, sensei, for this opportunity to be super poor. I did not have money, but I had hope. I was building fortune in my life. I felt like nobody was on my side, but at the same time, I felt strong inside.”

While she credits many supporters who urged her on in the darkest of times, Toki reached deep into her faith to put her situation into a different perspective. She believed in the value of her struggle and was determined to persevere. Ultimately, she refused to change her restaurant concept. In the morning and night, she chanted and prayed for everyone’s happiness. She prayed that her staff would be able to make a reasonable living, for her restaurant to survive, and that her customers would get good energy from the food — and that energy would spread out to the community.

“Over time, I came to realize that many were regulars and loyal fans of Toki’s food — and deservedly so,” says Hocog, a witness to Maido’s evolution. “In the kitchen, Toki was a perfectionist. She taught me on slow days how to roll sushi and what differentiated her technique from others. She was almost devout in her preparation of the rice and su. Very skilled with the knife, and it was evident that her slicing technique had been crafted over the course of many years. Sushi was and still is her art. She once told me it made her really happy to cook for people, almost as though cooking was her way of contributing joy to the world.”

Toki’s resolve paid off. Maido began to turn a profit. Five years after opening, she had made enough to open her second restaurant, Dragon King’s Daughter in the Highlands.

BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS
Toki had opened Maido with her then-husband Jim Huie. During their divorce, they tried working with each other for a period, but it proved challenging. Ultimately, she ended up the sole owner of Maido; she sold it to a friend in 2010 so she could focus on Dragon King’s Daughter, called DKD by its loyal regulars.

“This didn’t happen overnight, though, because Toki managed to run both restaurants for a while before going solely with DKD,” Hocog recalls. “I heard through the grapevine that she was opening a new restaurant, and I asked her if she needed any help. She said, ‘Sure,’ and next thing you know, I was helping paint the new place, printing and formatting the menu, and helping hire and train staff. It was really a team of me, Justin Riestra and Camille Pass who helped get the front of house in gear for opening.”

With Maido under new ownership, the divorce finalized and her finances stabilizing, things were seemingly on the upswing. When Toki began to withdraw from Maido, she focused her Buddhist practice on changing the core of her life, rather than being so immersed in her financial and business projects.

Part of this change included fixing her relationship with her father. She reached out and invited her father back to Louisville. He happily accepted and offered to come for a month. “I think two weeks is OK,” Toki responded.

During his visit, Toki and her father continued to have differences. Regardless, she enjoyed her time with him. He had not yet experienced Maido. On the day they planned to eat there, Toki got a call that, again, brought a challenge into her life. Siwon Yu, her friend who had bought the restaurant from her, had ended his life.

HEARTS IN THE RIGHT PLACE
She rushed to Maido and arrived as Yu’s body was being removed. She remembers her father walking around the deserted dining room, looking around at the polished wood and brightly colored walls. Toki grieved for her friend and felt further despair as the restaurant that represented her perseverance began its demise. Her father, who had been skeptical of her success so many years ago, still did not see his daughter’s accomplishment in action.

She recalled that Siwon Yu, while an experienced and capable chef, did not take to the many challenges of managing a restaurant. She knew Yu had been struggling with depression for myriad reasons and had hoped Maido could turn it around for him, the way it had for her.

“I had a hope because it was his restaurant, it would be different,” she says. “I have worked in restaurants and have been unhappy. So I created my own restaurant, the kind of place I wanted to work. I was hoping the same could happen for Siwon. He was OK at the beginning. It didn’t last long.”

When Maido didn’t translate the same way for Yu, Toki fought relentlessly to keep it open. After a brief closure in late 2011, she collected a crew from Dragon King’s Daughter and spent a few weeks redesigning Maido for Yu. She recalls his surprise as they marched in, unpaid, and helped clean and decorate. Toki hosted a soft re-opening in late October 2011 to help jumpstart the business. She offered to manage Maido if Yu would manage the kitchen at DKD. Yu agreed, but on the day they were supposed to switch, he called and canceled.

She didn’t know why, but thought perhaps Yu found it hard and awkward to be around her staff. Toki then sent DKD employee Winston Blake to Maido to help relieve Yu’s stress and create a “happy kitchen.” Blake recalls business was significantly slower at Maido while the environment was more stressful. In the kitchen, there was a partition between the sushi side and hot food, which led to minimal communication between staff. Blake remembers going in many times to an incredibly silent kitchen. From time to time, he was able to inspire some conversation, and it would change the feel of the whole day. However, he didn’t always succeed.

In contrast, Dragon King’s Daughter’s kitchen was a happy place to be. Toki says it was “the happiest kitchen I’ve ever worked in.” Hocog fondly remembers that on the end of the busiest days, Toki would pass out beers to her employees after closing. Her employees credit her management style to the success of DKD. “Toki values hard work, self-efficacy and honesty. If you’re a good person with your heart in the right place — even when your head sometimes isn’t — then Toki will respect you.”

Blake says Toki is even-tempered, efficient and full of energy. “I’ve always loved the atmosphere of wherever Toki is. She’s been a great boss. She’s very good at promoting a good atmosphere.”

Whether she realized it or not, Toki’s butterfly effect was clearly critical to the sustained success of these spaces. While the character of the food naturally changes with a new chef, reviews of Yu’s cooking were mostly good, though some criticized it lacked consistency. Despite the largely unchanged menu and the best efforts from Toki and her staff, Maido struggled to survive. In November 2012, it was finally silenced when Maido closed permanently (due to the passing of Yu).

HAPPINESS THROUGH FOOD
It took a long time before Toki could talk about Maido. Life moved on, but her first restaurant continued to haunt her. She says, to this day, it’s difficult for her to drive by the building. She often takes a detour to avoid it. When she can’t, she will fix her gaze to the opposite side of the street toward the Silver Dollar. Still, she can see the old green sign in her periphery. She says many people still ask her, as it stands vacant, if she will take the place back. Toki wrangles with this question. “I don’t know. I do sometimes wish … maybe … can I take it back? Because everything is still there. I’d rather see it empty than turned into something else. It’s a part of me.”

She is unsure if there would be a purpose to rebuilding this place that housed so much of her growth and path to happiness — or if she should accept its fate and let it fade into the past.

(Following this interview, leasing signage was pulled from Maido’s windows; now, brown butcher paper covers the view into its interior. A new Japanese restaurant is projected to open there in April.)

With the question of Maido’s reopening finally put to rest, fans can mourn its passing and move forward. Toki surely has enough on her plate as Dragon King’s Daughter continues to thrive. She opened a second location in New Albany nearly a year ago, and it has become a fast favorite among the new businesses in the city’s revitalized downtown.

Hocog, now living in San Francisco, shares, “I’m very proud of what she has been able to accomplish and contribute to the city of Louisville, and I hope that anyone who is fortunate to rally behind her realizes they’re working for a truly remarkable lady … I want Toki to come open a DKD in San Francisco and blow these people’s minds away!”

Whether you credit the butterfly effect or just good sense, it’s hard to not be impressed with Toki’s discipline and commitment. Her devotion to her faith and the relationships she cultivated on this road helped her emerge from numerous challenges humble, grateful, determined and, most importantly, happy.

“I have a happy family. My partner and I have nothing to complain about. Beautiful daughter. Good relationship with my parents and brothers. I now have deeper understanding about life, and my faith in the gohonzon is stronger than ever. I am grateful for who I am and what I have. I am very, very happy — happiest ever,” she says. “I take everything that happens to my life with faith and challenged them one by one, patiently following sensei’s lead.

“I serve the food I absolutely love ... I really do appreciate that people come. You take care of us, we want to take care of you. It’s not like ‘Because I was told to’ — it feels right.”

Maybe it’s not world peace, but perhaps Toki’s powers lie in her ability to transform struggle into joy. Perhaps this is understood by her many regulars in every bite, sip and smile.

“I feel I’ve found my mission in this lifetime to serve happiness through food, and that’s my world peace. I don’t think I could do that in Japan or anywhere else, and it happened to be here, and I’m happy to stay here and do what my mission is.”

As for the startup money she borrowed from her father — she paid it back in full.