Interview: Kyle Itani, Hopscotch

Posted in Interviews on June 10, 2015

It’s hard to score a seat at chef Kyle Itani’s Hopscotch, and for good reason — his classy, updated diner boasts killer cocktails, craft beer, and a menu of Japanese-inspired, wonderfully executed classics that you can’t help but crave. Here, Itani sounds off on the revitalization of the restaurant’s Uptown Oakland neighborhood, his passion for Japanese culture and cuisine, and his forthcoming project next door, Itani Ramen.

How does Hopscotch’s menu, and vibe, represent your previous experiences in restaurants, and as a chef? Both are heavily influenced by my previous experiences at restaurants, mostly in the sense of it being the opposite of what I’ve done before. Not only was Hopscotch my first Chef/Owner restaurant, it was my first Executive Chef restaurant, as well. I thought a lot about what I liked and didn’t like from previous places and decided to go in a direction that pulled from both areas. I had worked at open-all-day-neighborhood places, but the food was never that great, and I had worked at dinner only places where the food was incredible. I really wanted to challenge myself to combine both together. It is the still the biggest challenge Hopscotch faces each day, but it also separates Hopscotch from every other restaurant.

Japanese flavors and technique play in heavily to your menu. What elements of Japanese cuisine are you particularly drawn to? I’m particularly drawn to country-style Japanese cooking. I love traveling in the smaller cities in Japan and taking in local and regional fare. I love when I’m somewhere new and find a totally different preparation of an ingredient I’ve seen elsewhere. From milk in miso soup in Tohoku to fish-only sukiyaki in Kansai; those things really excite me.

Hopscotch has the feel of a classy, food-focused diner. Was this mellow vibe part of your original vision? My business partner and  co-owner at Hopscotch, Jenny Schwarz, had more to do with the vision of a classy, food-focused diner. She also leads our amazing beverage program, including the creative cocktails and beer and wine lists. I brought the mellow.

Did you know you wanted to be in Uptown Oakland? What do you particularly like about your neighborhood? I knew I wanted to be in Oakland, but wasn’t sure about Uptown. I had a hunch it was going to be a great neighborhood, but it was far from that when we signed our lease almost three and a half years ago.

Has your stretch of San Pablo changed since you opened?  It’s improved a lot. Being open all day has been a great way to serve the community. Oakland supporting small businesses is the best way to change the landscape. One business taking charge of one block can make a huge difference.

How will Itani Ramen be different, and similar? What excites you most about the new restaurant? Itani Ramen will be different than Hopscotch in a lot of ways. The food will still be my vision, but it is a chance for me to really dive deeper into exploring Japanese regional food. The service will be much more casual. We won’t be taking reservations and our guests will order at a counter and then find a seat. My intention is to offer an experience similar to Japan where one can drop in and grab a quick, wholesome, delicious meal and be on their way. Of course, if it is one’s intention to hang out for a while and grab some beers, shochu, and bar snacks, they will have that option as well. I’m really excited to continue to populate the Bay Area ramen scene, but to do it with my particular ethos on what ramen should be: quick, delicious, inexpensive, and really, really fun.