The Pig & The Lady Tokyo: What It Takes to Open a Hawai‘i Restaurant in Japan
For his first overseas restaurant, Andrew Le resists the Hawai‘i-fication of The Pig & The Lady while calibrating recipes with Japanese ingredients.
“It’s tasty, but it’s too clean; everything needs to be more dirty,” says Andrew Le, chef/owner of The Pig & The Lady. More fermented, more funk. We’re in Japan, tasting the menu of The Pig &The Lady Tokyo, which will open at the end of November. Following Le’s recipes, the Japanese crew of the upcoming restaurant has prepared the same dishes that Le serves in Chinatown, Honolulu. It’s surreal to be tasting them across the Pacific—it’s like we’re in an alternate universe of a Haruki Marukami novel, where everything seems the same on the surface, but the details are a bit off.
Transit General Office, a Tokyo-based restaurant company with about 3,000 employees and just over 100 restaurants spanning cafés to Spanish concepts, is planning on opening approximately 10 new restaurants in Japan by December, one of which is TP&TL. Two years ago, Sadahiro Nakamura, Transit’s CEO, came to TP&TL in Chinatown and proposed a partnership as part of Transit’s goal of bringing more culinary diversity to Tokyo’s dining scene. Transit would finance and run the restaurant, and Le and his team would consult on everything, from the dining room chair upholstery to the bread for the pho French dip.
This is the first time that Le is sampling his dishes in Japan. And it looks like he’s going to have to rebuild his recipes from scratch. “I have to taste all the ingredients—it’s like relearning everything,” he says. Everything is different here: the fish sauce milder, the goat cheese more pungent, the hoisin sweeter and the flours—well, Le can’t figure out what’s going on with the rice flour that’s used to fry the LFC, which come out paler and less crispy. Transit has asked a ramen factory to make fresh rice noodles specifically for TP&TL Tokyo, but they’re more slippery and chewy than those in Honolulu.
For a week, Le, Kristene Moon, executive sous chef of TP&TL, and pastry chef Jessica Fu cook alongside the Japanese chefs. By the time they present the dishes to almost 20 of Transit’s corporate team, including the CEO, CFO, COO and the “experience designer,” every single recipe has been tweaked. Some have required creative substitutions, like the melon carpaccio—the watermelon (hard to source consistently in Japan) is replaced with green papaya. The pho and vegan broths have been rebuilt, and Le is opting for a different noodle. It’s a lesson that recipes are only guidelines. And that despite a rapidly globalizing world, where The Pig & The Lady can open in Ebisu, Tokyo, just down the street from Shake Shack, that flavor is still hard to clone.
Le says: “I realized that some of the things I’m trying to replicate aren’t going to be the same. It needs a little exploring how you can make it better, how you can make it unique. But the spirit of [TP&TL] will be there: having fun with flavor combinations, with compositions in plating and presentation. The boldness of the taste will be there.”
There have been a few tense moments in the kitchen, when it seems that the Japanese chefs want to adjust flavors slightly for a Japanese audience, to dial back the boldness a bit. But Le is firm. To do that would be like taking the Pig out of The Pig & The Lady. He also pushes back on what he sees as the Hawai‘i-fication of the Tokyo restaurant. Asked to choose a tropical leaf coaster for the tables, he says that this isn’t the look he wants. While the new location will in some ways be a compact and polished version of the scrappy Chinatown restaurant, even down to the brick wall, Le envisions “a city Vietnamese” aesthetic that also incorporates Ebisu, the neighborhood it’s in.
But Hawai‘i sells in Japan. So while the interior of the new restaurant is still being built and the details being finalized, The Pig & The Lady makes its first public appearance in Tokyo as a food truck at the Omotesando farmers market and at a concurrent Japanese media lunch, where all the chefs don aloha shirts and serve pho and banh mi alongside tropical cocktails and Kona Longboards.
In the end, The Pig & The Lady Tokyo will not be a Hawai‘i restaurant, nor a Vietnamese restaurant anymore than the Chinatown restaurant can be defined in such simple terms. And while its opening menu will have the same dishes served at The Pig & The Lady in Chinatown, Le plans on going to Japan four to five times a year to change the menu and develop new dishes unique to Japan. He says when he was first approached about opening a restaurant in Japan, the answer was yes, a thousand times over. “It’s Tokyo that’s why—I have a sense of awe and appreciation for what chefs there do,” Le says. “They’re on another level. To be able to be part of the scene, that’s a dream for a lot of chefs.”