Food & Drink

‘Top Chef’ alum Katsuji Tanabe moved to Raleigh and is opening new restaurant downtown

One of the most memorable contestants in the history of “Top Chef” — Bravo’s culinary reality competition — is opening a restaurant in downtown Raleigh.

Chef Katsuji Tanabe plans to open a live-fire restaurant later this year in Raleigh’s City Market. The unnamed restaurant will be around the corner from MOFU Shoppe, moving into the space at 208 Wolfe St.

Tanabe, his wife and two children are moving from Los Angeles to make Raleigh their full-time home. The Mexico-born chef has six other restaurants spread out around the country — in New York, Chicago, Las Vegas and California. He is perhaps best known for competing on three seasons of “Top Chef”: in Boston in 2014, “Top Chef Mexico” in 2016 and a season with returning favorites in 2017 filmed in Charleston, S.C.

In moving to Raleigh, Tanabe said he is looking to change his pace of life. Raleigh continued to pop up in conversations about the best places to live.

“It’s a daily hustle (in L.A.), and here in the South ... it just feels more welcoming,” Tanabe said in an interview with The News & Observer. “There are few places in America that have a (food culture), and the South has had a good connection with agriculture, with pork, it has regional flavors.”

For his Raleigh restaurant, Tanabe said all the cooking will be done by wood-fired grills; there will be no stoves or ovens in the kitchen. Cords of wood are stacked in a hallway next to the restaurant’s entrance.

“It’s all about rustic cooking,” Tanabe said. “I’m Mexican-Japanese. My cooking style has been created in this country. It’s not a Mexican restaurant, it’s not a Japanese restaurant. It’s the food I did on ‘Top Chef,’ the flavors I embrace — high acid, spicy. I’m not a fine dining chef, I’m a fun dining chef.”

The Wolfe Street space had been planned for Hearth Kitchen, a wood-fired concept that never came to fruition. Tanabe will take over an essentially finished restaurant space, but plans to take the time to build his own design.

The name is still being developed, and Tanabe declined to put an opening timeline in place, but he hopes to start serving by the end of 2019.

Raleigh dining scene

His arrival is the latest high-profile addition to Raleigh’s dining scene, which has grown in national prominence in recent years, including Ashley Christensen’s James Beard win earlier this year for Best Chef in the country.

The celebrity-driven burger chain Wahlburgers, owned by Mark Wahlberg and his brothers, opened and closed quickly last year. The Triangle just got its first Shake Shack, and other regional chains have invested in Raleigh’s dining scene, making it clear the area’s chefs and eaters no longer exist in a bubble.

Tanabe, though, said he plans to call Raleigh home and be here for the long haul.

“It’s a foodie city,” Tanabe said. “You have so many people from different places. The whole idea is to put roots in this area; give a better life to my family and then embrace the culinary scene of the city.

“I’m an outsider but if I didn’t believe in the city I wouldn’t be moving my family. ... I hope Raleigh is where I become a grandfather.”

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.