When Raleigh’s burgeoning food scene caught the attention of chef Katsuji Tanabe, the culinary mastermind whose creative and flamboyant cooking style won over audiences on Bravo’s Top Chef BostonTop Chef MexicoTop Chef Charleston, the Travel Channel’s Chow Masters, and the Food Network’s Chopped, he and his family recently packed up their home in Los Angeles and relocated to Oak City to open a new restaurant featuring rustic, wood-fired cooking.

“I wanted to find a home in the South where I can provide the best possible life for my family and do what I love in a place that really cares about their food culture.” Tanabe said in a statement released October 7.

With over twenty years of experience in the culinary arts, the Top Chef alum and cookbook author’s famed restaurants currently span coast-to-coast, from L.A. to Las Vegas, Chicago, and New York. The new downtown Raleigh restaurant, which will open in historic City Market at 208 Wolfe Street by the end of the year, we’re told, will join the growing ranks of other chefs in the region who source their ingredients locally and optimize what’s in season. What Tanabe brings to the table, however, that other Triangle chefs do not, is a unique combination of Mexican, Japanese, and American flavors that stem from his cultural heritage—Tanabe grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Mexico City to parents of Mexican and Japanese descent.  

Tanabe’s Raleigh restaurant aims to contribute to the ongoing revitalization of City Market and Moore Square. He has also revealed that he didn’t move to the Triangle to open just one restaurant. We recently caught up with the celebrated chef to learn more.  

INDY WEEK: Why did you choose Raleigh over Durham?

KATSUJI TANABE: I had a friend in Raleigh and just got to know Raleigh first, and once I discovered City Market, everything just fell into place. But when I think about this food scene, I think of Raleigh and Durham and Chapel Hill, and how much it offers together. And I love eating in Durham as much as I do Raleigh.

What was it about City Market that you found so appealing?

City Market has such great history and really feels like a central part of Raleigh’s story, so I liked the idea of being part of this next generation of Raleigh’s history. And I liked the way this area of downtown Raleigh has been developing. I also just love the aesthetics of City Market – like the cobblestone streets. And the restaurant space has great energy.

Is there anything more you can reveal about the food at the new restaurant?

The wood-fired grill is going to be the main feature and will be seen by everyone in the dining room. This is rustic cooking with bold flavors—like tons of chilies and herbs, influenced from my Mexican-Japanese heritage and everything I’ve experienced since Top Chef. You will see some of my favorite childhood dishes like my grandmother’s cornbread and ceviche. And I want the menu to also be a reflection of North Carolina. I’ve fallen in love with NC shrimp and country ham, so you’ll see these for sure.

What did your parents’ respective cultural heritages teach you about the culinary arts?

Food has always had a big presence in my life, but it wasn’t until I was grown that I realized the way my family married Japanese flavors and cooking styles with Mexican. My grandmother was the first person who I really cooked side-by-side with, when I was seven years old (my daughters are now four and seven and love to be in the kitchen with us). This was my mother’s mother, who was Mexican. And my father, who is Japanese, cooked on Sundays. We had tempura tacos on the weekends, and I used a lot of soy or fish sauce!

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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