“when your passion and purpose are greater than your fears and excuses, you’ll find a way”
I first visited Tokyo in the winter of ‘94 and fell in love with the harmony and precision of the food, every bento was a work of art.
If beautiful food, fast was humanly possible then Japan was leading the way [70,000 people there are over one hundred years old].
I returned home determined to create a new kind of food place altogether.
I had no idea how hard it would be, but itsu Chelsea, London opened in 1997, itsu Soho three years later, followed by 75 more over the next 20 years. New York 2018 and Paris 2022.
Most of our Asian-inspired menu is under 500 [good] calories and packed with vitamins, fibre & protein, a third of our dishes are plant-based and the vast majority costs under £7.
But it’s still delicious & fast. We often give away free lunch to loyal customers kept waiting more than 90 seconds.
Every itsu must have its own kitchen, making nutritious dishes which are steamed [never fried] and made on the spot with responsibly sourced ingredients.
We have a half-price sale every evening to avoid food waste.
itsu’s wonderful teams are committed to beautiful food, beautifully done. We pay them as much as we can afford, rather than as little we can get away with. They are our heart and hope for a bright future.
25 years & counting
After 25 years, itsu’s original shareholders, operators & senior staff still own and control 70% of the entire company. Global investment firm Bridgepoint bought a minority 30% stake during the peak of the Covid crisis in early 2021.
Our shareholders and staff take a long term view to our menu development, our responsibilities generally & especially the well-being of our customers and employees past, present and future.
I promise we’ll stay restless for another twenty years.
were you gobsmacked?
Have you eaten in Japan; were you as gobsmacked as I was? They worship food, it leaves you breathless and wanting; nearby Korea, Vietnam and Thailand are memorable too. eat beautiful is about how their food tastes, how it’s loved and presented and most of all, how it makes you feel, inside and out.
Years ago, during an “eat as much as possible” trip to Japan researching tempura I was introduced to a famous chef and told him of my quest to open a tempura place back home. Bemused & bewildered, he asked me “so what do you want to compromise on… least?”. That pretty well sums it up.
That night, resting in a beautiful Kyoto ryokan, I accepted we’ll never rise to their level, but at least we’ll try. You don’t have to be Mozart to enjoy music.
So, perhaps what we should write under itsu is “eat beautiful, when in Japan” but what good would that be? Please do travel there, go eat for yourself. Stop at Seoul, Hanoi and Chang Mai on the way. We go there many times a year, in our search of Asian-inspired magic.
Meanwhile itsu restaurants support itsu [grocery] and itsu [grocery] support our restaurants and both are swamped by the opportunity to inspire.
romance and purpose
Beneath itsu you often find eat beautiful written in pink to match our orchids. itsu means ‘whenever’ in Japanese and the word [our name] reminds us what our customers expect: convenience, consistency, affordability and Asian-inspired goodness; it sounds dry, but it isn’t.
Business agendas & budgets are boring. Beautiful food isn’t. People are tempted to combine business and food which is a bit bonkers. Humans spend a lot of time eating, so we’re all food critics, and customers judge harshly, because they can and because they know… not quite like shoes & handbags; how many of those have you styled & stitched?
So, mindful of the above we went very, very far away, all the way to the East Asia, to create and bring home glorious things for you to eat.
thins & things
itsu [grocery] began with seaweed from a small and beautifully built family owned kitchen near Seoul; miso soup from the Nagano valley came next, then gyoza and brilliant’broth.
Thins weren’t originally called Thins. Our first packet was covered in Korean writing & a bit of a mystery. Only when we ate them did the potential become clear.
The seaweed boss, now our beloved partner has spent his life harvesting, rolling and seasoning wafer-thin toasted seaweed. We persuaded him to make special flavours for us.
The taste of our seaweed thins is extraordinary, but our real goal was to give two fingers to deep fried potato crisps. Our thins start at 22 calories per pack and we stupidly thought everybody would switch. They didn’t [not all of them anyway].
One of itsu [grocery]’s finest moments was when the government insisted confectionery was replaced at supermarket check-outs for healthy snacks. In supermarkets all over the UK our seaweed thins appeared instead of Mars bars and Kit Kat’s. Children up and down the country were outraged, we have no clue why.
Katherine goes to Korea
You will recall an early MasterChef winner called Tim Anderson, a talented American who met his amazing wife in Japan; he won with a Kyushu-style pork ramen with truffled lobster, gyoza and aromatic oils. We are fortunate to have Tim work with us sometimes at itsu. He slipped us a scrap of paper once on which he’d scribbled ‘gochujang’; “go find this”, he said, “you won’t look back”. We did and we didn’t. It turns out this fermented spicy stuff is at the heart of Korean food and is now on every table of every itsu and features in the Korean chicken rice’bowl and meatless meatball dish served in our restaurants.
Talking of Korea, here’s an insight into our company’s odd behaviour. Katherine, a passionate foodie, joined itsu aged 21 straight out of University. By the end of her second week she was on a plane to Korea to approve our new sweet’soy seaweed seasoning. She was undaunted by the responsibility and, with her acute taste buds and common sense, she completed the task beautifully.
Katherine spent months of lockdown making Vietnamese crystal rolls. Out of five hundred we ate together, we settled on just four… and then began on the dipping sauces. Elevating the humble sandwich to reach Michelin star heights via a Vietnamese crystal roll [at just 180 calories] is not as barmy as you’d think. We hope to serve them soon!
Billie the genius?
What do Billie Eilish, Leonardo de Vinci, James Dyson & paradise’rice have in common? Easy… they keep getting better; it appears the difference between good and great is tenacity and vision.
The elephant in the room, as far as fast food goes, is that fried chicken, burgers & fries are as addictive as anything [apparently].
To make nutritious and healthy food truly desirable you have to focus like Billie Eilish…no giving up.
At one of our weekly food meetings a new chef questioned the depth and viscosity of our toasted sesame oil, later they questioned the size of the chopped ginger [2mm was too small] we were adding to our G&G; they’d found an opportunity for improvement. Exhausting!
In a nutshell, we need to keep getting better, to keep our customers coming back.
Paradise is close
Paradise’rice and all its goodness is coming out Autumn ‘20, at about £2.25, served hot.
You could live happily [and healthily] on paradise’rice… It’s frustrating it took us so long to release it. Maybe the delay is a good thing as Rowena improved the two main components in 2020.
Freshly steamed, sesame & soy seasoned wholegrain brown rice is crowned with our signature G&G; a house blend of edamame beans, shaved green leek, petit pois, fresh micro cubes of ginger, pickled red ginger, toasted sesame oil, chopped coriander and tamari gluten free soy sauce. We have no idea why it’s called G&G, sorry.
Paradise’rice is our version of fries… it’s a side, or a main, which is good food and tastes like good food, as well as being nutritious and light.
Enjoy fries for sure, but every now and then abstain, and visit paradise.
not for rabbits
The crystal’roll is the cool cousin of the common [deep fried] spring roll at just 180 delicious calories. They’re frustratingly difficult to make and it’s taken us over ten years to crack their code; embarrassing but true. We will soon share the recipes for our crystal’rolls on our website, so you can make them at home.
We add fresh mint, coriander and ginger to wild rocket, pickled cucumber ribbons and Vietnamese rice noodles. Our fresh dipping sauces are key.
Healthy, light, nutritious food, commonly enjoyed by rabbits, is notoriously bland – but not itsu Vietnamese crystal’rolls! We are excited to launch them in the New Year 2021.
Less flesh more flash
By now, I bet you astronauts on Space X trips have a dried vegan option in a pouch. Quite right too.
You want less meat and we hear you, fine by us; the Japanese were almost completely vegetarian for a thousand years and our menu is already 30% plant based.
The challenge is to make plant-based food amazing. We cracked the chicken and spring onion gyoza by sample no.54, meanwhile our vegetable dumplings were on version no.86 (and still tasted a bit like a shredded compost heap). But on July 28 at 3.36 pm we may have cracked it with version no. 87 including a hint of authentic sambal from Korea that tied the taste and texture together.
Miso’easy, paradise’rice, i’thai noodles, and veggie maki rolls with fresh mint are part of our plant-based breakthroughs.
More to come as we aim for 40% vegan.
ferrari steam room
We steam dumplings, rice, meat & greens, we never deep fry. This commitment ensures the majority of itsu dishes are low in fat; coincidentally this is the way the Japanese enjoy fast, convenient food.
In every itsu kitchen stand a pair of steamer ovens alongside the latest Japanese sushi equipment, nigiri robots, rice cookers & washers; all-told a quality control investment we’re proud to make, costing more than a brand-new Ferrari.
A steamer oven somehow blasts clouds of water around during the cooking process, which makes wet heat; a bit like a steam room. It works well.
Okinawa is where old people rock and the islands support the highest density of centenarians on the planet. The magic’s in their diet, apparently: fish, rice, miso & greens… the best of Japanese cuisine.
What’s surprising is that, without exception, the food they eat tastes awesome. They don’t knock up salads and they don’t do bland.
Annoyingly, the human brain is programmed to crave fat, sugar and salt; this kept us alive and hunting a million years ago. Without self-control, exercise and education, we’re on a path to bigness.
However, an easy cure to this doomsday is “anti-bland”.
The Japanese and Koreans don’t have a patent on anti-bland; they just use lots of it. If you get to eat in Okinawa all will become clear; meanwhile trust itsu to have brought back as much anti-bland as we can carry.
Miso, sambal and gochujang are seriously “anti-bland” with their complex, fermented, gorgeous, knock your socks off tastes. We use them a lot, as we do fresh fish and wholegrain brown rice and greens, adorned with stuff like sesame, tamari and soy.
The mission is good taste in harmony with good nutrition and these make uncommon dancing partners.
itsu [grocery] already sells miso and soon, we hope sambal; if we can get hold of enough of it.
In the meantime, please try and visit Okinawa.
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