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Hidden Gems: Meet Chiaki Yanagimoto of Bar Uerukamu

Today we’d like to introduce you to Chiaki Yanagimoto.

Hi Chiaki, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I grew up in Japan and moved to Los Angeles to study filmmaking. I produce films and other content now, and one of the films I produced was a documentary in 2015 about Japanese sake. In that process, I got to meet lots of cool people in the sake industry. I also had to “study” the material. (The things we do for work… you know.)

Around the same time, I got married to my husband who was a chef/owner of one of the first Japanese izakaya restaurants in the valley (Uerukamu) for years but had just sold it. About three years ago, we found a small space in our neighborhood that was perfect for a casual restaurant like a tapas bar. All the puzzle pieces started to come together; and we opened this Japanese sake & tapas bar “Bar Uerukamu” in the summer of 2017. My husband is a trained kappo chef, so he makes all kinds of Japanese tapas as well as nigiri sushi. I am in charge of Japanese craft sake and curate them with the help of many friends in the sake world. I still produce content full time while never stopping to learn and discover more wonders of sake.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
When we opened in 2017, there were already loyal fans of Jun, my husband, from his old restaurant. I wouldn’t say it was an instant success, but we were fortunate some people already knew us when we opened. But we wanted to make it different from what he had before and wanted to create a place where local regulars could swing by after work (or after meal) to relax and enjoy sake. So we intentionally didn’t advertise and promote at all for the first year or so. We even told customers “please don’t advertise” lol. When you don’t advertise yourself, sometimes people only see “Japanese restaurant” and create certain expectations themselves. So sometimes customers walk in and want more common menu in LA’s Japanese restaurants, like sushi rolls, tempura, etc. It isn’t always easy to say we don’t have what they want when we know that’s what they came here for. Luckily for us, our regular customers always create certain atmosphere where even those people can have fun and enjoy themselves. We’ve been very fortunate and it’s been a pretty smooth ride to build a place we wanted to build. Of course, the pandemic changed that, but I know that’s a shared struggle in the entire restaurant industry.

As you know, we’re big fans of Bar Uerukamu. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about the brand?
We are a Japanese sake & tapas bar that specializes in craft sake. In the valley, there are a lot of Japanese izakaya/sushi restaurants that have been there for 10, 20 and 30 years. We know them and we respect them. We wanted to create a place that’s authentic but also had freedom and flexibility to have fun. We are extremely passionate about what we do, but we also don’t take ourselves too seriously. Our omakase is quite literally omakase = “trust the chef”. We don’t have a set course, and we don’t know how many dishes there would be. Sometimes our menu is a guideline. If we have a kind of fish that is not on the regular menu but is great quality, we aren’t hesitant to make a dish out of it. Sake lineup is constantly rotating, and we welcome our customers to taste, learn, and enjoy sake that you don’t really find elsewhere.

Now, the pandemic has definitely changed the scene. We didn’t even have a website before March 2020, and we had never took takeout orders. After a few trials and errors, in addition to limited takeout, we created a service called “Weekly Meal Service by Bar Uerukamu”. We make five meals, each of which has three dishes + rice + miso soup, and package them all and deliver once a week. Just like when we started this business, we wanted to offer something you can’t get elsewhere. It’s been a great way to stay connected to our customers. Personally, I am proud of the path we’ve been taking since the pandemic started and the service we’ve created. But none of it would have been possible without the support, love, and encouragement of our customers and our friends in the industry.

Do you any memories from childhood that you can share with us?
I grew up in the countryside of Japan, surrounded by forests, rice fields, and snow. I have lots of great childhood memories, but one of the less obvious ones was to walk to a nearby shrine with my parents and my sister every new year’s day just after midnight. Many families in the neighborhood would gather. I don’t remember doing anything special, but we would just stand by the fire, eat a bowl of hot tonjiru soup, and say hello to each other. Nothing a young kid would find fun, I guess. But I loved the feeling of community and the symbolic meanings everyone shared in that moment. It was a ritual, not because it was at a shrine, but because it was a shared moment. There’s something special about people gathering and celebrate together the cycle of the seasons. It’s too bad LA doesn’t really offer seasons. lol

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Bar Uerukamu

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