Interview by Elaine Ikoma Ko, Special to The North American Post
All photos provided by Terry Takeuchi
Terry Takeuchi, Seattle-born, third-generation Japanese American, is the owner of Terry’s Kitchen. He attended local schools in Central and South Seattle and retired in 2014 from Seattle City Light. Pursuing his passion for cooking, he opened Terry’s Kitchen in 2017 in the Newport Hills area of Bellevue. He is married to Sheri Chinn and they have a son, Justin.
5625 119th Ave SE, Bellevue
Open for dine-in.
Terry Takeuchi is the owner and self-described “homeboy cook” at one of the most beloved Bellevue restaurants, Terry’s Kitchen. While he is the nightly chef in the kitchen, he never misses the opportunity to personally welcome guests at his restaurant, which is a second home for many. Having weathered the pandemic for the past two years, thanks to tremendous community love for him and his “home comfort food,” he hopes to be with us for a very long time.
Tell us about your family growing up “in the hood” throughout Central and South Seattle.
My Nisei (second-generation) parents Shigeo “Conc” Takeuchi and Yukiye “Betty”’ Mogi married and settled in Seattle’s Central District near Garfield High School after World War II where they raised four boys, Gary, Rick, Bryan, and myself. Our family lived in two apartments before later moving into a home in the Rainier Beach neighborhood of south Seattle, where I attended high school. The first one was at 19th and Pine and the second one was at 20th and Marion.
My dad’s parents, Yoshitsugu and Mitsue Takeuchi, were from Fukushima Prefecture as were my mother’s parents, Senji and Mitsui Mogi.
My dad’s family resided in Puyallup and my mom’s family lived in Tacoma. Due to wartime hysteria during WWII, my father and mother’s families were incarcerated at Minidoka and Tule Lake respectively.
After the war, my dad worked various jobs starting on Seattle’s waterfront for Main Fish, then Imperial Lanes bowling alley, and bartending at a few restaurants in “Chinatown” (now Chinatown/International District/CID). My mom stayed busy at home raising my brothers and me. Once we grew older, she held jobs at the Seafirst Bank branch in Chinatown, the YMCA in the Central District, and later retired from Boeing.
I started school at T.T. Minor Elementary and went to Immaculate Conception for middle school. Later, my family moved to south Seattle where I graduated from Rainier Beach High School.
Although my dad worked hard to support our family, I know my mother worked even harder raising my brothers and me — especially me as I earned the nickname “Terrible Terry” because of my high energy and knack for getting into trouble!
I am definitely more like my mom because we both loved cooking and enjoyed eating different ethnic foods. Because my family moved around to various areas of Seattle’s inner city, I was exposed to ethnic diversity and my friends and their families embraced me as one of their own. I was able to enjoy home-cooked meals like Southern gumbo, BBQ ribs and chicken, Filipino pancit and adobo, to name a few.
Eating my mom’s cooking and sharing meals at friends’ homes and gatherings started my love of “home-cooked comfort food.” And I hate to admit it, but some of my favorite comfort foods back then were the frozen TV dinners and chicken and turkey pot pies!
Do you have any special memories growing up in inner-city Seattle?
Back in the mid-60s, I was practicing at Garfield Playfield with my Little League baseball team, the Cavaliers. Suddenly, a white limousine appeared next to the field and out stepped a tall, good looking man. As it turns out, that man was in town for business and decided to check out kids playing in “the hood.”
We suddenly learned that “the man” was Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali! He grabbed a bat and stepped up to the plate. I was pitching at that time and tried really hard to strike him out. After he took a few swings and missed, my coach, Mr. Banks, gave me the hook and put me in the outfield as he then proceeded to let Clay hit away at soft pitches.
Now when I think about it, I could’ve been the only Japanese American kid to have ever struck out “The Greatest of All Time!”
My dad worked at the front desk at Imperial Lanes, and at early ages my brothers and I were able to hang out while my dad worked. We bowled, played pool, met friends and enjoyed Harry Imamura’s scrumptious hamburgers and “Imperial Mix-Up” fried rice from the bowling alley restaurant. I never forgot about Harry’s Imperial Mix-Up as the years went by.
I played in the Seattle Imperials Drum & Bugle Corps horn section that was comprised mostly of Japanese Americans. The hard work, perseverance, and teamwork I learned from the Corps competitions were strong traits that have stayed with me today.
Another great aspect of growing up in the inner city was the local music scene. I played in the horn section for a local R&B band, “Tamaraw.” Playing in Tamaraw was quite an experience since I was still a minor at the time. A band highlight for me was being the opening band for “Tower of Power” in Bellevue in the early 1970s. What a great time!
Tell us about your previous work career and how you fell into the idea of starting a restaurant.
During my 20s, I worked as a dental technician for a short time, then became employed by Seattle City Light’s Conservation Department. I forged long-lasting friendships and retired after 31 years in 2014. Little did my coworkers know they were my unofficial test-kitchen participants during all of our City Light potluck meals!
Around that same time, I volunteered to help during the Nisei Veteran Committee’s (NVC) luncheons with the urging of their Luncheon Coordinator, Bev Kashino. Initially, I was the dishwasher, but after a year, I became the main kitchen volunteer cook. It was instant on-the-job training learning to shop/prep/cook for large groups.
But culinary knowledge was not the most important awareness I gained from being affiliated with the NVC.
I finally started to absorb the history and many sacrifices the Issei (first generation) and Nisei endured during WWII. My family and relatives did not discuss their “camp” experiences, nor fighting as soldiers in the decorated Japanese American US Army 442nd regiment. It’s an important part of US history that we must learn from and pass on to future generations to never forget.
After our weekly bowling league, we would meet friends at South China restaurant on Beacon Hill for late-night food and drinks, which is how I became acquainted with co-owners Sid and Dan Ko. When South China relocated to Bellevue in 2004, I continued to patronize the restaurant. Both Sid and Dan were generous in letting me help cook and hone my cooking skills during their fundraising events. I became familiar with how a kitchen functions, communication between the wait and cook staff, meal prep in large quantities, etc.
When South China eventually closed in 2014, I never forgot their iconic garlic chicken wings and I greatly missed my second home hangout and watering hole.
Shortly thereafter, a business opportunity arose where I could put my cooking skills to use. When thinking about different foods for a menu, I would think about the foods from my favorite restaurants that had closed over the years — places like Mikado, Aya’s, Miyako, 300 Cafe — to name a few. I had a gut feeling that offering some of the same comfort foods which I grew up with could appeal to a larger audience.
So with the help of an old family friend and restaurant consultant, Taylor Terao, we assembled a comfort food menu offering a little bit of everything that brought back warm food memories of my past, including Imperial Mix-Up and garlic chicken wings!
Terry’s Kitchen opened in Bellevue’s Newport Hill’s neighborhood in July 2017, with help from my supportive business partner Kathy Miyauchi, generous sponsors and supporters who believed in my vision, along with talented and devoted cooks, friendly servers, and dedicated office and design staff.
How has your restaurant become more than just a place to eat? How has the location in Bellevue been a plus?
From the beginning, we had great support from the local Asian community, family, and friends. Strong neighborhood support soon followed. Being located in the south Bellevue Newport Hills neighborhood has been an advantage for us since we are easily accessible via the I-90 and I-405 freeways, with a customer base from Seattle, Renton and the Eastside.
A pleasant surprise was seeing many acquaintances I hadn’t seen for a long time. Customers would also bump into their old friends they hadn’t seen in ages, and neighbors would run into other neighbors. This happened frequently and it quickly became a gathering place for not only my generation, but for their adult children and their families and friends, along with the surrounding neighborhood and school communities.
These days, I try to take short breaks from the kitchen and personally greet and thank customers for their patronage. I think this effort greatly helps create a warm, inviting, and friendly vibe that gives the restaurant a nice comfortable “homey” feeling.
Another unanticipated surprise has been the power of social media. On a few occasions, I met customers who had just arrived from out of state and had done an online search leading them to my restaurant based on the reviews.
You describe your food as “old school comfort food,” food that you grew up with. You don’t consider yourself a chef…
Throughout high school and after, I was always interested in cooking and finding out how certain dishes were made. I loved going to the original “13 Coins” restaurant and sitting at the counter in those large swivel chairs watching intently how the chefs made my all-time favorite dish, Mostachelli Crabmeat Supreme!
Although my mom had taught me a lot in the kitchen at an early age, it was my wife, Sheri Chinn, and her family that really inspired me to cook with passion and love. Her great aunt was Wilma Woo, owner of the “New Chinatown” and “Quong Tuck” restaurants in Chinatown. We had many recipe discussions over the years.
Another big cooking influence were Sheri’s grandparents, Walter and Linda Chinn. Walter was a longtime cook at “Trader Vic’s” restaurant. He gave me great cooking tips for prime rib and roasted turkey. Linda introduced me to delicious traditional Chinese dishes like pickled pigs’ feet, black bean chicken, “Doong Tae” (stuffed sticky rice wrapped in leaves) and my favorite, “Naaw Mai Faan” (Chinese sticky rice).
I would ask for her recipes and she would laugh and say: “I don’t have any. You have to be in the kitchen the next time I cook if you want to learn!”
Their cooking lessons are cherished memories and their food was always made with love.
People ask me how I became such a good “chef” and I reply that I am just a “homeboy cook.” I’m not a professionally trained chef, so I don’t even compare to the highly trained chefs who have devoted their time training with years of experience and service.
Your GoFundMe fund drive during the pandemic was a big success. Did this surprise you?
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and in-dining shutdowns were mandated, I thought we’d be able to weather the storm by pivoting to take-out only. As much as our business increased and customers remained loyal, the unpredictability of incoming revenue started to take its toll during the summer of 2020. By the end of 2020, I prepared to break the news that Terry’s Kitchen was going to have to close.
Remarkably, a few close friends Jolene Louie, Jana Yamamoto, Patti Shimomura, Michael Chikamura, and Jan Gokami suggested creating a GoFundMe online fundraising drive.
I was too proud to ask for help and didn’t want to burden others, so I was having a real tough time with the idea, but after some nudging from this group, I came to realize it was way more than just about me. Not only did people want to help me, but they also wanted to keep a place in business where they could come and enjoy time with friends, family and neighbors.
The outpouring of love, support and generosity from people I knew and didn’t know, was truly heartfelt. I was stunned and brought to tears for many days thereafter. My heart is forever grateful.
Do you have some most memorable visits by customers?
It’s always fun to see sports figures and celebrities come in who I don’t normally get to meet.
We’ve had a few Seahawk office personnel and players come in as well as Sonic legends Fred Brown and Gus Williams; local news personalities like Lori Matsukawa, Tony Ventrella and Brady Wakayama, and local politicians. Even internationally famous chef and restaurateur Sam Choy has been here.
In 2020, I had a wonderful encounter when Fujie Yamasaki came with her son David Yamasaki. She is the wife of the late Kaz Yamasaki, who was my dad’s coworker at Imperial Lanes. I didn’t recall Mrs. Yamasaki, but oh, once she realized I was Conc’s son, she grabbed my hands and started crying, saying how much she missed my dad. By seeing me, it brought back good memories for her. So we sat quietly together holding hands for quite a while as she reminisced. I think a few customer’s meals were pretty late getting cooked that night!
One of my most memorable moments has been when some of my childhood buddies I hadn’t seen for over 55 years showed up at the restaurant (George Lyles*, Stanley Paine, Kenny Banks* and Edgar Batiste; *Cavaliers). As fate would have it, my TT Minor buddies are once again reunited and I’m looking forward to seeing more old friends because of our reconnection.
What advice would you have to others who have a dream to open up a restaurant in particular? And finally, what keeps you getting up each morning?
From what I’ve experienced during my short time owning a restaurant, there are certainly a few things I can pass on. Running a restaurant is tough work, long hours, and has many obstacles. You need to have great passion to achieve your dream. With passion, the work will not seem like a job if it truly comes from the heart. And, surround yourself with a great dedicated team, and treat customers, staff and vendors with love and kindness always!
What keeps me going is that I get to express myself through my food. I love cooking and making sure everyone has an enjoyable time. I love a full restaurant filled with happy customers, and I’m grateful the COVID restrictions are being lifted, at least for now!
I’ve been blessed and am forever grateful to everyone for all their support, especially to my dear wife Sheri and son Justin who have been with me from the beginning of this incredible journey.