A Cincinnati chef (Erik Bentz) and a Los Angeles pastry chef (Elaine Townsend) meet, fall in love, and move from Napa to Chicago and back to his hometown. A recent trip to Japan solidified their passion for the country’s cuisine, and now they’re getting their dream off the ground with their twice-monthly Mochiko pop-up dinners at downtown’s Money Chicken.
What are your backgrounds in the restaurant industry?
EB: I’m from north of Cincinnati originally, and I worked downtown at places like Nicola’s and Boca, and then after working at Boca for a while, I got an opportunity to go out to California and do a stage at the French Laundry and ended up working there for 20 months or so. That’s where I met Elaine, in Napa. We moved to Chicago together, and I worked at a place called Momotaro. In the basement, there’s a place called the Izakaya, and I ended up running it for a little over two years. Then we moved here, and I’m back working full-time at Boca and doing this.
ET: I’m from Los Angeles and I worked around Orange County and then in Napa. I was a pastry chef for a resort there for almost two years. In Chicago I was running The Bakery at Fat Rice for about two years. It was really nice for me because I got great practice in Asian food and baked goods, and we ended up getting on lists of best bakeries in America. We wanted to bring that success from Chicago here to Cincinnati.
How and when did Mochiko begin, and what inspired you to start the pop-up?
ET: We started at Money Chicken in May.
EB: I’ve always had a thing for Japanese food, but there weren’t a whole lot of places to cook Japanese food in Cincinnati, so that’s why I worked primarily in French and Italian restaurants. But the dream back in the day was always to open a ramen place. I kind of got into other Japanese hot food for a while, more than ramen—because ramen, it’s normally the only thing you do in Japan, you don’t do a lot of other stuff because it’s a lot of work and you dedicate yourself to it. A lot of people in the U.S. want to eat ramen and a lot of other hot foods. Elaine and I wanted to fuse that idea—it’s something she’s always liked as well. We talked about it and wanted to do it, and then we went to Japan, and we were like Oh my god, this is really what we want to do now.
ET: It really solidified it for us.
EB: [With Mochiko,] the whole idea was to do, in the morning, a coffee, tea, café type of thing with Japanese pastries by Elaine and moving into Japanese Western-style food for dinner. In Japanese cooking, there’s traditional Japanese cooking, [washoku], and Western-inspired Japanese cooking, called yoshoku. It’s still Japanese food, but inspired by Westerners, and that’s what I specialize in.
What are some of those dishes?
EB: There’s fried chicken, tonkotsu, omurice, ramen—things like that. I stay away from the super-traditional stuff where you need years of training under a Japanese chef; there are a lot of rules to that cooking. With [yoshoku], there’s a lot more freedom, but I try to stick to the classics. At dinner, it would be more bar-oriented foods, so people can come in and get ramen and omurice, but casual, drink beers, and have a good time.
How does your setup now compare with what you hope to do in a restaurant setting?
ET: We do everything à la carte [at Money Chicken], so we have the pastries out there on display and people can pick whatever they want, and we have the menu with all the hot foods. It’s just counter service, so very casual and approachable.
EB: We’re trying to do the most with the facility. The plans for Mochiko in the future are much bigger, but we’re doing as much as we can with what we have. We’re trying to do [the dinners] every two weeks until we get a brick-and-mortar place set up. Elaine has been doing Second Sunday on Main with a full spread of pastries. We did it last month and it was a huge success, and we sold out of everything.
Do you know when you’d like to open your restaurant?
EB: It’s one of those things where the ball is rolling, but it’s a super long process to do it right. Everyone always wants to get it done right away, but we’re taking the time to find the perfect location and teams to work with, because it’s our first thing, and you really only get one shot on your first try.
ET: It’s our baby. [Laughing]
EB: It is. [Laughing] But at the earliest—like very earliest—it would be spring, but we’re looking at next summer. We’ve looked at multiple places but we haven’t decided [where] yet.
What have been the benefits of starting in a pop-up as opposed to a brick and mortar?
ET: It was very helpful in gauging how the customers would react. We don’t really see a lot of things in Cincinnati that are exactly like what we’re doing, so we weren’t sure if people would even like it. We didn’t anticipate how successful it was going to be, but it’s been successful every time. It’s a good problem to have.
EB: I try to do things as much as possible how they would do in Japan, but that doesn’t always work out in the U.S. A lot of people have ideas of Americanized Japanese food, and that’s kind of what they want. There’s like one style of ramen they all want, and if it’s not that, they’re like, I don’t know if it’s that great. It’s great that we don’t have a lot of overhead, so if we want to try something new or it’s not the biggest hit, it’s OK. We get to introduce people to new things and we get to experiment. That’s what’s so nice about it. And it’s always new people and we get a lot of feedback.
ET: And people are always very truthful about it, too. They don’t hold back. [Laughing]