David and LaTonya Whitaker’s decision to host an intimate Thanksgiving dinner in Japan had unforseen and life-altering consequences. What started out as an opportunity to cook a nostalgic meal for friends and family evolved after a few years into Soul Food House – a soul food restaurant in the Minato area of Tokyo.
The Whitakers’ missionary travels first brought them to Japan over a decade ago. After several exhaustive flights back and forth from Japan to the southern United States, the couple took a gamble on building a life for themselves in the Asian country. It was David’s love of music however, not food, that originally brought them to the island.
“We never intended to open a restaurant. If anything, we just wanted to open a cafe to give space and a voice to local musicians,” LaTonya recounts in an interview with 4Memphis Magazine.
But after the family’s annual Thanksgiving meal grew from a few friends into a 200-plus person culinary event, the Whitakers knew it was time to introduce more curious and hungry patrons to American Southern and Creole foods. “We just love people and want them to enjoy good food. In Japan, the image of American food is a hamburger, hotdog, and steak. America has so much more to offer to the culinary world, and we wanted to share that,” LaTonya adds.
For the past seven-plus years, the Whitakers have thoughtfully shared cuisine taken from the African-American experience, with Japanese locals and tourists. “The Japanese love the gumbo, chicken and waffles, hot chicken, spare ribs, anything pulled pork and even the catfish. Most Japanese are afraid to try catfish for the first time because in Japan, catfish are mainly used to tell when an earthquake is coming. Because they are bottom dwellers and not good for sushi, catfish from Japan is really not considered tasty. So when they try catfish for the first time at Soul Food House, they are very surprised and love it,” LaTonya concludes in her interview with 4Memphis.
Soul Food House offers a cozy and hospitable environment, reminiscent of a Georgia grandma’s living room. It’s also part community center and venue, hosting mic nights and musical performances. And for those looking to take a lesson or two from kitchen home: a soul food cooking class.