In the shadow of the Minister, Julian Cole discovers how one couple are bringing a little slice of Japanese culture to York.
Frankie Ozaki is sitting in the window of her new Japanese cafe and tearoom in York. On the street outside, two elderly women in hats stop and stare. They stand open-mouthed for a while, one peering through the thick lenses of her spectacles, then they take their hats and frowns off down Blake Street. “They’re so shocked!” Frankie giggles. “Oh, dear me.” This happens often, Frankie says: people expect to see the old tearoom with teapots stacked in the window, and instead they see the Ippuku Tea House, which is modern and Japanese.
You learn a lot sitting in the window with Frankie, who is 30 and from Saltburn. Perhaps most surprising of all, you learn that she is the youngest of three siblings – all of whom are married to Japanese partners. Last summer, Frankie married Tatsu and they run the teashop together.
“I’ve got two brothers and they’re both married to Japanese women,” Frankie says. Her brothers are 10 years older, so she was exposed to Japanese culture and cooking from a young age. With cousins counted, there are now six children in the family.
“At Christmas it does look like we’re hoarding Japanese people,” says Frankie, laughing. She laughs a lot but looks a little tired. When do you go home? “Never!” she says. “I went home at 4am the other night. But I’m very excited.”
When Frankie met Tatsu, they were students at Wimbledon School of Art in London – painting for her and sculpture for him. They bumped into each other at a party, and Frankie thought she’d seen him around.
“He used to go to lectures in a kimono and I didn’t even notice him, I was so self-absorbed,” says Frankie. “He noticed me because I had bright pink hair. And then I said: ‘Oh you’re the weird guy who always comes to lectures in a kimono’.”
Frankie and Tatsu, who also runs a company importing Japanese tea, lived in Wimbledon when they were students, then spent eight months in Tottenham before moving to Surbiton, where Frankie took over a pub with a friend.
Moving back north to York was a sort of homecoming. “Almost, but still far enough away from my parents,” says Frankie. “For them and me. We’re very happy.”
She came to the city often as a child, then returned from London to visit friends. “I kept coming to York and seeing it change, and thinking: ‘Oh there’s little trickles of London trendiness starting.’”
And that’s where the idea for a Japanese tea house began. “I’ve been in hospitality since I was 13,” says Frankie. “I just lied about my age and I got away it because I’m so tall. I used to do seven days a week even when I was at school. I think I’ve got issues.”
Samples of food are laid before us, including a steamed pork and beef burger, with melted cheese on top. There is also a cup of homemade miso soup, using miso paste imported from Kyoto, and a bowl of tamago don. This is Japanese scrambled egg with onion – and, in a twist, chorizo.
“It’s a traditional, standard lunchtime meal,” says Frankie. “In Japan you have a restaurant just selling that; and a restaurant just selling gyudon – thin-cut flat iron beef fried with onion and Japanese sauce. Chorizo is my little twist – we’ve got a Portuguese lady as my head chef, and we like to put a little bit of her in.”
Ippuku does have Japanese chefs, too. Frankie cannot digest gluten, so makes her own gluten-free bread for the Japanese-style toast, and all the food is gluten-free and homemade.
The day before this interview, we ate in the tea house as paying customers – the slow-cooked belly pork is lovely – and a woman on the next table was very enthusiastic.
“The lady yesterday had been in Japan for 30 years and said the food is really authentic,” says Frankie. “You can tell straight off because it’s not like everyone’s idea of Japanese food, which is kind of like monk food – Buddhist monk food. I’ve been to Japan five times and four of those times with Taz, and we’ve always gone out to restaurants and cafes.”
Ippuku is designed to capture the spirit of those cafes and bars. “Lots of Japanese restaurants here are run by Koreans or Chinese,” says Frankie. “We serve the kind of food Japanese people in my generation eat and more actually go out and eat in cafes.”
What’s the essence of Japanese food? “I think it’s just making everything taste delicious. The Japanese are well known for being very particular about everything they do. When they make something, they refine it and want to make it the best they can make it. So, they will try lots and lots of ways until they get the best possible food.”
Frankie and Tatsu plan to open a basement bar soon, modelled on the famous izakaya bars of Japan, with a screen for showing films and documentaries. They already serve Japanese whisky, sake and beer.
The cafe is open from 10am to 10pm. When the downstairs bar opens, Frankie plans to serve food with the alcohol. This will be her house rule. “I want to introduce the culture of eating and drinking. In an izakaya you would always get food. There are not many places that drink like we drink.”
Most of the food that Frankie serves costs between £5 and £10. “Everyday food, very casual. And if people say, ‘Oh, I don’t like sushi’ – that’s like saying all British food is Sunday lunch.”
As for Tatsu, he owes his tea-importing business in part to moving to this country.
“It was Britain that made me start drinking tea – black tea – then I moved on to green tea and other teas,” he says.
“It is always a pleasure to introduce new types of tea to people who haven’t tried them yet. And I am still trying new types of tea.”
As there are said to be more than 3,000 varieties of tea, Tatsu might well find himself tasting for a long time to come. And Frankie will be kept busy producing new recipes – “We’ve got so many recipes up our sleeve, this is the most reduced menu we could get.”