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Katsuji Tanabe

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FINALIST PROFILE

KATSUJI TANABE

Age: 24

Occupation: Sous chef

Birthplace: Los Angeles, Calif.

Hometown: Eagle Rock, Calif.

For the past twenty-four years I have worked in a zipper factory in North Korea. Three weeks ago I decided to move to Los Angeles and become a chef. Now that I have your attention, this is the real story.

I was born in San Francisco, or at least that is what my mom says. Then when I was three years old we moved to Mexico City for my dad's work. I come from a very affluent background; my father is a Japanese mechanic engineer and my mother is a Mexican dentist. I attended the finest schools in Mexico and had bodyguards waiting for me when school got out. We had the kind of life everyone dreams of, complete with wealth and power. On a whim my parents would fly us to Miami, Los Angeles, Houston, wherever we wanted just to go shopping. When I was young and people asked me what my plans for the future were I always believed I would take over my dad's business. Boy was I wrong.

Whenever I told my dad how much I loved cooking he would immediately put it down by telling me that that wasn't a real career. Being from a Japanese family, you followed what your father told you, so I would sneak behind his back and go to restaurants working for free as a dishwasher. That was the only way I could be around my dream, so I worked from the bottom up. When I was seventeen years old my parents got a really nasty divorce. My father got all of the money and my mother decided to leave Mexico and go back to California. She wanted to get as far away from him as possible, but the farthest she could afford was L.A. She had been promised a position as a dentist but when she arrived she found out it was a big lie and she had nothing.

I stayed with my dad but he became angry and bitter and cut off my funds. My lifestyle completely changed overnight. I had to drop out of the university, go live with my grandmother and go to work full time as a cook for minimum wage which at the time was seventy dollars every two weeks. When I turned eighteen, at my mother's request I flew to LA. to join her and my sister. When I arrived we discovered the airline had lost all of my belongings, and suddenly there I was. I left behind everyone I knew and loved, my lifestyle, my culture, my homeland and had only the clothes on my back and seventy-five cents in my pocket. We had nothing here in L.A., no friends, no family. We lived in a small one bedroom apartment where we had to put the milk on the window sill to keep it cold because we couldn't afford a refrigerator. I got a job at Hooters in Santa Monica but with no car I would have to take the bus to work. Everyday I would spend two hours going and three hours coming back. Sometimes I would get to Downtown at 4am and have to wait for two hours for the 6am bus to arrive. I would be so tired that I would fall asleep on the bench at the bus stop.

After six months I was able to save up enough to get a car. I worked at several restaurants and hotels, worked for free at times to get the experience, but I never once asked for a raise, I was in it for the passion of cooking. I always wanted to get into the Culinary Institute but I was afraid of not getting the loan and not getting admitted. So instead I went to community college but I realized I was just wasting my time. Then when I worked at Houston's I realized that without a degree I would never move up. Without my mother's love and support and her credit I would not have gotten the loan to go to school. That was the best gift she could ever have given me because we were so poor. My girlfriend helped me with all of my homework, making sure the grammar was correct and the essays sounded intelligible. This was a big help because most nights I only got three to four hours of sleep because of my tight work schedule and intense school hours. She really showed me what love was.

Culinary stories I have plenty of, good ones, funny ones, but the one that affects me the most was when I became an executive chef for the first time. After building and putting together the kitchen, the restaurant and training all of my employees, and the fact that I worked nine months straight with no days off, I was fired for paying too much to my employees. They had told me to fire everyone and rehire a new staff to be paid minimum wage but I couldn't do it. They had worked their asses off for me, left their other jobs behind and were extremely talented, loyal people who I couldn't stab in the back so I was asked to leave. I knew the restaurant didn't belong to me, but that was my kitchen and those were my employees and we were loyal to each other. What makes me happy though is that two months later, the owner was kicked out by the investors, yet all of the employees I trained are still in their positions. They all still call me and give me updates and call me boss. That was the best and worst time of my life.

I became a chef because it was the dream of my life and I always get what I want. Being a chef is like being a rock star. Everyone is watching you and everyone wants a piece of you. And of course food is the love of my life. It brings people together and makes them happy and that makes me happy.