Two years ago, when Kevin Tien, ’09, and his business partner were preparing to open their new restaurant in Washington, D.C.’s Petworth neighborhood, residents would stop in to ask what kind of food it would serve.
Tien and co-owner Carlie Steiner cooked up a stock answer: It’s a secret.
So when it came time to name the restaurant, the pair chose “Himitsu,” the Japanese word for secret.
In retrospect, the moniker was ironic. Himitsu didn’t stay a secret for long.
Measuring about 1,000 square feet and seating only two dozen patrons at a time, the restaurant is a small space that’s earned big praise since it opened.
Within a few months, the James Beard Foundation – the nation’s premier culinary arts organization whose annual prizes are considered the Oscars of food – had named Tien a semifinalist for its 2017 Rising Star Chef Award. He was an award semifinalist this year, too.
Bon Appetit magazine listed Himitsu among its 2017 Top 50 Best Restaurants in America. The restaurant has appeared on best-of compilations by The Washington Post and Eater, an online publication.
Earlier this year, Tien’s skills as a chef were on display for an international audience when he was a contestant on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef Gauntlet.” The reality competition uses a series of cooking challenges to test a chef’s versatility, innovation and resourcefulness.
Tien was eliminated in the second season’s third episode, which was broadcast in mid-April. But the setback didn’t stop the accolades.
In May, Food & Wine magazine named Tien among its 2018 Best New Chefs. The magazine’s editors wrote: “Tien has devised a highly personal, individualized style of cooking that’s as hard to categorize as it is to forget. But then again, why would you want to?”
Tien bristles at the term “fusion” to describe the restaurant’s fare, but the menu includes Mexican-influenced Japanese dishes, a Vietnamese breakfast dish combined with Latin American strip steak, and Peking duck served with Southern-style biscuits.
“Our restaurant isn’t Japanese,” Tien told Food & Wine. “It’s not Vietnamese. It’s not Southern. It’s all of those things – everything I love on a plate.”
Himitsu is Tien’s first foray into restaurant ownership, although at age 31, he might be considered an industry veteran.
The Lafayette native’s first job was behind the sushi counter at Tsunami, a downtown restaurant and bar. He was 17 and a student at Ovey Comeaux High School. He remained on staff while earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration from UL Lafayette until he moved to Washington, D.C., six years ago.
After arriving in the nation’s capital, Tien worked at Oyamel, owned by José Andrés, the award-winning chef who’s credited with introducing the small plate concept to American restaurants. Under Andrés’ tutelage, he learned the ways Asian and Latin American cuisines complement each other.
In opening Himitsu, Tien wedded the food freedom he witnessed at Oyamel with the camaraderie he felt at Tsumani.
“I really like the idea of the space feeling like you are going over to your friend’s house for good food, drinks and a good time,” Tien said in an interview with La Louisiane. “Having a smaller space gives you that feeling because you get to see all the action that happens in the restaurant, from the drinks being made to every dish that comes out of the kitchen.”
And if customers stick around long enough, they might see an unusual sight: its award-winning executive chef washing dishes.
“I did them last night,” Tien said with a laugh. “You always hear fame changes people, but with all success and attention comes even more eyes on you and your business. If anything, I need to keep my head down and work even harder.
“It was easier being unknown, but now we are busier than ever, and we just want to keep serving good food and drinks. Hard work brought us here and continuing to work hard will take us even further.”
This article first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of La Louisiane, The Magazine of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Ph0to courtesy of Food Network.