Japanese chef's pop-up restaurant will let her 'test-drive' a lifelong dream

Two-night stand for La Casa de Chako
Chef Chako Okawa soon will 'test-drive' a dream
Chef Chako Okawa soon will 'test-drive' a dream
Posted at 7:00 AM, Apr 04, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-04 11:43:53-04

COVINGTON -- On April 7, an immigrant mother will at last fulfill her lifelong dream of running a restaurant.

For two nights only, Hisako "Chako" Okawa will open her pop-up restaurant, La Casa de Chako, at the Hellmann Creative Center in Covington.

Chako moved from Japan in 2015 to be near her son and his family, who were living in Covington at that time.

"I was educated as a nurse, but cooking is my passion," Chako said.

Hisako "Chako" Okawa always dreamed of opening a restaurant. (Photo provided by the Center for Great Neighborhoods)

Prior to emigrating from Japan, Chako prepared herself for a career transition and attended culinary school while working as a nurse. Today, she is a home-based chef who runs a custom-order home bakery, making breads and cakes. She also teaches classes on baking, Japanese cuisine and healthy cooking.

Though her son has since moved on to the West Coast, she stayed in Northern Kentucky to build her culinary career. Thanks to the chef fellowship program at The Center for Great Neighborhoods, Chako is finally able to complete the transition from her home to a commercial setting.

"My education and experience was in Japan, and although in many ways the principles are the same, this opportunity has proven invaluable for my business," Chako said. 

The program, which started in January, equips chefs with the real-world experiences that come with running an eatery, according to program manager Kate Greene. 

"The goal is to give an immigrant, home-based cook who has interest in starting a restaurant the chance to actually experience what running one is like," Greene said.

The chef fellowship program is part of the center's FreshLo initiative funded by The Kresge Foundation. Its purpose is to develop food-oriented initiatives for neighborhood revitalization, and the opening of La Casa de Chako is the culmination of its pilot program.

"Chako is our first chef fellow and has been providing invaluable feedback about the process that will inform us on how the fellowship will be structured in the future," Greene said.

The pilot program is 14 weeks long (60 hours total) and includes business, branding and marketing coaching, as well as a partnership with a chef mentor. It emphasizes skills in areas like food costing, restaurant design and staff management through the pop-up restaurant.

Le Casa de Chako will offer an authentic Japanese meal, including: pork simmered in black tea with dark sauce, Agedashi tofu (deep-fried tofu cubes, tomatoes, shitake mushrooms, fried eggplants, sauce, green onions), Chako's pickles, potato salad (cooked potatoes, onion, cucumber, ham, Japanese-style mayonnaise), green salad (local greens, sesame dressing), Chirashi Zushi (rice topped with vegetables and sliced egg crepe), miso soup and mousse of Wasanbon ("wasanbon" refers to fine-grained Japanese sugar).

Chako said she plans to weave artwork into Chirashi Zushi, a dish traditionally served only on special occasions.

"I will decorate the rice with vegetables of many colors shaped as flowers and leaves to celebrate the arrival of spring," she said

Thanks to the chef fellowship program at The Center for Great Neighborhoods, Hisako "Chako" Okawa is finally able to complete the transition from her home to a commercial setting. Chako will open her pop-up restaurant, La Casa de Chako, at the Hellmann Creative Center in Covington for two nights April 7-8. (Photo provided by Center for Great Neighborhoods)

Through a partnership with the Center for Great Neighborhoods, interns at the Life Learning Center will staff the pop-up restaurant. The interns undergo a workforce development curriculum in areas like hospitality, cooking techniques and art-related skills.

"This program allows us to empower a local chef, in addition to providing workforce training to help some of our residents find permanent employment opportunities," Greene said.

Chako said she wants her customers to experience "omotenashi" when they eat her food.

"This word is hard to explain," she said. "It is translated to English as 'hospitality,' but to us Japanese it involves so much more."

Chako hopes to eventually secure funding to open a cafe, but for now she said she's grateful for the opportunity to "test-drive" a restaurant.

"It is a great opportunity to learn how to run a restaurant in the United States," she said.

Le Casa de Chako (a pop-up restaurant)

Where: The Center for Great Neighborhoods of Covington, 321 W. 12th St., at the Hellmann Creative Center, Covington.

When: April 7-8; 5:30 or 8 p.m. seating each night; limited to 25 patrons each seating

Cost: $45 (includes food and samplings of Japanese beer); add $10 for hand-crafted sake glass souvenir

Tickets: Purchase online at

Grace Yek writes about food for She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.