While opening Le Cirque at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, New York chef Brian Konopka, who worked out and looked fit, got a wake-up call from an annual physical: sky-high cholesterol.
“I realized I was tasting sauce hundreds of times a night, and that added up to pounds of butter a day,” he recalls. “It was about the rarest, richest, most exorbitant food you could put on the plate,” says Konopka.
Around that time, a colleague introduced him to Japanese food. Despite being a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America with a decade of experience at Le Cirque, along with stints at El Bulli and the Parisian Michelin three-star L’Arpege, somehow he’d never had sushi.
He was also realizing that the yelling and screaming common to four-star kitchens wasn’t motivating his staff. It was just stressing him out. So he stopped. “Eating Japanese food and maintaining low body fat, high energy, and positivity,” he says, “I realized the food had a lot to do with it.”
When he moved back to New York, Konopka got a job consulting for a Japanese restaurant group. And when he decided to hang out his own shingle, he didn’t want to open a place with a late-night bar scene and unhealthy food. Instead, he came up with Kobeyaki. “Japanese food was a new awakening,” he says. “I thought, I love this food, I can make it healthy.” He partnered with a chef who had been trained by Japanese brothers and opened the restaurant last October.
Now, it may look like a Japanese Chipotle, but the food—rice bowls, sushi rolls, burgers, and buns—at this north Chelsea fast-casual restaurant is far more accomplished than at your average neighborhood sushi joint.
Making quality food, with carefully sourced ingredients, available to as many people as possible was his goal. The two priciest menu items (an unagi eel roll and a soft-shell crab bun) are $10.35, and counter service means there’s no need to tip a waiter.
It was a strategy that paid off—he’s already scouting locations for new outposts. And his cholesterol? It’s no longer an issue. —Ann Abel
Kobeyaki, 293 Seventh Ave., btwn 26th and 27th Sts., Chelsea, www.kobeyaki.com