The Guatemalan Chef Who Became a Hiroshima Comfort Food Star

Even at their most decadent, food cultures contain traces of the scarcity that helped shape them — and in few places more so than in Hiroshima. At Roads and Kingdoms, Matt Goulding follows the origin story of okonomiyaki, the harmoniously messy pancake that has become a staple of post-war Hiroshima cuisine, through the unlikely career of Fernando Lopez, the Guatemalan chef who’s mastered it.

Lopez and his wife were determined to bring the flavors of Phoenix and Santa Fe and El Paso to the people of Hiroshima. The only problem was that no one in Japan had ever heard of Southwestern food.

After presenting his plan to a local builder, the contractor told Lopez bluntly, “I don’t build restaurants that fail.”

Lopez and his wife shuffled through ideas — pizzeria, bistro, sandwich shop — but nothing felt right. Eventually the conversation turned where conversations in Hiroshima normally turn when the subject of food comes up: okonomiyaki. “Why don’t you open an okonomiyaki restaurant?” friends and family started to ask.

Why not open an okonomiyaki shop? Let’s consider the reasons: Because Lopez was born seven thousand miles away, in one of the roughest cities on the planet. Because he didn’t look Japanese, speak Japanese, or cook Japanese. Because okonomiyaki isn’t just a pile of cabbage and noodles and pork belly, but a hallowed food in Hiroshima, stacked with layers and layers of history and culture that he couldn’t pretend to be a part of. Because even though they might accept an Italian cooking pasta and a Frenchman baking baguettes, they would never accept a Guatemalan making okonomiyaki.

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