ALMOST 20 YEARS ago, Toshiyuki Kawai was weeks away from leaving his home and family in Osaka for school in the United States when his mother decided he needed to learn how to cook. “I didn’t even know how to cook rice in a rice cooker,” says Kawai, 23 at the time. “I wasn’t interested.”
In Japan, golf had been Kawai’s passion, Tiger Woods his idol and caddying for a pro golfer his dream. His mother always did the cooking at home. “I was lucky to grow up eating what she makes,” he says. Miyoko Kawai couldn’t help her son learn English (he didn’t speak any at the time), but at least she could teach him to cook.
She taught him to make a Spanish omelet. He thought flipping it in the pan was fun. He demonstrated his newfound skill for his homestay hosts in Seattle. One happened to be the registrar at South Seattle College, who suggested Kawai explore the school’s culinary classes.
Kawai shifted his focus from the driving range to the kitchen range. After graduating from South Seattle’s culinary program, he worked at several notable Seattle restaurants: La Rustica, Spring Hill, Maximilien, Luc, RN74, Book Bindery and The Harvest Vine. All those experiences, along with his innate understanding of Japanese cuisine, influence his cooking at iconiq.
His culinary style is as clear, clean and balanced as a fine sake. Depending on the season, he’ll set scallop sashimi in a pool of chilled white asparagus velouté or build an isle of pine-nut-studded ahi tuna tartare in a sea of strawberry gazpacho. He crowns perfect risotto with tomato ponzu and nuggets of tempura-fried Neah Bay black cod. He braises Spanish Iberico pork collar to pot-roasty tenderness, slices it into thick cutlets, and serves it breaded and fried katsu-style.
Kawai was 37 by the time he opened iconiq, a serene spot perched on a bluff in the Mount Baker neighborhood. The restaurant’s back windows boast an eagle’s-eye view of Seattle, a distant, shimmering Oz minus the yellow brick road. The food and the seamless service earned iconiq a spot on The Seattle Times’ list of Top 10 New Restaurants of 2017, but by the time that list was published in November, iconiq had temporarily closed.
After a decade battling ulcerative colitis, Kawai had been diagnosed with colon cancer that August. He returned to Osaka, where his parents and younger brother still live, for treatment. After surgery to remove his colon, he needed a nine-month colostomy. Back in Seattle, a setback put him in Harborview for three months. He remembers “eating ice chips for a long time.” Now he can eat anything. Nearly five years later, his periodic scans remain clear.
The restaurant’s hiatus lasted 15 months. The landlord gave him a break on the rent, and Kawai was able to reopen iconiq in November 2018. Fifteen months later came the COVID lockdown. Kawai credits a loyal cadre of regular customers for supporting the restaurant during the rockiest days of the pandemic, when he and his small team produced a different three-course tasting menu weekly for takeout. It proved so popular, they’ve kept it going, even though indoor dining has long since resumed.
Pre-pandemic, Miyoko Kawai made annual visits to Seattle. This June, she returned for the first time since 2019. Kawai held a special dinner at iconiq to celebrate the occasion. Mother and son collaborated on the menu. Titled “Homecoming,” it featured asparagus flan with morel sauce; king salmon confit with orange-braised fennel and ikura; Iberico pork shabu shabu with ratatouille couscous; and “dueling desserts”: mother’s strawberry shortcake, son’s chocolate mousse. It was a beautiful tribute to the woman Kawai calls “my first teacher, the person who made me see cooking as an art form.”
Domo arigato gozaimashita, okaasan. Thank you, mother, for teaching your son to flip omelets.