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LaTonya Whitaker’s favorite food is catfish, but the dish she loves cooking most at Soul Food House is the gravy chicken and waffle. Craving country-fried chicken and waffles one day but not having the space for both, she simply – in her words – “mashed it up and put the gravy on.”

It’s not our first rodeo at this restaurant in Azabu-Juban. This time, on LaTonya’s recommendation, we tackled a plate of waffles larger than our faces, palm-sized pieces of country-fried chicken on a bed of mashed potatoes, the whole affair drenched in gravy and a small pitcher of maple syrup alongside. It’s unabashedly over-the-top. You have to eat fast, or risk the whole thing turning into stodge.

LaTonya and her husband David opened Soul Food House in 2015, and today, it is the place for a taste of the American South in Tokyo. From catfish to chitlins, smoky gumbo to shrimp n’ grits, crawfish boils in the summer to honey-smoked turkey at Thanksgiving, the classics – and then some – are all here. There’s no room for restraint in a Southern restaurant, certainly not at theirs. Self-control crumbles when there’s hunks of feather-light cornbread (“A dangerous cross between cake and bread,” says my dining companion) to mop up lashings of tangy, spicy ranch dressing puddling below the hot chicken nachos. Several of our Southern friends swear the mac n’ cheese is better than their grandmothers’.

LaTonya knows how to enjoy life. You can hear it in her warm laugh, and you can see it in the extensive waffle menu, which embodies an inclusive, happy-go-lucky, anything-goes kind of philosophy. Catfish or blackened salmon on waffles? Sure! Pulled pork or jackfruit on waffles – why not? You want bacon and fried eggs with your chicken and waffle? It’s right there. All you have to do is ask.

Soul Food House is just one line on LaTonya’s extensive resume.  Whether it’s making impeccable gravy chicken and waffles, getting five degrees in fields from psychology and education to divinity and pastoral counseling, or showing off her fried chicken on Netflix’s David Chang-hosted Ugly Delicious, LaTonya has always found a way to make her vision a reality. And she won’t stop here.

“The dreams that I have, the things that I want to accomplish,” she says, looking into our eyes. “You have no idea.”

For many homesick Southerners, her sixth-floor restaurant in a nondescript office building is a home away from home. “We overseas, and when you know what it feels like to miss home, and someone comes here and needs a taste of home, then you better give it to ‘em. You know?” The Whitakers do brisk business most nights; everyone’s here for hearty food and a good time, topped up with smiles and occasional bear hugs. (LaTonya is famous for her hugs.)

At first glance, Tokyo could not be a more unlikely home for two Black missionaries from the Deep South – LaTonya from Clarksdale, Mississippi, and David from Atlanta, Georgia. Nor had they intended to stay. But an initial two-week mission trip turned into two years, then three, five, ten. David became a professional musician. LaTonya worked at a cardiac hospital as a chaplain and occasionally taught English. Their son, Jonas, joined them along the way. Seventeen years later, here they are.

“I had no idea I’d be here for 17 years,” chuckles LaTonya. “I was quite happy with my life. I had no idea I’d open a restaurant.”

Neither she nor David had any formal culinary training. But LaTonya could cook up a storm. During their first year in Tokyo, some Japanese friends suggested that the Whitakers host a Thanksgiving dinner at their house to share American culture with their neighbors. Over ten years, it ballooned from a smallish gathering to a veritable block party of 200-plus friends and acquaintances turning up to eat and celebrate.

Thanksgiving dinners led to teaching cooking classes at Niki’s Kitchen, and LaTonya and David toyed with the idea of opening a place of their own – a music cafe, perhaps. The idea percolated for five years as the couple looked for a suitable location, revised their plans, slowly raised seed capital for the restaurant. Eventually, LaTonya met an Australian-Chinese restaurateur who, undergoing treatment for brain cancer, was looking for someone to take over his restaurant space in Azabu-Juban – and also take his staff under their wing. The Whitakers said yes, and Soul Food House was born.

“The staff knew how to run a restaurant. I only knew how to cook. Trust me, it is two completely different things,” says LaTonya emphatically.

Fortunately, she didn’t just know how to cook. The same qualities that made the Whitakers effective ministers and fabulous dinner hosts were the same ones that drew diners by the score to their restaurant: they knew how to build community around them.

Soul Food House has become a hub for the Black community, both in Japan and from abroad. “We always get that question: Are there any Black people in Japan? I wanted all the people to meet each other.” To hear LaTonya tell it, million dollar deals have been struck over lunch simply because she’s connected one customer to another. They’ve even connected rapper Jay-Z with some of Japan’s most prominent Black-owned businesses. Thanks to them, D’Art Shtajio, Japan’s first Black-owned anime studio, appeared in Pharrell Williams’s powerful “Entrepreneur” video.

In this sense, Legacy Foundation Japan was a natural extension of the restaurant. Since 2018, the Whitakers had been toying with the idea of starting an organization for the Black community in Japan, envisioning a space where Black people of various backgrounds could come together to share resources, experiences and expertise, and also feel like they had a sense of family; it was especially important, says LaTonya, that mixed children could “grow up knowing themselves, to feel proud of every part of themselves.”

That idea remained on the back burner until George Floyd’s death in 2020 galvanized them to action. Since they launched the foundation in September of the same year, the Whitakers have held dozens of events for their members: social events like cooking classes and wine tastings, but also sessions on unpacking childhood trauma and raising Black children in the Japanese public school system.

Something LaTonya is particularly proud of is hosting their first Juneteenth gala in 2022 to highlight and celebrate Black culture.

“When we did the gala, it accomplished something that was needed for the Black community,” she says. “It’s about being able to see yourself here, when there are so few of us. Thing is, there’s a lot, but we’re so scattered so it seems like we’re so few.”

Being the face (and core) of both Soul Food House and the Legacy Foundation is hard work. LaTonya has come close to burnout many times. But the people around her keep her going: her son, Jonas, whom she wants to grow up knowing his culture as an American Black boy in Japan; the community sustaining the foundation; her team in the restaurant kitchen.

The issue of acknowledging everyone’s contributions is never far from her mind: “At the end of the night, I always try to tell people to acknowledge that people exist in the back because my kitchen is small. There are two chefs – three right now. [The customers] probably think five people are back there. No! There are two people working their tails off. But nobody sees them, and my husband and I get the credit,” she says. “How do you let everyone know that it’s not one person, it’s a community?”

LaTonya doesn’t have the answers, but she does have the not-so-secret weapon that’s kept everything going over the years: in the case of Soul Food House, it’s good food cooked with “love on the plate.”

“If you don’t know how to put love on a plate, you might as well go sit down, because my peoples will call you out,” says LaTonya. “Americans will call your tail out: ‘no, that ain’t supposed to be what it tastes like!’ Put love on the plate, make sure it looks good, make sure it tastes good.”

This could sound hackneyed coming from anyone else, but LaTonya radiates sincerity as she makes that pronunciation. It is, unquestionably, the magic ingredient that keeps the cadre of loyal customers returning to Soul Food House night after night. Before we leave to walk off the waffles and jambalaya and nachos, she envelopes us in one of her signature hugs. It’s like her cooking: warm, comforting, full of love.

Florentyna LeowFlorentyna Leow

Published on February 16, 2023

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