Konjoe Tei

I figure because [SoFA is] known for being an art place, why not be very artsy with our food?

Restaurateur Joey Camacho

Have you always wanted to be a chef?
I’ve always enjoyed cooking. My mom is actually from Japan. Her side of the family has been heavily involved in the restaurant industry. When I was younger, every Sunday, we would have family barbecues. I ended up becoming the person to do all the cooking for those meals. It just started from there, I guess.

How did Konjoe Burger Bar in San Pedro Square Market come about?
When I went to San Pedro, the landlords wanted a little bit more diversity, because there was already Blush, which was serving sushi. They had On A Roll, which was doing various food. Phenomenal, which was doing pho. I asked them, “What are you guys looking for?” And they said, “We really want a burger place.”

I thought about it, and said, “OK, I’m going to do burgers. I’m going to do it the way that I want to do it.” The interesting thing is if you had asked anyone who had known me prior to opening that place, I could probably count on my hands the number of times I’ve made burgers. But I did my homework and started thinking about how I would incorporate Asian cooking techniques into it.

How did Konjoe Tei, your second restaurant, happen?
I felt that downtown needed a ramen shop. I said, “If I’m going to do an izakaya, I might as well just add ramen onto the menu.” That’s how the concept started.

What does Konjoe Tei mean?
It basically means—the way that my mom described—is it’s like a gathering. It’s a Japanese word. Konjo is actually a Japanese word, too. A literal translation would be like “having guts.” It’s used to describe someone who has a very strong personality. I guess it’s a characteristic of very successful people. We did a play on it, putting an e at the end because my name is Joey. If you go to Japan, a lot of restaurants will have Tei at the end, and they’ll use their family name for the restaurant. We thought it was fitting for what we were trying to do here.

What’s one thing that you just really love about your work?
Training people. When I look at a person and I see how much they’ve grown over the three months or six months. We’ve been fortunate to have very good employees. Not all of them are in it for the long haul. A lot of them are actually San Jose State students looking for a part-time job.

I’ve had people come in and say, “I’ve never made anything in my life.” I walk into the kitchen, and I see them chopping onions and actually cooking burgers on the grill on the night of a Sharks game night rush, and it makes me feel happy to know I’ve had some sort of impact in their life.

Whether or not they want to stay in the industry, I think we’ve given them some sort of skill set that they’ll have with them for the rest of their lives that they may not have had before.

Give us your best tip for someone who’s coming to eat here.
Just be open-minded. About a week ago, we decided we’re going to change up the entire dinner menu. We’re not going to do ramen at all. That wasn’t very well-received. We had a lot of customers who just ended up walking away. The ones that did sit down would say, “We really wanted ramen, but we’ll try it out.”

Since then, I have introduced a bowl of ramen at night. What I’ve been telling individuals is during the daytime, we’re very ramen and rice bowl-centric with a very limited, now, small-plates menu.

During nighttime, what we’re trying to do is be more shared-plates focused. We still do have the ramen for those who want it, but it will change every night. It basically just depends on what we feel like serving that night.

I don’t think that you should come to us with the notion that all we do is ramen because that’s not all we do. That’s not what our name says, either. I think people see the ramen and izakaya, and the izakaya just falls off the edge of the Earth.

What I’m trying to do at this restaurant, for this area in particular, is provide something that’s not here. I’m looking solely at the SoFA district. It’s a very artsy district. I figure because it’s known for being an art place, why not be very artsy with our food?

Interview and photography by Daniel Garcia

Article originally appeared in Issue 7.5 “Serve”

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