12 questions with local chef Katsuji Tanabe

Raleigh chef Katsuji Tanabe | Graphic by RALtoday, photo by Nancy Granados

This piece is part of our RALtoday Q+A series. Know someone we should interview? Nominate them here.

Table of Contents

The interview

In 2019, Top Chef star Katsuji Tanabe moved to Raleigh from Los Angeles for a more relaxed life and the physical space that the City of Oaks offers. “We didn’t realize how bad we had it until we moved to Raleigh,” he said. “I think we made the perfect move.” 

Katsuji soon opened High Horse, a fusion restaurant in downtown’s City Market. At the time, the plan was to open five restaurants in the historic site. After High Horse permanently closed in July 2020 for pandemic-related reasons, Katsuji began working on a new concept just 15 minutes from his first Raleigh restaurant — A’Verde

We asked the Mexican-Japanese restaurateur 12 questions about the move to Raleigh and his new restaurant in Cary that reflects the flavors of the food he grew up around. He even gave us a sneak peek of his soon-to-come brunch menu. Plus, learn how to make one of Katsuji’s show-stopping cocktails

How are you and your family liking Raleigh?
We’re loving it — our stress level is much lower. We cook at home a lot because now we have a huge backyard. I’m able to have a fire pit and a barbecue — I love wood fire everything. I like inviting people over and trying new recipes. We see deer jumping through our backyard and we have front and backyard gardens. For the first time in our lives we have a high quality of life.

Do you grow any of the produce you cook with in your gardens?
I tried. But I was not successful growing vegetables. It seemed like a good idea, but I have never been able to do it.*

*Katsuji may try again with herbs. 

Where are your favorite places to go in Raleigh?
I enjoy the Glenwood area on a Friday night because it makes me feel like I’m in a very busy and crazy city. Cortez is amazing — I also enjoy Vidrio and La Santa. 

What is the concept behind A’Verde?
It’s a 100% Mexican restaurant, but a little more chef-oriented. I have been focusing on my Latino cooking style for the last 15 years. There’s a lot of rustic cooking, simple presentation, simple dishes, and lots of vegetables. Something interesting that I didn’t plan is that most of the dishes are gluten-free.

It’s not a stuffy restaurant — for me, it’s the perfect spot to just come and have fun, drink wine, and relax. 

Check out our experience here

Why did you choose Cary for A’Verde?
The concept is family-oriented and we thought Cary was the perfect location.

Are there any North Carolina or Southern influences in your dishes?
Sweet potatoes. And I’m obsessed with okra. 

Do you source any of your ingredients locally?
Everything but two ingredients. The potatoes and tomatoes are all local. 

How do you make your blue corn tortillas?
We get the corn from Oaxaca in Mexico. It’s heirloom, organic, and non-GMO. 

I call the process “one of the miracles of food.” You have to cook the corn in water with an alkaline solution, wash it a couple of times, then let it sit overnight. We grind it in a stone grinder then make the tortillas by hand. The shelf life is very short so the tortillas only last a couple of hours. It takes ~24 hours to make one tortilla. 

They have a beautiful texture + color. It’s a next level tortilla.

Tell us about your grandma Hilda’s cornbread recipe.
Back in the 1950s in Mexico City, she was making this cornbread out of everything that came in a can, like corn and condensed milk. She always made it as a dessert, so it was more like corn pudding. I learned how to make it when I was young — it was one of the first dishes I learned how to make. 

I realized that if I tweaked it here and there, I could make it into a savory cornbread. Still kind of sweet, but presented as more of an appetizer. It’s not a traditional Southern cornbread, but it’s still one of my most popular dishes.

What’s a must-try at A’Verde?
The green enchiladas — I always say that it will be my last dish before I die. 

What’s next for you + A’Verde?
In the next two months, we will open for Sunday brunch. It will be very Mexican-inspired with huevos rancheros, chilaquiles, and maybe a pozole. I also want to make a churro French toast.

I’m going to put orange juice in cologne and perfume bottles for people to spritz in champagne —the perfect amount of juice for a mimosa. 

What do you think Raleigh and Cary will be known for in 10 years?
I think if we keep doing what some of the chefs are doing in this area, they’ll be known as a culinary area. People really enjoy eating and love the food here. 

The recipe

Katsuji’s #TakeMeBack cocktail
Sour, sweet, spicy, and salty 🍹

Ingredients
1.5 oz high-quality, white tequila
Orange liqueur (Katsuji uses Gran Gala)
Blood orange juice
Passion fruit juice
Red wine 

Preparation
Measure and pour one shot (1.5 oz) of tequila into a glass. Pour in a splash of orange liqueur, blood orange juice, and passion fruit juice. Add ice and stir. Gently top with red wine so it floats on top of the drink. 

Garnish with a chili + mango Mexican paleta.