SIOUX CITY -- There is a key to Katsuji Tanabe's cuisine.
"Lower diners' expectation before blowing them away with the final result," the Los Angeles-based chef, who is best known as a contestant of the 12th season of Bravo's "Top Chef," explained. "They may think I'm just making tacos. In reality, I'm making the best tacos they've ever had in their lives."
If Tanabe sounds confident, he can easily back up his claims.
The son of a Japanese dad and a Mexican mom, Tanabe moved from his native Mexico City to Southern California where he became one of the foremost kosher cooks in America.
Yeah, you read that right. After learning to cook food that conform to Jewish dietary restrictions at Beverly Hills' famed Shiloh's Kosher Steakhouse, Tanabe opened Mexikosher, a critically acclaimed eatery that combined South-of-the-Border cuisine with a twist.
So, why would a celebrity chef like Tanabe plan and cook a special five-course dinner, complete with appropriate wine pairings, at an Italian restaurant in downtown Sioux City?
Well, for starters, he's doing it for a good cause.
The exclusive "Evening with Chef Kat," taking place at 6 p.m. Monday at Trattoria Fresco, 511 Fourth St., is a fundraiser for the Sioux City Farmers Market.
Plus he was curious about which state Sioux City was in.
"At first, I thought it was in South Dakota," Tanabe admitted. "Now, I know it is in Iowa."
This is a learning lesson in a life that's been full of learning lessons.
After making his first pot of Spanish paella, Tanabe knew he wanted to be a professional chef at age 7. However, his family tried steering him toward more conventional career paths, like becoming an airline pilot like his grandfather or a dentist like his mom.
"Long before 'Top Chef' and the Food Network, cooking was a job, not a career," he allowed.
Despite that, Tanabe remained committed to a life in food. Indeed, he was willing to work his way up from the bottom.
"I didn't mind washing dishes or mopping floors," he said, years later. "As long as it got me where I wanted to go, I was fine with it."
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Appearing on "Top Chef" quickly catapulted Tanabe's career. So did subsequent appearances on "Chopped" and MasterChef: Mexico."
Even with this level of celebrity, he remains most at home in a kitchen.
Feeling a need to move beyond the strict kosher cuisine at Mexikosher, Tanabe opened Barrio, a Chicago-based restaurant which combines elements of Japanese and Mexican cuisine.
"When I was a kid, my dad was a good cook and my mom was not," he said. "That meant I grew up eating plenty of Japanese food."
While delicious, Tanabe said an exclusively Japanese diet can be a bit monochromatic.
"Don't get me wrong, I love Japanese food," he maintained. "Still you can kick up the umami factor with a bit of cilantro and a few chili peppers."
Would you call that fusion cuisine? Nope, that word isn't in Tanabe's vocabulary.
"My dad mixed and matched Japanese food and Mexican food long before fusion became a thing," he said. "What some people call 'fusion,' I call dinner."
And what's for dinner at Barrio?
How about tacos that are served with charred pork belly, grilled octopus and, even, white truffles?
If that doesn't make your mouth water, perhaps Barrio's root veggie enchilada or its skirt steak fajita (made with charred banana peppers, tomato jalapeno salsa and blistered Japanese shishito peppers) might do the trick.
Will any of these dishes figure into the five-course meal Tanabe's making in Sioux City? Sorry, the chef isn't saying.
Instead, he said to expect cuisine that's unique and full of umami.
"Lower expectations," Tanabe said with an air of mystery. "Dazzle them with the results."