The mysterious up-and-down life of sensational restaurateurs Alex and Chris Kinjo and their everlasting quest for an MF Sushi empire.
By John Kessler | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
It starts with a knife. A slender, high-carbon blade. Chris Kinjo rests its weight on a round of white daikon and eases through the crisp cellulose as only he can. Sheets of the radish fall from his blade, so transparently thin the tattoos on his hand show through them. So shiny they could be made of glass.
He slivers the radish sheets into the filagrees called tsuma — a throwaway garnish that most sushi chefs delegate to a plastic hand crank. But none are like Kinjo’s, which twist and shimmer like an explosion of fiber-optic wire. Their beauty attracts the eye to the plate and encourages it to linger on the fish alongside it, a finger of pearlescent raw squid so finely scored it seems composed of fluttery gills, perhaps, or a tile of gizzard shad cross-hatched into a mosaic of tiny, precise squares.
“All I do is cut fish,” Kinjo will say to an admirer with a false modesty that fools no one, least of all himself.
Three years after closing their group of high-end Asian restaurants, Chris and his brother Alex plan to bring their brand, MF Sushi, back to Atlanta. Flashy, talented and self-mythologizing, the Kinjo brothers are getting ready to write the latest chapter in their family’s saga. They have opened and closed restaurants five times, made and lost millions of dollars and have been so destitute they’ve lived out of suitcases, homeless save for a mattress in a relative’s living room. This spring they will debut landmark sushi restaurants simultaneously in Inman Park and in Houston’s high-end Museum District. It has been a wild ride for this pair of swaggering brothers who came from... ...well, where exactly?
A brotherly affair
During one eventful week in February 2012, at the height of the post-recession dining shakeout, Atlanta lost a pair of notable restaurants. The first was the Chick-fil-A outlet in South DeKalb Mall, a community anchor for 42 years. The second was MF Buckhead. It was barely 4 years old, but the last standing and by far grandest of the three restaurants the Kinjo brothers had operated in Atlanta for more than a decade.
The Japanese restaurant anchored Terminus Atlanta, the Buckhead tower, with a palatial 8,000-square-foot dining room. An upstairs chef’s omakase table with a mere eight seats hovered like a space pod above the dining room, glinting behind smoked glass windows. Climbing those stairs, entering that room and then settling into a white Italian leather slingback chair at the counter was like gaining passage into the holiest of holies sushi sanctum.
The Kinjo brothers — so similar for their fierce egos and quick wits, but otherwise so different — were always at the restaurant. Chris was the nimble sushi star whose “magic fingers” gave the enterprise its initials. He was the dude, the goateed guy behind the counter, flashing knives, cracking jokes and swigging discreetly from a bottle of Bud Light. A craggy scar along his cheek and the tattoos on his hands hinted of a dangerous early life, and he spoke with a laconic street-smart American accent.
His older brother Alex was the aesthete who designed the sumptuous interiors and ran the business, usually from a corner perch in the front lounge with the latest-model Mac laptop shining in his face. He wore Versace suits with open-collar silk shirts and tinted, black-rimmed glasses so chunky they defied irony. Alex looked ever ready to go clubbing, his hair in spikes or swept up in a near pompadour or copper tinted and falling to his shoulders, but never a strand out of place. Vietnamese tonal inflections marked his speech when he got excited, which was often. Nothing excited him more than his brother’s artistry, which he likened to Picasso.
During its first year of operation, up until the recession, MF Buckhead attracted a big-spending crowd and brought in $400,000 a month. Sales nosedived the second year, and by the end of the fourth the family reorganized the business under Chapter 11 bankruptcy. There were plans to relocate but instead the restaurant closed without warning, a mere day after assuring an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter they would soldier on.
In just over one year, the Kinjos had lost all three restaurants.
How we got the story
For many years I’ve been a fan of Chris Kinjo, whom I consider one of the finest sushi chefs working today. I was sorry when he and his family closed the last of their restaurants here following a bankruptcy. He and I kept in contact after he left Atlanta for a new life in Houston two years ago, and I was heartened to learn of his success there. When he and his brother, Alex, announced plans to take another crack at an Atlanta sushi bar, I decided it would be a good opportunity to write about their family’s many reversals of fortune and, not incidentally, go to Houston and try Chris’ food again. As it turned out, there was a lot more to the story of these two brothers with the Okinawan name than I knew, and much of it was yet to play out.
Chief food writer
Starting over again
One morning soon after MF Buckhead closed, my phone lit up with a text from Chris. He thanked me for the positive reviews I had written over the years as restaurant critic at the AJC, and said he felt like he owed me the whole story. He owed me nothing, I assured him. But I was curious. I had been telling the Kinjos’ unusual story for a long time and wanted to hear the latest. So we agreed to meet at a coffee shop.
Shellshocked and slumped into a chair, Chris looked so different from the straight-backed performer I knew from the sushi bar.
“I literally have nothing left,” he said, recounting all the last-minute handwringing leading up to the decision to close. He had packed up a U-Haul with his belongings, including his prize collection of Japanese ceramics, and was going to take his wife and two little kids to Disney World. After that, they’d continue on to Houston, where relatives had agreed to let them crash.
“I’ll wash dishes if I have to,” he said, looking grim. I told him he was so talented he’d surely find his way back to the top of the game. We shook hands, and I wished him luck.
Chris stayed in touch, and his periodic texts from Houston grew more heartening over the next year. Alex had joined him, and they were planning to open a new MF with their cousin. Chris texted me pictures of a construction site. Then I saw snapshots of the familiar high-gloss wood veneers and squid-like pendant lighting of an MF dining room. Images of massive fat-packed tuna loins on the cutting board followed and, finally, opulent sashimi platters. They were open.
In September 2013, MF Houston received a rare four-star review in the Houston Chronicle with a headline proclaiming, “MF Sushi’s Chris Kinjo as good as finest sushi masters.”
Is he that good? I think so. A sushi chef traffics in basic ingredients, mostly fish and rice. The former he selects and cuts, the latter he seasons and hand forms. There can be a world of greatness (or mediocrity) in each of these steps. Japanese tradesmen learn each part of the process with such rigor that they can spend years as an apprentice before earning permission to cut their first fish. But that’s not Chris Kinjo, an autodidact with a sharp knife who has let the raw ingredients tell him what to do. That was apparent from the beginning.
Strong family ties
Would it be overreacting to drop to my knees on Ponce, kiss the asphalt and shout to the heavens, ‘Thank God, a real sushi bar at last?’
That was the opening line of my 2002 review of MF Sushibar, the brothers’ first restaurant, which debuted on the ground floor of the first new construction attempting to un-scuzz Ponce de Leon Avenue in Midtown. It faced The Old Spaghetti Factory and was across the street from the Atlanta Eagle, a leather bar. The place looked like an ultra lounge, but the menu was a paragon of purity: sushi and nothing but. There wasn’t even a kitchen to prepare hot food. Chris brought in varieties of fish from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market that no one else in town offered. He took his time, and he crafted those little mouthfuls that made time stand still. He presented his plates with a bow.
When I called Alex, the frontman, to find out about his family, he told me they were of mixed heritage with a mother from Vietnam and a father from Okinawa, Japan. Their mother, Anh Hoang, had worked as a teacher in Japan where she met Nomaru Kinjo, a fisherman. The family eventually ended up in America. I didn’t mention any of this in the review: Too many people, some of my friends included, were making what I considered borderline racist comments about not trusting a Vietnamese sushi chef. Okinawans are culturally distinct from Japanese as well, racially closer to Pacific Islanders. All I wanted to do was turn folks on to some of the best sushi in Atlanta, not start a polemic.
I had no idea then that MF was on the verge of failing when the review came out.
Alex, a draftsman and graphic designer, had been living in Atlanta to be close to his parents, who had settled in Cobb County. Several of his seven siblings lived in town as well. He had put the screws on Chris — a wanderer who moved around the country from job to job — to come to Atlanta. Ever since they were little, Alex was charged with watching out for his wild-child kid brother.
The two brothers built the restaurant themselves — laid the flooring, constructed the counters — learning on the job. Chris opened with fresh horse mackerel and sea urchin from Japan behind the glass case, but nothing for the folks who wanted chicken teriyaki and deep-fried crunch rolls. For the first four months, they bled money.
After my review ran, the right customers found MF, but it was almost too much of a good thing. Starving diners complained of waiting two hours or more. Alex begged Chris to take some shortcuts, to get rolls prepared and fish sliced ahead of time. Chris dug his heels in because real sushi takes time. One night there were so many furious customers in the dining room that Alex disappeared into the back and hid, his heart racing. I have to learn to control the crowd, not let the crowd control me, he thought. It was his first insight as a restaurateur.
Chris kept getting better and more focused as a chef, offering omakase (chef’s choice) to the lucky few who snagged a seat in front of him at the counter. He sent out translucent slivers of fluke fanned out like the NBC peacock and dotted with eyes of Sriracha. Then came deep-cupped kumamoto oysters brushed with chile and yuzu citrus, lined up on a blade-thin platter. A final volley of nigiri sushi ended the meal with syncopated thrums of flavor.
Alex had gotten his brother set up and now he thought of his mother, still so full of life at 65. She needed a restaurant, as well.
The next year the family opened Nam, a Vietnamese bistro. The slender, twinkle-lit Midtown dining room featured Alex’s full-length murals of curvaceous women with flowing hair wearing traditional ao dai gowns. Tiny, smiley Anh Hoang moved like lightning in the kitchen and cooked with the same precision and gift for flavor clarity as her son. “Mom’s cabbage soup” at Nam brought an intense chicken consommé floating with jewel-like cabbage and ground pork bundles, each one tied with an edible chive bow.
“I built this restaurant to honor my mom and dad after everything they’ve put up with,” Alex said when I called to research the review. He often spoke passionately but obliquely of his family’s hardships, tears springing to his eyes. “John, you have no idea what we’ve been through.” He took me aback: this chill cat in his sleek clothes was always such a softie when it came to family.
“Mom and dad?” I asked. What did his Japanese dad have to do with this Vietnamese restaurant? Alex’s response gave me the final lines of my review:
“The name of this restaurant may evoke the GI nickname to American ears, but it actually means ‘south.’ (Vietnam is the land of the southern Viet people.) For Kinjo, a man of mixed ethnicity, it is a tribute to both his Vietnamese mother and his father, who comes from the island of Okinawa at the southern tip of the Japanese archipelago. This young man, one of the great talents on Atlanta’s dining scene, has done his parents proud.”
Kinjo was a common Okinawan name and Hoang a common Vietnamese one. How did these two meet on a tiny island supporting a major American military installation so soon after the Vietnam war? There must be a dramatic story, but Alex never would elaborate.
“I built this restaurant to honor my mom and dad after everything they’ve put up with.”
Empires and egos
Over the next few years, Chris developed enough of a following for his omakase meals that he could bring in high-level sushi chefs to run the daily operation. MF Sushibar became a proving ground for today’s top Atlanta sushi chefs, including Fukuhiko Ito (Umi) and Art Hayakawa (Sushi House Hayakawa).
Alex dreamed of an empire. We could make this into a mini Nobu, he thought, a small chain of glamorous sushi bars around the country. Atlanta. Miami. New York. He had built a brand and was ready to go big.
So was Atlanta. In the mid-aughts new construction transformed the city, and every new building was looking for a ground-floor restaurant with some swag. Alex poured himself into the construction of MF Buckhead at Terminus, which opened in 2007 as a showcase for his design aesthetic. The restaurant was frankly more than Chris wanted, but the upstairs omakase room sealed the deal. Downstairs, Alex built another sushi bar as well as a Japanese charcoal grill that chef Ito ran — all of it set behind an epically long, lustrous wooden counter that became a celebrity magnet where Dallas Austin was known to stand and applaud the chefs after a meal.
Bon Appétit magazine hailed it as the nation’s sixth best sushi restaurant. Meridith Ford Goldman, writing in the AJC, called it “an absolutely incomparable dining experience.” But Besha Rodell in Creative Loafing, balked at the expense. By the time I returned in early 2009 to write about the $125 omakase experience, both readers and my own supervisors took me to task for focusing on an extravagant meal during a financial meltdown.
Rodell also zeroed in on “a vein of arrogance that seems to run through the place.” Customers who arrived near closing time were hectored and forced to order quickly. When a loyal guest asked Chris to make a California Roll for his wife who was squeamish about raw fish, Chris responded, “I can do that, but it’ll cost you $35.”
Once the famous restaurant mogul Jean-Georges Vongerichten came into the restaurant late with a large group, and Alex’s staff gave them grief. According to witnesses, Chris swaggered to the table during the meal and challenged the great chef to a knife skills competition, which the latter gamely accepted, following Chris behind the sushi bar to sliver carrots. Afterward, Chris sent an expensive bottle of sake as an apology, but the damage was done.
Who are these guys? Vongerichten wondered out loud.
Sushi and survival
- Chris Kinjo carefully slices chu toro (blue fin mid fatty tuna) as his assistant looks on. Photos: RYON HORNE / firstname.lastname@example.org
- Alex Kinjo describes how the patio area will look at the site of his new restaurant, MF Sushi.
- While his restaurant is under construction, sushi chef Chris works to keep his love for serving guests during his omakase at Kaneyama in Houston.
- Chris Kinjo breaks out a torch to prepare Kinmedai Japanese Golden Eye snapper for his guests during a omakase at Kaneyama in Houston.
- Sushi chef Chris Kinjo offers up torched kinmedai w yuzu kosho to his guests, during his omakase at Kaneyama in Houston.
- Chris Kinjo prepares A5 wagyu beef from Japan.
- Chris Kinjo views preparing sushi as an art form. While his new restaurant MF Houston Museum is under construction, sushi chef Chris serves omakase at Kaneyama in Houston.
- Chris Kinjo slices through a piece of house smoked King salmon.
- King salmon sushi prepared by Chris Kinjo in Houston.
- Chris Kinjo, who views preparing sushi as an art form, slices through a piece of King salmon.
- Chris Kinjo views preparing sushi as an art form.
- Chris Kinjo views preparing sushi as an art form.
- Chris, 42, stands inside the future home of his restaurant, MF Sushi Houston, which also opens this spring.
- Chris Kinjo checks his phone inside the future home of his restaurant, MF Sushi Houston, which also opens this spring.
- Chris Kinjo serves one of the courses in the omakase room at the now-defunct MF Buckhead in 2009.
Build and retreat
MF Buckhead had fast become the wrong restaurant for the wrong times. After it closed, 2012 was a year of rebuilding for the Kinjo brothers. After earning some cash as an itinerant sushi chef in Houston, Chris went into partnership with a relative who put up capital. Working with Alex, they opened MF Houston by year’s end on the cheap. It occupied a strip mall shared with a nightclub and a jewelry store far from the center of town. Just like their first Atlanta restaurant, they offered a premium product in an unlikely location and hoped the right crowd would find them.
Katharine Shilcutt, a Houston food writer, says that not only did their reputation from Atlanta create instant buzz, but the timing was right. “When they opened, the movie ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ had just come out, and this Chris Kinjo character proved to be such an interesting counterpart to Jiro,” she recalls. “He was very passionate, very precise, doing sushi his way.”
The following year, they lost everything again.
One week after being hailed as one of the city’s top 10 restaurants by the Houston Chronicle, MF was gutted by an electrical fire started by a soup warmer left on overnight. Alex remembers returning home late to the house the family shared to find Chris and his wife, Micki, hugging in the dark. Micki was sobbing and Chris was stony faced. The restaurant was gone, and they didn’t have fire insurance.
Alex was heartbroken. He had tried all his life to help Chris succeed, but the setbacks kept coming. From the time they were children Chris had gotten into one scrape after another. His thrill-seeking behavior. His stupid choices. The horrendous past and bad luck that had plagued his family, a demon that found its repository in his kid brother. All they wanted, ever wanted, was the better life they deserved. Why was it so elusive?
The Kinjos spent seven months rebuilding MF, and when it reopened all of Houston cheered. The press called it better than ever. Chris’ omakase dinners, starting at $75, became the thing, the object of desire, the sushi experience people bragged about. He began seasoning rice with hot vinegar and sugar several times a night to make sure every hand-formed bundle came out at the correct, barely warm temperature and had the texture he called “hollow.” He needed a tiny pocket of air between each grain so the rice collapsed on the tongue.
“I think I’ve unlocked the secret,” he told me. “I can make each piece taste 10 times better, 100 times better. It’s the same ingredients but just depends on how you make the rice and cut the fish.”
Alex’s dreams of empire returned, and the Kinjos announced big news in 2014. Chris would open MF Izakaya in Houston’s swank Museum District. Alex would return to Atlanta to open MF in the Inman Quarter development, now under construction in Inman Park. Chris would fly in monthly for omakase dinners.
When the Houston Chronicle’s Alison Cook came out with her annual list of best restaurants last year, MF had edged up to number eight. I made plans to fly down and eat at the restaurant for a story about the grand return of the Kinjo brothers to Atlanta.
By the time I got down to Texas, MF Houston had closed once again.
Story behind the story
Last November, Chris and I sat down at the patio of a Houston bar that served foofy cocktails, including one made with sunflower-seed-infused rum, Pamplemousse Rose liqueur and Byrrh Quinquina. We drank beers instead, and the waitress kept them coming.
“So what’s the story?” I asked.
Chris explained that he and his business partner had gotten into a dispute over terms of ownership in the new restaurant, and he walked out. They would likely end up operating two competing MFs.
“Not that story, the whole story,” I persisted, noticing for the first time the four-letter “F” word tattooed on Chris’ knuckles.
What kind of trouble did you get into as a kid? Why does Alex always look out for you? How does a Vietnamese woman end up in Okinawa during the 1970s? Where are you really from?
Chris and I spent a long time drinking beer at the precious cocktail lounge and then moved, with the help of a designated driver, to a Vietnamese karaoke parlor and a platter of spicy fried chicken feet.
Did Chris tell me his whole story? Most of it, but I think he blurred a couple of crucial details. When I returned to Atlanta, I sat down with Alex and tried to get his side of the story, but he became angry and defensive when I pushed. Then I searched public records, using the bankruptcy filing of MF Buckhead as a springboard to the larger truth of this family. The real story of the Kinjo brothers, as best as I can tell, goes something like this:
Beginning in 1975, nearly 2 million refugees fled Vietnam following the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces. Three years earlier, American troops had withdrawn from the war-ravaged country where they’d spent 20 years fighting the Communist regime. More than 800,000 Vietnamese piled into boats and took to the seas, landing in neighboring Indochinese countries. The greatest flight and the worst humanitarian crisis culminated in 1978 and 1979. Although they won’t confirm it, the Kinjos were most likely a part of this desperate exodus.
Sometime around 1980, Anh Hoang, her husband and her eight children resettled as refugees in Lima, Ohio. Two of these children were Chien Nguyen and Cuong Nguyen. Like many Asian immigrants, they assumed English names, in their case, Chris and Alex.
These two had a special bond. When Chris was little, Alex scooped his baby brother up in his arms and took off running. He tried to jump over a creek with the child in his arms and fell, gashing Chris’ cheek open on broken glass. The scar would remain for life along with their mother’s command to Alex:
You have to take care of your brother always. He is your responsibility
About the reporter
John Kessler has been a food writer for The Atlanta Journal Constitution since 1997, including three stints as the paper’s chief restaurant critic. He has had the fortune to eat many great meals in this city, and he hopes the memories of them will fortify him when he leaves the paper in June to move with his family to Chicago.
Their father tried to provide for his family painting houses. On weekends he would pack as many of the kids as would fit into his 1966 Buick and take them to jobs ripping out sheetrock.
The kids didn’t have books, a television or outside friends at first. So they came up with games. Whoever performed a task the best would get a massage from the others. One afternoon they all tried to copy a portrait of Jesus they had bought at Goodwill. Alex’s drawing was by far the best. That’s when he discovered his skill and decided he would be an artist.
As a child, Chris never had that eureka moment. He lacked direction, and he hated living in that town with no Asian faces. He ran away from home for the first time when he was 9 years old.
As Chris tells the story, an Asian-American teenager in a stolen car shuttled him off to California, where they heard there were a lot of Vietnamese people. He lived briefly on the streets, but his parents managed to find him and bring him back. He ran away again. And again. By the time Alex was old enough, it became his responsibility to go look for Chris.
The family moved to Biloxi, Miss., so their father could look for work fishing. There, Chris ran with a bad crowd. When I press him for details — drugs? vandalism? gangs? — he demurs, shakes his head and tells me about “all the (expletive) headaches” he has given his mother. Once he had to call her, shaken, after witnessing a shootout. He served some time in prison when he was 18 for being an accessory to a crime.
After his release, Chris returned to California and worked up and down the coast in dozens of restaurants, including Benihana, where he claims to have secured the top-secret salad dressing recipe. He was among the vanguard of young Asian men finding work thanks to the exploding popularity of sushi bars in the 1990s. They looked the part of Japanese sushi masters and kept their mouths shut about their true heritage.
Alex earned a scholarship to the Cleveland Institute of Art and then a good job in graphic design. Still, he felt duty bound to watch after his restless brother who never held a job for long. He sent Chris motivational books and literature. He paid visits whenever he could and reported back to their mother. But sometimes he just wanted to kill Chris. Once he was in such bad shape and partying so hard Alex thought, This kid is like a demon. I’m losing my brother.
Then one day Alex visited Chris while he was working at a sushi bar in San Francisco. He noticed something he’d never seen before, the emergence of artistic ability and focus. Alex began thinking about how to brand him.
About the photographer
Ryon Horne is an award-winning filmmaker and video journalist. Spending the past 15 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he has been the company’s video and audio producer for eight years covering breaking news, entertainment, sports and features.
Today Alex beams with pride every time he talks about Chris. “He’s so mature, so well rounded as a man and so smart — street smart, smart smart and business smart. We balance each other.”
It’s obvious that Alex, through his style and swagger, is the glue holding together a family that has lived through unfathomable turmoil. Whenever conversation turns to family, the hurt, anger and tears grow visible just below the surface.
“Leaving Vietnam must have been horrible,” I say to him one day, trying to open the door.
“You have no idea,” he barks back, flustered, his words tripping. “We do that thing from our heart to be the best we can to live in this country. We’re not going to sit there and cry about it. We’re going to move forward, to the next thing, to live a better life.”
Chris thinks less about the weight of his family’s history and more of the present. Like his dad, he is an avid fisherman. He spends time with his family and the small family of loyal chefs and helpers who have followed him to Houston from Atlanta. Then he puts on his chef’s whites and settles behind the sushi bar for a performance that his guests will remember for life.
“Once I walk in the door of my restaurant I become Chris Kinjo,” he says.
Public records show that Anh Hoang lives with an elderly man named Nam Nguyen. Presumably that is her husband of more than 50 years, a fisherman from Vietnam and most assuredly father of Chris and Alex. I imagine Alex Kinjo opened the restaurant Nam in his name. In recent years he has lost mobility in his legs and Hoang tends to him at home.
As the Kinjos prepare for their next chapter, their roles have changed. Because he is still dealing with the financial debacle of MF Buckhead, Alex won’t be an owner in the Atlanta restaurant but rather a brand consultant for a silent investor. Chris on the other hand, will be an owner of the new Houston restaurant, which will be small enough for him to manage the way he wants.
I suppose I’ve always known in a way that the Kinjos weren’t Kinjos and their father wasn’t Japanese. I ignored my doubt a decade ago and went with the story they told, convincing myself of its truth.
But that’s what we do as restaurant critics. We taste, assess and listen, and when we encounter newsworthy chefs, we have the honor of telling their stories. In the liminal space between the personages they present and the flavors they deliver lies the fun part: the reason we dine out. The hand of a great chef, a Chris Kinjo, can enrich our lives, as much a treat for the imagination as for the palate.
Keep up with the Kinjo brothers and their restaurants at their website mfsushiusa.com.
Presentation by Shane Harrison.