Words Laura Silverman Images Lawrence Braun
Simplicity is a gift, and one that is ever harder to come by in this era of endless options, however “curated” they may be. Our senses are bombarded with the constant onslaught of bigger and better, our antennae always attuned to the next big thing, so it’s refreshing to enter the orbit of Kazusa Jibiki. With an ease that inspires, the Japanese-born restaurateur moves gracefully between her two businesses in downtown Manhattan and a small, spare cabin in Roscoe, NY.
On a crisp fall Sunday, clad in a colorful flowered dress and well-worn clogs, the seemingly ageless beauty is as free of pretense as she is adornment. Her modern shag haircut frames large, lively dark eyes. Jibiki exudes calm and efficiency as she works in her tiny upstate kitchen, preparing a traditional Japanese meal from local supplies, including brown jasmine rice bought at Pepacton Natural Foods, vegetables just purchased at the Roscoe farmers market and fish from Beaverkill Trout Hatchery. To these fresh ingredients, she adds ginger, miso, yuzu juice (an imported citrus) and tamari. This is not fancy food, but it’s the kind of healthy home cooking that Japanese families have been eating for centuries. It’s also the focus of Jibiki’s second Manhattan restaurant, Gohan, which opened in September.
Paradoxically, it’s not what Jibiki grew up eating. During her formative years spent east of Tokyo, her parents struggled to build their business designing and constructing restaurants and bars. Money was scarce and Jibiki was often the only one at home taking care of her brother, who was born with Down’s syndrome. Eventually, the business took off, but a live-in nurse was hired to run the house while the adults worked even longer hours. Jibiki remembers it as “a difficult, strange childhood” in which wallpaper catalogues took the place of picture books and there were no family dinners. Perhaps it was inevitable that she would open her own restaurant.
But first there was art school in Tokyo and a position at a design consultancy that specialized in restaurants and spas, collaborating with such luminaries as Tadao Ando and Michael Graves. Jibiki found an early calling doing food styling and designing menus. She was also fascinated by the way a restaurant develops its own unique culture, with a specific clientele and a particular vibe that seems to arise organically.
Wanting to improve her English, Jibiki asked her parents to send her to the U.S. Worried about the perils of Manhattan, they agreed to a year in Westchester. She arrived in the late 80s and never left, making her way to the city after that first year. She found a job with Renown, a Japanese fashion company looking to import American designers and brought them a hot upstart named Marc Jacobs, fresh off his controversial tenure at Perry Ellis. After eight years sourcing everything from clothing to vintage American pottery for retail in Japan, Jibiki decided she was ready to venture into the world of food.
By this time, she had a circle of friends in the city, a number of whom were involved in the restaurant business with establishments in lower Manhattan. When your support system includes Brian McNally (Café Lebowitz, Indochine), Serge Becker (La Esquina, Café Select), Luigi Comandatore (Bread) and Frank DeCarlo (Peasant), your chances of making rookie mistakes are seriously diminished. These seasoned veterans helped Jibiki find the right location—a former vegetable wholesaler on Elizabeth Street—and even secure financing. With a small business loan and a tidy sum made on a successful line of hair accessories she had designed with a friend, Jibiki was able to open Lovely Day in 2002. The name was inspired by a bucolic sketch of the restaurant drawn by another friend, the artist George Skelcher, and also by the Bill Withers song. Then I look at you And the world’s alright with me Just one look at you And I know it’s gonna be A lovely day…
Jibiki envisioned Lovely Day as “a place for the community, a casual neighborhood restaurant where everyone could find something to eat.” The place has a sweet simplicity that appeals to a wide swath of downtowners. Its walls are covered with a floral wallpaper that harkens back to the sample books of her childhood. There are red booths and a small bar, bohemian waitresses and an eclectic clientele ranging from groovy artists to families with young kids. It’s definitely got a high cool quotient—downstairs is an additional space where galleries, designers and artists frequently host private parties—but it’s also casual, welcoming and uncomplicated. The menu has cozy Thai curries and Japanese ginger-fried chicken, or you can order a steak and a Manhattan.
After 14 years, Lovely Day is still going strong, no small feat in the rocky landscape of New York restaurants and a testament to its cult status. Not one to rest on her laurels, Jibiki saw a need downtown for a place that served healthy and comforting Japanese home cooking—traditional meals of miso soup, pickles, rice, vegetable sides, small portions of fish or meat and tea. She approached Atsushi Numata, whose Ni Japanese Deli serves up vegetarian bento boxes in the Essex Street Market, and together they opened Gohan on Orchard Street. Although she still checks in daily at Lovely Day, Jibiki is now focused on getting the new place on its feet. “Gohan is my baby, so I have to raise it,” she says with a small smile. Most weekends, she still manages to escape the city with her boyfriend, Michael Tower, a nature-loving Minnesota native who designed menswear for Ralph Lauren and now builds window installations for the brand’s flagships. His carpentry skills come in handy at their place upstate, a two-bedroom hunting cabin with a stone fireplace that sits on two-and-a-half wooded acres. Tower also does much of the grilling on a tiny squat Weber just off the front porch, though they occasionally have dinner down the road at the weekends-only restaurant run by Northern Farmhouse Pasta. Some afternoons, they hike up to Russel Brook Falls, a multi-tiered waterfall in the Delaware Wild Forest.
When they sit down to their Sunday lunch of miso soup, grilled trout, delicata squash and rice steamed with sweet potato, the couple murmurs a short Buddhist prayer of thanks. “It’s a way of acknowledging that the things you are about to eat had a life and died for you,” explains Jibiki, “so you voice an appreciation for them and their sacrifice.” It’s a small gesture, but freighted with compassion. Like everything Kazusa Jibiki offers up, it is simply wonderful.