When Tetsuro Ozawa opened OzaOza in Japantown in 2016, it was the fulfillment of the chef’s long-held dream: He wanted to introduce San Francisco to traditional kaiseki-style cooking, with its elegant, jewel box-like seasonal dishes — to bring a little slice of Kyoto to the Bay Area.
The restaurant was a big success. But now, five years later, the restaurant has permanently closed as Ozawa faces an even bigger challenge than the coronavirus crisis that devastated his business for the past 10 months: stage four pancreatic cancer.
Ozawa’s wife Nergui “Gana” Gantsetseg, who helped run the the restaurant, tells Eater SF that Ozawa, who just turned 50, received the diagnosis in November and made the decision to close the restaurant by mid-December. “[The doctors] say it’s not curable,” she says. “So usually, for average people, the survival rate is very poor.”
To support Ozawa, Gantsetseg, and the couple’s three young kids, the chef’s friends have organized a GoFundMe campaign on their behalf. So far it has raised more than $55,000.
OzaOza had already been struggling during the pandemic, Ozawa says. The restaurant shut down entirely for four months, and even after it reopened — serving elaborate, kaiseki-style bento boxes at first and, later, more affordably priced poke bowls — business was slow. Then, in November, Ozawa started experiencing severe back pain. Doctors weren’t able to figure out the cause until he took a CT scan, which showed that the cancer had already spread from the pancreas to his lungs and bones. He’s currently undergoing chemotherapy.
For the chef, one of the devastating things about the cancer diagnosis was the fact that he had to close his restaurant, which he did in mid-December, in order to get treatment. A native of Shiga prefecture, Ozawa spent 20 years cooking at a kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto — generally considered the birthplace of kaiseki — before coming to the San Francisco in 2009 to work at Sanraku. There, he garnered a dedicated following as the restaurant’s lead sushi chef. Febry Arnold, one of the organizers of the GoFundMe, worked with Ozawa at Sanraku, and she says the chef always stood out to her for being “amazingly kind and very passionate” — and for never losing his temper even during the most stressful service.
But even though Ozawa was a skilled sushi chef, what he really wanted to do was cook. “He loves cooking,” Gantsetseg says, noting that he’s proficient at making every different kind of Japanese food. (“Except ramen,” Ozawa chimed in, laughing.) And, of course, his training had been in kaiseki, a style of cooking characterized by very elegant seasonal dishes, all served in a designated sequence of courses.
For Ozawa, OzaOza was a passion project. Behind the intimate, nine-seat counter, the chef was a one-man show, grilling sardines or simmering fish cakes in dashi one moment, then slicing up a beautifully composed sashimi plate the next. Because there are so few kaiseki restaurants in San Francisco — and in the U.S. in general — many customers would talk about how dinner at OzaOza made them feel as though they’d been transported to Japan.
“He decided to take a risk, but he seemed happy,” Amelie Liew, a long-time customer who also helped organize the GoFundMe campaign, says of the chef.
The money from the fundraiser will go toward Ozawa’s medical expenses, and, just as importantly, it’ll help support his family during this challenging time: With the restaurant closed, Ozawa no longer has any source of income, and Gantsetseg is taking care of the couple’s young children — a five-year-old and two seven-month-old twin babies — so she isn’t able to work now either.
The hope, of course, is for Ozawa to beat the odds and make a full recovery. Once he does, he plans to open another restaurant right away — that’s how much he loves to cook. According to Gantsetseg, even when Ozawa was at the hospital getting his diagnosis, that’s all he could think about: “He said, ‘I want to open tomorrow. Do I have enough fish?’”
“We’ll just take this challenge to be together, to be close, and to take care of the family,” Gantsetseg says. “Hopefully he’s going to be okay.”