The Floating World : John Zabawa

The idea of creating a sense of place and time through food and objects has been an underpinning of our work as Tenzo since the beginning. It’s a concept I’ve termed the Floating World, borrowed from Edo Japan, that explores the ecstasy and absurdity of life in the modern world. It was an idea that came to me on long aimless walks in Chicago over a decade ago, and so it is fitting that our first installment be with John Zabawa, who I first met on just such a walk.

Caught in the same orbit in Chicago, we introduced ourselves to acknowledge an unspoken connection and then drifted apart. That we would meet again, years later and in a different part of the world, was really no surprise, and we quickly reconnected as old friends. I recognized in him that kind of restlessness from a childhood spent somewhere between here and there. It is a familiar story of an aesthete, conjuring his universe out of senses and memories. From his vintage bungalow to his ‘90s Jeep Cherokee, nothing that’s his is without some dreamy, ethereal quality that bridges time and space. It’s something that comes through in all of his work, in art, graphic design, and music.

We sat down with John on a beautiful spring morning at the Echo Park home he shares with his partner, Kristin, and we got to talking about food, nostalgia, and the true meaning of simplicity.

Jeffrey Ozawa : So I guess we both, not exactly came of age—but maybe we did come of age—in Chicago, which is a great food city.

John Zabawa : Totally. I’ll tell you the story. I believe this was in 2012. I was living in Uptown, right behind the Riviera Theater, and I was working at the Brown Elephant Resale Shop. Every so often I would see you both come into the shop, and immediately you two stuck out. It’s strange when you see someone who looks similar to you—Asian, long hair, kinda thin, dresses decently—and you’re like, “Who the hell is that?” I remember walking up to Jeff for the first time and introducing myself and we started talking about our jobs and that’s when he handed me the Gorumando business card [laughs] and I still have that. At the time we never really hung out or anything, it was cool we just knew each other.

JO : Yeah it was just heads up, we see each other around the neighborhood, we say hi. And I remember one time chatting with you and you were getting really into developing film at home.

JZ : On many occasions people would come to donate an old past hobby, and somebody once donated a whole darkroom setup. My art practice at the time was really determined by whoever donated stuff to the shop. At the time I couldn’t afford anything and I was lucky to be in that special place where people would bring their old things and I could attempt to make something with it. I was really interested in photography at the time and so I acquired everything and had a full-scale darkroom in my apartment. My art changed because someone donated a whole darkroom kit, I was like, I’m going to try this. I was so jazzed.

JO : I remember saying we should shoot or develop something, or it would be fun to do something together like that, because Jaimie had just started shooting film. But shortly after, we left Chicago.

JZ : Then fast-forward almost a decade later, I moved to Silverlake. Shortly after arriving, it was my birthday. I didn’t have any friends when I moved here, I knew like two people. I made some friends at Atelier Ace and that’s when I felt like I was starting to know more people who might want to go out for a drink or dinner with me.

JO : Yeah but then, actually you have some old friends…

JZ : Yeah! Look at us here now. It took nearly ten years for us to truly hang. And since the day that I met you til the day that I got here, I had eaten so terribly wrong and poorly, until I moved to LA.

JO : Well I think that’s the missing link between us. One of the things that I was passionate about before that I’ve ignored is drawing, art, design. In high school that was my passion. I never cooked. I liked to eat out, but a lot of times it was just garbage. Over time, food replaced drawing for me as a creative outlet.

JZ : I think living in a metropolis city like Chicago or New York, for me it was about convenience. When things are so readily available, and not necessarily affordable or cheap, but they’re there and they’re open, you’ll just gravitate towards that, as opposed to taking the time to go and buy cheaper ingredients that are better and spending one extra hour to cook your own healthy meal.

After a few years, I think Los Angeles began to wear on me and I’ve started to refuse ordering out, because I’ve realized that I can either make my own food or go spend an hour driving, looking for parking, you know? The built environment truly influences food culture.

JO : Yeah, Los Angeles wants you to cook. It feels like the city is saying, “I’m going to give you all these amazing ingredients, and you know you’re not going to get that when you go out, you’re going to spend a lot of money."

JZ : The greatest restaurants are the holes in the wall. Greatest in taste and in being a place that serves the community. If you go to MacArthur Park on the corner of Bonnie Brae and 3rd Street, there are like six ladies who I believe are mothers, who go out and cook for the entire neighborhood every night in their street carts. It’s always packed and the whole community is out there enjoying their food. What I consider to be a cherishable food experience is not necessarily just the taste but also the atmosphere that contributes to having a great feeling.

JO : Totally. I think that’s a real third-culture kid experience—someone who grew up abroad or has half of their family from another place, so much of how they appreciate food is the vibe of the restaurants and how that interacts with their memories of things they had when they were kids. I’m totally that way, if I can find a place that captures that, I’m there.

So if we could just go back to your background briefly, you were born in Korea, right?

JZ : Colorado. I grew up in Busan, South Korea, and then relocated to Missouri when I was in middle school and then to Chicago. To me, Chicago is my hometown more than Busan. Being raised in South Korea, you’re exposed to market food, the hawkers, and all that. It’s so deeply rooted in everyday life there.

JO : Do you have any favorite meals from your childhood?

JZ : I know it sounds weird, and it’s not necessarily my favorite meal, but I have visions of growing up there and eating spam and rice with butter and soy sauce. My mother took care of us during the day while my father worked in the military. She would prepare it in a quick pinch to feed us. There is something so humbling about that dish that it’s like poetry to me. If I stare at it long enough I could weep at the memories I have from that dish.

Another favorite is tonkatsu along with recipes like kimbap, yaki mandu, and scallion pancake. In Korea, most family meals were prepared on portable gas tabletop burners. At that time typical Korean homes were quite small and compact. As a kid I can remember my grandmother would be cooking scallion pancakes in the living room, and in the next room only a few feet away my mom would be bathing me and my sister in the bathroom.

Then, it was truly family cooking and sitting around together. It felt less pretentious. Cooking becomes more ceremonial in some ways, when you live like that. A normal meal at the table would be with my grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, uncle, sister, and me. All the generations eating together. That’s something I haven’t seen much in America, unless it’s for a holiday.

JO :  And now we're out here in LA, both so far from our families. How has living in Los Angeles changed things for you? Your home is small but you have a huge outdoor space.

JZ : Living here has made me realize that I love the dark greyness of a city. Los Angeles is the exact opposite. Ha!

But Los Angeles has given me a richer quality of day-to-day life. You have beautiful weather here and the flora contributes to that. There are many areas that are pristine and picturesque—and maybe that’s because I have an outside eye and I’m not from here. But in terms of cooking, if I’m cooking a chicken, I can walk outside into my garden and pick some fresh rosemary or herbs. I didn’t have that living in Chicago. I also have an influence from friends like you, who love cooking. Although, I honestly wouldn’t eat if I didn’t have to.

JO : But you do enjoy food? 

JZ : Yes, but I am the type of person who can sip on a cup of coffee for 6 hours and not eat a single thing all day and be fine. I just forget to eat. I’m quite a workaholic and food just cuts out my time. I’ve come to realize that I have had a narrow mind when it comes to food. I have a few staple recipes that I can prepare for myself that I’ve come to love and I have no problem eating the same meal every day for the rest of my life.

JO : We created a list, what was it—cacio e pepe, udon, tonkatsu…

JZ : I could have those same three dinner entrees every night and I would never think twice about it. Maybe in fifteen years, I won’t be able to even look at tonkatsu anymore, but I’m willing to take that chance.

JO : So you’re not really into what it is you’re eating necessarily, but I feel like you are very into the aesthetics of the space that you’re in and the tools that you’re using. Your kitchen here is very small, but you’ve used it well.

JZ : The size of my kitchen really determines what I can and cannot prepare. Living in a small home is probably the greatest life lesson I’ve had.

We can have intimate romantic dinners, set the table and things, create more ceremony, but for the most part we eat pretty modestly here. It's because our kitchen is small that we have to be particular about what we buy. I live in a period house from the early 1900s and living here feels like living in a time capsule, which I love. I feel like we live in an older time and I believe that has helped me understand more about the past. There’s no microwave here. We just recently got a toaster.

I like to think of it as my own little bistro. Our dining table is only a foot away from the kitchen and I feel like I’m Master in Midnight Diner [a Japanese TV series]. If I ever opened a restaurant, I’d want it to be just like this house. A few seats, paintings everywhere and weird tchotchkes.

JO : We should do that at my house, come over and we’ll do a late night Midnight Diner thing. That would be fun. Focus on one dish, like they do in the show. That’s my thing these days—you take a dish and you just strip it down to its bare essence. I’ve developed recipes over periods of decades—like curry, I’ve been making that since college. You get to a point in the middle where you’ve added so many ingredients, so many steps, but now it’s so simple.

JZ : Yes, that would be how I would prepare it. Trying to get to the essence. Preparing tonkatsu is a simple meal in appearance, but I try to use the best rice, the best cut of meat, and if I could make my own sauce I would. It’s simple and it’s quality. My tonkatsu is getting better.

JO : I wonder sometimes about those old places, like old diners and steakhouses. Will they even exist in twenty years? Will our generation be nostalgic enough to keep them in business?

JZ : I think we have evolved to use nostalgia as a tool. It’s a safe haven for our mind. With cooking, it can be this special place for you as well. You can always access a special memory any time with food. For me I feel like I’m overly nostalgic at times, so when I eat Korean food, it’s because I want to go back to Korea at that moment. It’s always the smell. If I step foot into any Asian market, I’m transported back to Korea and I’m five years old again.

Jaimie interjects : Jeff does that too, he’s always saying things smell like Japan. Like a couple times a week. He could be anywhere, he could be here, and he gets a whiff and it smells like Japan.

JO : I think it's all a part of nostalgia and what really shines to people like us. You were saying earlier that the vibe of the restaurant is what makes it for you, but I think the tastes and smells are also, obviously, central to that aesthetic. For example, I've seen you absolutely devour a plate of gyoza, and part of that is I know you haven't eaten all day, but it's also because you're picking up on the taste. The scallions and cabbage I use are from these amazing Hmong farmers in Fresno, and I ferment the cabbage a day before to get it extra ripe. You wouldn't pick up on that unless you knew it deep down.

JZ : I’m very lucky to have a relationship with Tenzo and to know you guys. As someone who isn’t great at cooking but still needs wares, plates, cups, etc, I feel grateful when I'm able to get the things I need from Tenzo and even luckier to be invited to your home. I'm given the chance to learn new things and watch you prepare meals. My palette and taste can expand there.

I won’t cook something because I just don’t know the technique. I’m so much about the process that if I only knew the technique—like folding gyoza—just watching you do it, I feel like I can do it myself. Watching you cook at home or going camping with you and seeing how you both prepare things, has given me a lot of insights on how to do it myself.

The Hagama [rice cooker] is my favorite thing I have in my kitchen. It’s so utilitarian, we use it all the time. I will have it for the rest of my life. Each time I use it, my rice has gotten better and better. You learn the little nuances and get better at recognizing all the little details. It’s a lifetime of learning—the exact amount of water, temperature, knowing when the steam comes out—it’s always fun. It’s learning to recognize those few little details that makes a meal, a song, or a work of art feel truly special.

JO : I heard this quote, from the guy who owns Harry’s Bar in Venice, he said, “Simplicity is beautiful when it is full of many small details.”

JZ : Exactly. Not minimalism, simplicity. It’s shocking, too, when you encounter something that’s truly so simple. For me it’s like tonkatsu! That’s truly the spice of life for me—whenever I find something so simple that is so amazing, I usually try to cling on to it, to bring it into my world.

JO : I like that idea, I think that’s what we’re talking about. It’s simple, but there’s so much to its simplicity. That relates back to what we were talking about, the process of developing a recipe, paring back everything that’s not essential. So it ends up being very simple. Simple but full of attention to detail. That's it.

John is releasing his debut album Look At The Sky with his band Winds on April 9. Out on @natural_label and streaming on Spotify.