Standard Hospitality Group’s John Concepcion plans expansion of Kiwami as he continues to honor tradition

SOME of the best restaurants in Japan can be found all under one roof in the Philippines, thanks to the efforts of The Standard Hospitality Group’s chief executive officer (CEO), John Concepcion.

Earlier this week, BusinessWorld got a taste of some of Japan’s best, right in Taguig’s Bonifacio Global City (BGC) where the food court Kiwami has operated since 2021. Another branch in Alabang opened late last year.

Kiwami isn’t playing around with the word “best.” The word kiwami (roughly translated from Japanese as “ultimate” or “extreme”) is subjective, but with the brands under Kiwami, heritage and talent try to reflect the definition. For example, Yabu, brought here in 2011, was made in partnership with Michelin Bib Gourmand chef Kazuya Takeda. Ippudo Ramen, meanwhile, has roots with “Ramen King” Shigemi Kawahara (a three-time Ramen Master Chef Hall of Famer), with the brand beginning in 1985. Hachibei, with a concentration on grilled meats (yakitori-style), began in 1983 and uses traditional Binchotan charcoal (made of hardwood). Finally, Hannosuke, an expert in tempura which attracts crowds in their Japanese outlets, was founded back in the 1950s.

“Many of these brands are heritage, family-run businesses that have been operating for decades. Most of them love the idea of expansion but are not necessarily geared for it due to the challenges of the language barrier and not having a technical team to transfer their technology,” said Mr. Concepcion in an e-mail. “However, the idea of sharing their work is certainly exciting for them, and that’s where we come in. As the Standard Group, we are able to work closely with these partners to bring the same quality work they do here to the Philippines.”

While most of these restaurants have standalone units, Mr. Concepcion discussed why it makes sense for them to be under one roof. “In the case of Kiwami, it became a more thoughtful idea on how we could offer the convenience of choice without losing the specialized kitchens. Hence, we came up with the idea of master kitchens within one large space,” he said. “The idea is quite simple, really. We wanted to honor the specialization and dish-specific nature that you find in Japan — doing one thing but doing it extremely well.”

BusinessWorld sat down to lunch with at least one dish from all the outlets under Kiwami.

We started the meal with Hachibei’s Baked Hokkaido Miso Oysters, flown straight from Japan, and topped with Japanese mayo, yellow miso paste, and the Japanese spice mix togarashi. Dexter Supena, Back of House Technical Manager for Kiwami, described Hokkaido oysters as incredibly sweet: a credit to Hokkaido’s seas, for despite all the additions on top, the gentle oceanic flavors of the oysters still shone through.

The next dish was Hachibei’s Sukiyaki Spinach Enoki — beef rolled around stalks of Japanese spinach and enoki mushrooms. It’s an innovation on the Japanese hotpot dish sukiyaki, so diners dip the rolls into a cured egg yolk as in the original dish before taking a bite. A Buta Bara platter followed, with Binchotan-grilled pork belly seasoned with shio (salt), tare (yakitori sauce), miso (sesame-flavored miso paste), then Yuzu Kosho (citrus and pepper). Uniformly, the sweetish and tender pork skewers were a hit, but the clear winner was the Yuzo Kosho, with bright flavors giving the pork some lightness.

We were excited to try Hannosuke’s recipe from the 1950s, and we were not disappointed. We’ve gotten too used to mediocre tempura with more flour than seafood, with a fried crust that turns chewy at the slightest drop in temperature. At Hannosuke, the casing simply becomes a complement to the seafood, and we marveled at how moist and tender the shrimp, squid, and scallop within the crispy breading still was.

Yabu, the oldest unit in the Philippines within group, offered up their Rosu Tornado Omelette Curry Set. This had a tornado-style omelet over rice, served with their signature curry sauce and classic Yabu katsu. Mr. Supena explained that the tornado-style omelet was achieved by swirling three eggs with long chopsticks as they slowly cooked in a ceramic pan. As for the katsu, he told us that the rosu (pork loin) had layers of meat, fiber, and fat (though a leaner version is available). The crispy coating was made with panko (breadcrumbs) which they make themselves. Aged for three days, the bread is shredded in a special machine and the crumbs are sifted. The spikiest bits are reserved for breading, while finer crumbs are used for other recipes.

We ended the savories with Mushroom Ramen, the vegetarian option at Ippudo. We lowered our expectations a bit and thought we’d have a calm sip of the broth, but this meatless option was not taking it easy. Made with seven types of mushrooms (three of them being shimeji, white button, and king oyster), it had a dairy base flavored with mushroom paste, and with tofu substituting for the pork chashu. The flavors were dense and intense, and not for one minute did we miss the usual pork.

“We want you to have a five-star experience for a three-star price,” Mr. Concepcion said. A lot of these brands aren’t exactly household names in the Philippines, and before Mr. Concepcion got his way, were to be experienced only in Japan.

“With the exception of Ippudo, these brands are not the chain-type restaurants, and that’s not what we want either. We like to focus on brands that have been practicing their craft for decades. We don’t prefer to work with the trendy, of-the-moment names; instead, we see ourselves as stewards of these brands and focus on building relationships with these artisans.”

Mr. Concepcion is so taken with the Japanese food experience that he is stepping down as Managing Director and CEO of the Selecta ice cream brand to concentrate on The Standard Hospitality Group.

Mr. Concepcion led Selecta for the last 33 years. He is also a member of the Concepcion cooling family, listed in Forbes collectively in 2016 in the country’s 50 Richest list.

According to a press release, “As Mr. Concepcion bids farewell to Selecta, he is set to embark on a new and exciting journey in his career. Leveraging his extensive expertise gained over three decades in the multinational company, he will focus his efforts on leading The Standard Hospitality Group to greater success in hospitality and restaurant management.”  Within the next three years, they expect to have a total of 100 outlets.

“Kiwami has been a great success, and you will be seeing two new locations within the next 18 months, as well as a strong rollout for Yabu this year with the introduction of our updated architectural look,” Mr. Concepcion told BusinessWorld.  “Exciting new spaces are on the horizon. Additionally, we are working on new concepts to add to the portfolio, which is super exciting.”

Kiwami has branches in Bonifacio High Street Central in BGC, Taguig, and in Alabang Town Center in Muntinlupa. — Joseph L. Garcia