It's the process of creating new Japanese-American dishes that drives Vacaville native Kyle Itani.
You don't have to travel far to taste the creativity that Itani cooks up in his kitchen at Hopscotch, 1915 San Pablo Ave. at 19th Street in Oakland.
"I get excited when a new dish is on the menu for the first time," Itani said. "Developing a new dish and figuring out how I can set up the line to execute it each time is great."
Born and raised in Vacaville and a 2000 graduate of Will C. Wood High School, Itani is half Japanese and half Italian and pours his heritage into the food he makes.
"The food I develop is a good way to connect with my Japanese side," he said, adding that the food offered at Hopscotch is a little bit American and a little bit Japanese, just like him.
After attending college and majoring in political science, Itani admitted he wasn't sure what his next step would be.
He even attended culinary school, but it didn't offer up the opportunities he thought it would bring. To gain some experience he worked on a cruise chip which gained him a year's worth, or even more, of experience in six months.
"It was really hard and amazing," he said. "I worked so many hours."
Itani, 31, said he's on the older end to get into the cooking profession, but it didn't stop him.
Under the wing of Sho Kamio, the chef at Yoshi's in San Francisco, Itani was taught traditional Japanese ways of cooking. Itani even traveled to live in Japan to learn more about the Japanese culture, food and way of cooking.
"It was more different than I romanticized," he said. "Each day I bought what I needed to eat for the day because the space (in the apartment) was so small."
He still picks out the best ingredients for his dishes each day the the farmers' market.
"That why I can handpick the ones that look the best," he said. "I want to keep that small restaurant approach."
Itani recalled that he turned down an offer to be a chef at a friend's meatball restaurant to risk opening his own place.
"It was a huge gamble," he said and added that he felt very strongly about opening a restaurant in Oakland. "They're business friendly and less expensive than San Francisco."
The small restaurant sits about 30 people and looks like a barbecue joint, sort of an American diner, but serves Japanese forward food, Itani said.
"It's American, but it keeps the Japanese traditions," he said referring to cooking technique and certain ingredients.
"It's sort of hidden," he continued. "I planned to keep it low key and do my own thing, but the response has been really incredible."
This weekend, Itani and his business partner Jenny Schwarz celebrated Hopscotch's one-year anniversary.
"The year went by really fast, but we've done so much sometimes we think, 'We've only been open for a year," he said. "No body had really any expectations. But with the popularity there are now very high stakes to exceed expectations."
"We have to check to see if we're staying current," he added. "It's great the Japanese food is a hot trend right now."
A year ago, the two came up with the name "hopscotch" to coincide with a playful and free spirit. While the partners take running a restaurant very seriously, they wanted to come across as relaxed and fun, like the children's game. Coincidentally it also fits with the restaurant's options of beer and scotch.
Itani is also excited that the restaurant supports an additional 25 employees.
"It's way more than we thought we'd ever have," he said. "They're on board with customer service. We feel great that we've created that livelihood."
Hopscotch is open Tuesday through Sunday. Dinner Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday is from 5 to 10 p.m. Dinner on Friday and Saturday is from 5:30 p.m. to midnight. Lunch from Tuesday to Friday starts at 11:30 a.m.
The restaurant also is serving brunch on Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Happy hour specials are daily from 3 to 5 p.m. and during the summer $1 oysters from 11 p.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday.
More information is available online at http://hopscotchoakland.com.
Follow Staff Writer Melissa Murphy at Twitter.com/ReporterMMurphy.