Meet the industrious family behind this longtime Asian favorite, and learn how it grew from a simple idea into one chef’s American Dream.
It’s a popular place to celebrate special occasions, but JMK Nippon, 2551 N. Perryville Road, in Rockford, also happens to be Masuo Kobayashi’s American Dream.
Since 1984, JMK Nippon has wowed Rockford diners with its authentic Japanese cuisine and teppan-yaki style cooking. It’s also grown from a small storefront on Mulford Road to its current 300-seat building with teppan dining, a sushi bar and lounge.
If it seems a little similar to the Benihana restaurant, that’s intentional. Born in Japan and trained in an upscale hotel there, Kobayashi earned a ticket to the U.S. in his early 20s, when he was recruited to join Benihana in San Francisco.
“They moved him around a lot, but he basically worked at different Benihanas around the country before he ended up in the Chicago suburbs,” says John Kobayashi, Masuo’s son and co-owner. “He was head chef there for a while, and then he started scouting around – he wanted to open his own restaurant and he decided on Rockford.”
Japanese cuisine and sushi were a relatively new concept when Masuo’s restaurant opened, but it quickly took off. For nearly 10 years straight, Masuo worked without a single day off. In 2000, the growing restaurant moved into its current location.
“We would go to Japan to find inspiration for the restaurant,” recalls John, who first worked for his dad as a coat checker, at age 13. “My father would bring back tons of architecture books from Japan. We actually stopped by Hawaii on the way back, just to get inspiration.”
The décor inside is authentically Japanese – those are real swords, imported lamps and true kimonos. The menu reflects a Japanese simplicity, mixing traditional recipes with a few new creations every year.
“Our teppan menu, where the chef cooks in front of you, is pretty simple – steaks, chicken, scallops, shrimp, a couple of fishes,” says John. “But on our sushi side, we’re probably around 40 appetizers, and our main dinners probably number around 60.”
And they’re not all sushi, though there are a few dozen choices of sushi and sashimi. The Masa Menu includes bento boxes, rice and noodle dishes, tempuras, and unique dishes such as the Una-Don, a broiled eel with special sauce over a bed of rice.
It’s not just the food that’s a draw – it’s the entertainment that comes with your meal. The teppan chefs who slice and dice food in front of diners undergo extensive training, sometimes as much as five months of careful study. In the early days, Masuo trained every staff member himself, sharing the training he learned at Benihana and a Chicago sushi joint. Today, the master’s former students are teachers themselves. Head chef Takuji, for example, has been here since 1984, and now teaches the youngest chefs.
“And then you’ve got three other chefs that have been with us since the ’80s, and the rest have all been with us since the ’90s,” says John. Like most staff members, John worked his way up, from a dishwasher to a chef, and now part-owner, with his father.
“Basically, my father told me, ‘If you want to run the business, you have to do everything yourself,’” he says. “If you can’t do everything yourself, how can you teach others? You’ve got to lead by example.”
For most of his life, John’s been prepared to lead the restaurant that carries his initials – JMK is for John Masahiro Kobayashi. The word “Nippon” is a traditional way of pronouncing Japan.
“Japanese people now will say Nihon, but traditionally they’d say Nippon,” John explains. “It was the Portuguese and the Spanish who came to Japan first, and the way they say Nippon, they thought they said, oh, Japon, with a silent j. So, Japon became Japan.”
Looking forward, John says he’d like to explore catering options, to better serve friends and customers who’ve requested dishes for private gatherings. As his father slowly steps back from the business, John continues to enjoy the fruit of a dream.
“It’s hard to live up to that,” he says. “I’ve got three kids right now, and I try to do as much as I can. I have two very good managers now, but my father didn’t have that when he started the business.”
JMK Nippon is open for lunch Tues.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sat. to 2:30 p.m.; and for dinner Mon.-Thurs. 5-9 p.m.; Fri. to 10:30 p.m.; Sat. 4:30-10:30 p.m.; and Sun. 4-9:30 p.m.