When it comes to Southern cooking, food functions as more than a mere source of nourishment. The hardiness and generous helpings that are characteristic of “soul food,” as well as the Southern hospitality served with it, intend to instill a sense of community—of being home. Chefs LaTonya Whitaker and her husband David are on a mission to bring this experience to Tokyo with their food service, Taste the Love, which provides catering and cooking classes.

“[Southern] food is all about making you feel like you’ve come home,” says LaTonya, a Mississippi native.

LaTonya and David Whitaker of Taste the Love

LaTonya and David Whitaker of Taste the Love

Started in 2009 under the name Full Expression Cafe, Taste the Love specializes in serving up authentic, home-cooked Southern, Cajun, Creole, and Tex-Mex cuisine. Their food has proven popular with Japanese foodies, having been featured on NHK, Nihon TV, and Fuji TV.

On the catering side, their breakfast and lunch buffets epitomize the term “comfort food.” The breakfast buffet offers options of a Southern-style breakfast that includes scrambled eggs, Cajun country-fried grits, and sausage or bacon, as well as a waffle breakfast and a pancake breakfast. The lunch buffet is an all-star lineup of Southern favorites, including everything from sandwiches, wraps, and soups to Southern-fried catfish, chicken enchiladas, and gumbo.

LaTonya also regularly runs Taste the Love cooking classes through Niki’s Kitchen, a Japanese service that provides international cooking classes in English. The classes cover different menus per lesson, and the meals are prepared utilizing Japanese ingredients.

The cooking classes have been a hit with Japanese students, often selling out quickly on the Niki’s Kitchen website whenever new time slots are announced. LaTonya says the classes have allowed her and the students to build relationships, and thereby a community. But she says food isn’t the only contributing factor: “I give good hugs,” LaTonya laughs. “And sometimes people don’t get enough hugs.”

The Whitakers presently have their sights set on creating Soul Food House—a restaurant where their food has a base, that also provides customers with a homey atmosphere wherein they can interact and build connections with the chefs or other patrons.

Fried chicken, mac and cheese ... all the fixings

Fried chicken, mac and cheese … all the fixings

LaTonya also wants to employ a “pay it forward” payment policy. “Of course, it would be nice if people paid [for their meal],” she chuckles. “But if someone comes in and says they’re hungry and they can’t afford a meal, I won’t let them starve.” Instead, she hopes the customers can take that experience and do the same for others.

While the creation of the restaurant is still underway, LaTonya is still happy to be expanding her family through her catering and classes with her husband.

“I want [Taste the Love] to be like a home.”

For more information on Taste the Love, visit www.tastethelove.biz. For LaTonya’s cooking classes, register online at www.nikikitchen.com. ¥5,500 per person. To donate towards building Soul Food House, visit www.gofundme.com/SoulFoodHouse.