'I just do it myself': Suki Yaki Inn owner and sole cook closing downtown Spokane restaurant after 74 years

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Nov. 20—The phone is ringing off the hook at Suki Yaki Inn as its many customers hope to visit the Spokane staple one last time before it shuts its doors for good next month.

The downtown Japanese restaurant and lounge at 119 N. Bernard St. is owned by Emiko Collett, and if you have eaten here in the past few decades, your dish was made by her — and only her.

Except for the expert chef who prepares food for the sushi bar, for the past 30 years, she has been the only cook at the 74-year-old Japanese restaurant.

On the busiest days at the restaurant, she cooks up to 100 meals in a day.

But last week, she announced in a Facebook post that Dec. 16 will be her restaurant's last day.

In addition to classic seating, the space features seating at the sushi bar, tables and at a chabudai — a traditional, short-legged dining table in Japan. People seated at a chabudai may sit on a cushion called a zabuton or a tatami, which is a type of mat, rather than on chairs.

But the seating options are not the only thing true to Japanese culture. Collett said Suki Yaki, which opened in 1949, is the only remaining restaurant in Spokane to serve Japanese cuisine exclusively.

This is why finding help in the kitchen is difficult.

To make the authentic dishes, cooks need a lot of practice to learn the required skills, which many are unwilling to do, she said.

"I have tried to teach people, but it takes years to learn the menu and no one sticks around," she said. "So I just do it myself."

Nearly 12 hours a day, seven days a week, 360 days a year, Collett cooks.

At 71, she has grown tired of the taxing regimen and daily race against "the clock," she said.

"And the clock always wins."

But it was ultimately her two daughters who encouraged her to retire.

"I have missed out on a lot," she said. "Because I'm here every night."

The restaurant was her first employer in Spokane since moving from her hometown, Sasebo City, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan.

At 21 years old, she began working as a dishwasher at the restaurant in the early 1970s and had no cooking skills.

"I didn't even know how to wash the rice until I got here," she said.

At the time, she preferred working in the back of the restaurant because her English was poor and interacting with locals made her nervous.

But the owner, Van Omine, encouraged her to work customer-oriented roles.

Hesitant at first, she began to enjoy socializing and is now the face of the restaurant after taking over in the early 1990s.

She said the relationships she has formed made the decision to retire difficult.

"I'm excited to retire, but I'm more sad right now than anything," she said.

As regulars come in for their last time, the meals cooked by Collett are a big farewell.

"It's sad because this is my social life — now I don't get to see everybody," she said.

She said many of the customers ask to talk with her every time they dine at her restaurant. Many of them refer to her as "mamasan," a Japanese word used to honor women of authority.

One such customer is Los Angeles Laker Rui Hachimura. She said the Japan native and Gonzaga University alumnus would frequent the restaurant.

"Every Sunday he would come in and order Suki Yaki," she said.

The Japanese hot-pot dish and eponym for the restaurant is traditionally big enough for multiple people or a family — but was a suitable meal for the 6-foot-8 forward.

"He is so big," she said, laughing. "He could eat a lot."

Another regular is Misako Egner, who has dined at the restaurant for over 40 years. She grew up in Tokyo, and said Collett's cooking is just like home.

"I know real Japanese food," she said. "And her cooking is excellent."

Oftentimes, Egner would ask Collett to make dishes that aren't on the menu.

"I have had her make a lot of food that my mother used to make," she said. "Emiko would cook it exactly the same."

Egner worked at the Spokane-Nishinomiya Sister City Society. One of the organization's efforts is a six-week summer homestay exchange program for Spokane high school students.

As vice president, Egner would often bring the students to Saki Yuki prior to their trip to train them in Japanese cuisine and dining etiquette.

"It's important that students are familiar with the food before they go to Japan," she said. "So we have them try pickled lettuce and other things so they know that it might smell funny, but it's actually really tasty."

Though she retired from the organization last year, she said there is no other restaurant in town that can offer a true Japanese experience for exchange students.

Not only will the students miss out, but so will the local Japanese community, Edgar said.

"That's where we would celebrate," she said. "If you had a birthday or graduation or anything — you went to Emiko."

And now, finding true Japanese cuisine will be much more difficult, Egner said.

"I will have to go to Seattle," she said.

Though she is saddened by the recent news, there is one upside.

"Maybe I will get to see her more now," she said. "Emiko is so friendly and so smart, but she is always working — I have to go into Suki Yaki to see her."

Though she has made deep connections with her many loyal customers, like Egner, Collett looks forward to spending time with her family.

"My grandson is playing basketball and football, my granddaughter does judo; my daughter is a black belt in judo, and I never saw them do those things," she said. "So I am excited to watch their sports and watch them grow, because I haven't really done that yet."

Additionally, she plans to visit her hometown where her sister lives. The two have not seen each other in over 34 years.

Beyond family time, she is unsure of how she will spend her retirement. She is just trying to enjoy her remaining weeks as a business owner while remaining focused on the daily, monumental task of cooking for a whole restaurant.

When she thinks of her years spent at Suki Yaki, she is flooded with emotion.

She said she can't think of her many memories with her staff and customers without crying. But she is immediately thankful for the unwavering support she experienced.

Perhaps this is best epitomized by the time she had her identity stolen and nearly lost the restaurant.

"I thought I was going to file bankruptcy," she said. "But when customers found out, they supported the restaurant and some even offered donations — even my bookkeeper did."

For this, she is thankful.

"I so appreciate everyone who supported me all the time and my staff that works so hard — even when we get busy and I get a little mean."

Collett said she's just grateful she got to stay in the business so long.

"I would see some customers every week," she said, "so when they come and say goodbye, they give me a nice hug and we all cry."