Irby’s love for Osaka, Japan, and the savory, cabbage-filled pancake okonomiyaki began when he was a student at Georgia State University and entered the school’s exchange program with Osaka University during his junior year. Upon returning to Atlanta, Irby says he couldn’t find the same style of okonomiyaki he experienced while living in Osaka.
“That one year [in Osaka] had a huge impact on me. Not only was it an immersive Japanese language program, it’s where I learned to cook and really fell in love with food. I’ll never forget the first time I tried okonomiyaki there or when my host family took me out for my first experience at a fancy restaurant,” Irby recalls. “It blew my mind that it was even possible for food to taste that good, and that opened up a desire to explore as much as possible while I was living in Osaka.”
Weekends throughout that year in college were spent gathering with friends and other students from the university throwing dinner parties. Irby cooked okonomiyaki on an electric griddle. Those dinner parties continued back home in Atlanta.
After graduation, Irby worked as a sales representative for Japanese food importer Nishimoto Trading Company in Norcross, then with a Japanese shipping container company based in Atlanta.
“I tried to be happy working a full-time office job, but I missed cooking Japanese food so much that I decided to start the Ok Yaki popup as a way to feel fulfilled,” Irby says of the impetus behind his okonomiyaki popup.
The first in a series of popups launched out of the kitchen at We Suki Suki in East Atlanta Village four years ago. A year later, he quit his full-time job to focus on Ok Yaki and opening his own restaurant.
Irby has returned to Osaka and Japan several times over the last decade to continue his culinary training at various restaurants. His most recent trip had him spending more than three months there last year.
But after years of planning the East Atlanta restaurant, Irby faces his next challenge — how to open Ok Yaki safely during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The global health crisis could last well into next year, with health experts warning of frequent spikes in COVID-19 cases as states reopen and predictions of a second wave this fall.
Before the pandemic, Irby considered just offering dine-in service at Ok Yaki. Now he believes takeout is necessary to help sustain the restaurant in case of another dining room shutdown and to allow people who might be avoiding dining in at restaurants the option to order to-go food.
“When the pandemic hit, we had to halt our pop-ups and shelter in place for about two months while we figured out the best way to serve our food safely and responsibly,” says Irby. “We decided the best way is to do takeout and curbside pickup. Depending on how things are when we open, we may have to do this until it is safe to open for dine-in.”
OK Yaki is currently popping up at 97 Estoria in Cabbagetown for takeout and curbside pickup, Thursday through Friday, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Irby plans to continue popping up at Atlanta breweries and restaurants even after he opens the Moreland Avenue restaurant.
“It’s a really uncertain time for us, and everyone else in the restaurant industry, and we don’t know what the economy or COVID-19 has in store for us.”
714 Moreland Avenue SE, Atlanta. okyakiatl.com.