TSUNAGU: To Connect. Whether it is connecting employers to job seekers or bringing different cultures together, we at Activ8 value the bridge-builders who make our world a better place every day. Our new series, TSUNAGU, will feature inspirational people who connect the U.S. and Japan through business, education, art, culture and more.
Julia Momosé, Expert Mixologist, Owner of KUMIKO Japanese Dining Bar
As mixologist, creative director, and co-founder of Chicago’s nationally-acclaimed Kumiko bar, Julia Momosé connects Japan and the US through creative flavors in food and drink. Momosé’s expertise blossomed over years of bartending, bar consulting, and developing cocktails for a variety of restaurant menus from New York, to Baltimore, and finally, to Chicago.
In 2018, with great passion for her Japanese culture and deep experience in mixology, hospitality and fine dining, Julia Momosé founded Kumiko, a Japanese dining bar that reflects Japanese flavor and tradition in each cocktail in a sophisticated way.
“The warmth and grace in my mother’s hospitality stuck with me”
Born to a Japanese-American father and American mother, Julia Momosé grew up in Nara, Japan, where her interest in the service industry started young. As a child, Momosé fell in love with her mother’s graceful hospitality when guests would visit their home. In her teens, Momosé began building experience in the hospitality industry by working part-time in small restaurants and cafés. After high school, she left Japan for college in Ithaca, New York.
Recounting a visit home to Japan during that time, Momosé described the inspirational moment that birthed her passion for the art of Japanese bartending. On her first-ever bar visit, inside an elegant, vintage-style piano bar in Kyoto’s historic district of Gion, she ordered a gin martini and watched the bartender’s every move.
“Everyone in the bar was dressed so elegantly and looked so proper—the bartender wore a white jacket and vest, and hand-chipped ice spheres for every drink”
Momosé found herself in awe of his smooth, meticulous craftsmanship, preparing each guest’s drink with beautifully hand-chipped spheres of ice. “It was so intoxicating just to watch. It was such a gorgeous experience that I thought to myself that one day I want to be able to give back and provide that experience for other people,” she said.
Following that life-changing moment, Momosé started bartending and never stopped.
“A lot of my regulars were chefs and they would tell me: ‘You have to go to Chicago! You need to be in a bigger city, to do more!”
When Momosé returned to the U.S. with a passionate determination to gain experience behind the bar, she took on the world of beverages full-time with positions as a cocktail waitress, a bar-back—and finally as a bartender for a bar that initially would not even allow women to bartend.
By 2012, Momosé’s career led her to Baltimore. Bartending for high-end restaurants there allowed her extraordinary expertise in mixology to flourish. She began crafting original cocktails for their menu and developing entire bar programs from scratch.
After repeatedly hearing about the outstanding food and cocktail scene of Chicago from regular customers in the service industry, Momosé chose Chicago as her next step. In 2013, she made the move and instantly fell in love with the city.
“Kumiko means craft”
When her career led her to Chicago, Momosé’s vision to open her own bar came to life, starting with the name, “Kumiko,” which comes from a Japanese woodworkingart technique. This traditional technique called “Kumiko” is applied to create various designs and by expertly cutting and fitting together pieces of wood. These patterns are formed without the use of any nails or hardware and rely on the expertise and precision of the craftspeople. Momosé chose to name her bar after this art form as an homage to the process and to invite an exploration into the Japanese way of hospitality and bartending.
“I wanted a bar that would highlight the beauty and intimate craftsmanship within the art of Japanese bartending. Kumiko is a place where people can come together to experience a piece of my home and what brings me joy,” Momosé explained.
In the process of opening Kumiko, Momosé faced many challenges: construction, designing of the venue, expenses, the task of hiring staff, getting the word out and, ultimately, opening the bar in the middle of Chicago winter! Despite these challenges, Momosé was encouraged and inspired by the incredible support of her husband, parents, friends, partners, and investors.
On December 31, 2018, Momosé opened Kumiko in the West Loop neighborhood, welcoming visitors into an elegantly captivating experience of Japanese cocktails and dining. She crafts each Kumiko cocktail with the graceful touch of traditional Japanese mixology, blending Japanese beverages like shōchū, saké, hojicha and others to create refreshing flavors, whether in traditional cocktails or “spiritfrees” (non-alcoholic).
Sharing Japanese Culture
“Serving people food and drink creates a moment of togetherness and natural sharing of culture,” Momosé says. “When I see customers come into the bar alone, I watch them find connections with the person next to them as they both drink sake or shōchū for the first time. I love witnessing the connections and friendships that Kumiko is able to create.”
Less than a year after its opening, the beautifully artistic experience of Japanese culture in Kumiko gained popularity and praise nationwide. In 2019, Time Magazine named Kumiko among its top-100 list of “The World’s Greatest Places.” Thriving through the challenges brought by the Covid pandemic, Momosé and Kumiko continue to share the beauty of Japanese culture with Chicagoans and visitors from beyond the city.
In addition to connecting Japan and the U.S. through the art of Kumiko, Momosé also sheds light on the craft and technique of Japanese mixology and bartending with her new book, “The Way of the Cocktail,” scheduled for publication on Oct. 12, 2021.
“Don’t give up”
When offering her thoughts on achieving one’s career goals, Momosé stresses the importance of speaking one’s vision and sharing it with supportive people.
“Manifest your dreams. Speak them outloud. Put them out there into the world. Communicate your feelings and needs with your support system so that you can continue to manifest your dreams with joy,” Momosé counseled. “Honor that process to achieving your goals– don’t rush to get there, but embrace each moment and interaction that you have created with others. When you reach your goal, you will have a beautiful story to look back on and carry on to your next goal.
“I love Japan so much. Japan is my home,” Momosé concludes. “Sharing the joy and love for a place that is home to me while I am living somewhere else is an important part of my creative process and how I stay connected to my roots.”
Address: 630 W Lake St, Chicago, IL 60661
Phone: (312) 285-2912 | Website: barkumiko.com