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At Cafe Kati, heaven can wait

Kirk Webber of Cafe Kati

By Tess Minsky

Life and times have presented Kirk Webber with plenty of opportunities to test his mettle — or to turn toque and run from Cafe Kati, the restaurant he founded nearly 20 years ago.

He got robbed eight times, went through some tumultuous personal periods and, most recently, survived a bout with an often fatal disease that kept him hospitalized and recuperating for nearly six months.

But now he’s back in the kitchen, serving new takes on the fresh Asian fusion cuisine that originally inspired him, as an ambitious 24-year-old chef, to come up with the $30,000 needed to open Cafe Kati’s doors on a sketchy stretch of Sutter Street in 1990.

Photographs of Cafe Kati by Kathryn Amnott

Back then, Webber says, many people tried to deter him. “Some said I was crazy,” he recalls. “But I wasn’t going to let anybody chase me out of my dream.”

He says the moment he knew Cafe Kati and he would succeed was when a neighborhood African-American family’s five kids devoured his fresh spring rolls. He knew if these kids were willing to embrace his new and unusual combinations, many other diners would too.

Spring rolls still grace Cafe Kati’s menu — these days stuffed with mango, chopped mint, thai basil, cilantro and mai fun noodles. Webber says he supports local farmers by finding many of his ingredients at the farmers market and using them as the basis for dishes that fuse flavors from around the world.

“French chefs give fusion cuisine a bad name,” Webber said, “Nowadays, everything seems to be fusion.”

But Webber was ahead of the surge, taking classics from various Asian cuisines and putting a modern twist on them befitting a “Star Chef of the Year”— an honor bestowed upon him by the California Culinary Academy Educational Foundation in 2003.

Spring rolls have been a longtime favorite at Cafe Kati.

A taste in point is Kati’s signature dragon roll: prawns, avocado and cucumber wrapped with smoked salmon and served with wasabi vinaigrette, available in generous half or huge whole orders.

Webber says it was his love of creative cooking and Cafe Kati that helped pull him through a recent battle with necrotizing fasciitis, a quick-spreading soft tissue infection that is often fatal.

“It was an amazingly difficult time — devastating,” Webber says. He endured 26 surgeries and six months of recovery, three of them in intensive care. He says he survived the uncertain months in intensive care by imagining himself still at the restaurant.

“I would order the nurses around, telling them to bring out the food because it was getting cold, and they would have to remind me I was in the hospital,” he says. “It’s different if you don’t have a job you’re passionate about. But food is my passion.”

In addition to help from friends and family, there was strong support from many loyal customers on Cafe Kati’s mailing list. “I emailed them to let them know I wasn’t just playing hooky, that I actually wasn’t feeling well. There was so much love and support from the customers, it almost brought tears to my eyes.”

Now Webber is back in action at Cafe Kati. He says working at a smaller neighborhood restaurant allows him to be totally hands-on, rather than delegating tasks to a sous chef.

“I get to touch every plate and talk to every table,” he says.