Ako and her partner, James run Ima Asa Yoru and Ima Pantry, located within Nightingale Studio spaces at Nightingale Village. Ima Asa Yoru images by Derek Swalwell. Ima Pantry images by Pablo Veiga. Party images by Kate Longley.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Ako. I was born in Japan. When I was 3, my whole family moved to Thailand. In Thailand we lived in a Japanese community, and I went to a Japanese kindergarten and school. There's a huge expat community there. Uni brought me to Melbourne and I met so many amazing people here, I found my new home.
My background is in architecture and interior design. I started Ima with my partner James, who is a chef. We started in 2018 back in Carlton because we both had a passion for food and we wanted to create something of our own - designing and building something and running it on our own was our dream. We love Japanese food so we made it happen.
Tell us about Ima.
We always envisioned the business as Ima Project with the idea of sustainable businesses running under the Ima Project family. First, we opened Ima Project Cafe in Carlton. Ima Pantry was always the second project that we wanted to do. We wanted the two businesses to talk to each other. The food we made in the Cafe could be sold in the Pantry and any excess food on both ends could be used to support each other.
We were ready to find a bigger space for the cafe. I knew Victoria Reeves from Kennedy Nolan who used to visit when we were in Carlton and she said we should check out the space at the bottom of Nightingale Leftfield when it was under construction. It was a bit small for the cafe so we looked at the space two doors down at Nightingale Skye House and it was perfect for the restaurant. Then Victoria said “how about two at the same time?”. We thought it was perfect, crazy but perfect. Like having a twin. So now we have the restaurant, Ima Asa Yoru and corner store, Ima Pantry on the same street in Nightingale Village.
What’s it like being surrounded by Nightingale Village?
The best thing about this place is community. Carlton was a good site, but nowhere else is like this. You feel the warmth, you feel everyone wanting to help you. During construction, lots of the residents were saying, “Can I help you? I can come and paint”, all that kind of stuff. We had so much help from everyone to make it happen, it was amazing. We are very into the sustainability side of the food scene and it’s a big vision for us. Being in this beautiful place, surrounded by a community that actually believes in it, makes it much easier. It’s a work in progress but it’s happening!
As an architect, what about Nightingale Village appealed to you?
I love how each building has its own characteristics, but together it works as one. It's like little cartoon characters joining together. I know how hard it must have been for six architects and one builder to make it happen. I really appreciate that. Nightingale Village is a really good example of urban planning working so well.
Nightingale Village is a fossil-fuel free precinct. How have you found having commercial kitchen with no gas?
We had gas in Carlton but I love the fact we run from sustainable renewable energy. No gas has been no big deal.
How big is your team now?
Across both venues, we have 30 staff.
Will you ever have a day off?
Which dish gets ordered the most?
Definitely the Japanese breakfast.
What's your personal favorite thing to eat?
The Onigiri - the plum one is so good. And the karaage chicken.
What’s coming up?
We have a big party coming up to celebrate our opening. We usually do a staff party but this is really for our community, we wanted to say thank you. We’ve decided to do it on a Saturday and we're going to close on Sunday which has never happened before in hospo life! I think everyone deserves a big party and then a rest.
Any future plans you’d like to share?
We’d like to renovate the upstairs of both places. We’d like a second kitchen and some more seating for more functions. As well as outdoor seating.
I am just so excited about the Nightingale project on Albion Street. It will be great to have more people and more businesses - we need lots of different businesses around here.