Sure, William Shatner will be there, as will Will Friedle, but it is Mori Lemau Willhite who will blaze the path to a new world — one that has food discussions and cooking demonstrations at the Indiana Comic Convention this weekend.
She will do a cooking demonstration as part of two panels on Japanese culture and cuisine during the show, which runs Friday through Sunday at the Indiana Convention Center.
The sessions address how Japanese food relates to comics and animation.
It’s the first time for a food panel at the con, which it launched in 2014, organizers said.
Willhite figures her Katsumi’s Teaching Kitchen is a good fit for the show because of food’s prevalence in manga and anime.
“In every anime and manga, there’s always food in there. And there I am,” said Willhite, who learned to cook from her Japanese mother and grandmother. The school is named after her maternal grandfather.
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She applied to be a 2021 panel presenter, figuring it was also a chance to get her Beech Grove business in front of thousands of pop culture fans.
“Twenty thirty, fifty thousand people are going through there and they all must be interested in something Japanese,” she said.
The pop culture landscape is laden with food-centered manga that has been adapted to anime, including “Food Wars!”, set at a culinary school in Tokyo. The “Naruto” manga and anime series featured a ninja obsessed with ramen.
“Sailor Moon” anime series character Sailor Jupiter, considered to be somewhat intimidating, is made more approachable through her cooking skills, said pop culture journalist Victoria L. Johnson, host of the “Sailor Moon Fan Club” podcast.
“I don’t think of food when I think of American cartoons or animation. I think the closest thing you’ll see is looking for like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with the pizza and how they’re kind of correlated,” Johnson said.
The sessions will offer new experiences for guests, said Jaimie Kautzmann, public relations coordinator for Imaginarium Agency, the advertising and event production company that produces Indiana Comic Convention, as well as cons in Tampa, Fla;, San Francisco; Atlanta; Detroit and Milwaukee.
They will be the first food-related panels at any of Imaginarium’s cons since they started in 2010, she said.
“It’s so specifically a Japanese cultural cooking area and it relates back to anime,” she said. “And it’s a nice experience to be able to kind of show something new to an audience who may be looking to try something new as well.”
Participants in the hour-long sessions get to make their own onigiri, rice balls with seaweed.
Willhite, 58, said she would have been interested in also teaching how to eat with chopsticks, but didn’t have the equipment to work with up to 300 attendees.
The onigiri making was an easy hands-on activity, she said.
“I could show them how they could easily make the food that they see in the comic books and anime and easily replicate it,” she said. “These are what Japanese moms make for their kids for lunch.”
Besides, those wanting to delve into more complex dishes could take classes at her 222 Main St. shop where she teaches classes on preparing sushi, Japanese street food, ramen, pot stickers and bento.
Those usually come with chopsticks and table etiquette lessons.
“Most of the clientele are white-collar professionals, so the likelihood of them having Japanese or Chinese power lunches is about 100%,” she said. “So you might as well have manners.”
Turning to teaching
She’s taught Japanese cooking for about six years, opening Katsumi’s Teaching Kitchen after she realized there was more interest in food than there were in the Japanese language classes she had been offering.
The single mom and U.S. Army veteran found that teaching allowed her a flexible schedule to care for her special needs son and her elderly mother. Her mother recently died.
“It was hard to maintain a regular job schedule,” she said. “So I started doing this and it kind of went ballistic.”
A California native, Willhite moved to Indianapolis about 20 years ago with her then-husband.
She learned to cook Japanese food from her mother and grandmother. Katsumi’s is named for her maternal grandfather.
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Her classes can accommodate up to 10 people; many of them couples on date nights and celebrating anniversaries.
Although currently offered on weekends; with a new liquor license, the school will be expanding hours to five days a week and offering beer, wine and sake food pairings.
“A lot of people were asking for something like that,” she said.
The Katsumi’s Teaching Kitchen panels will take place Friday and Saturday from 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in Room 127 of the Indiana Convention Center, 100 S. Capitol Ave, as part of the Indiana Comic Convention, indianacomicconvention.com.
Adult admission is $60 plus tax for all three days; $30 plus tax for Friday only; $40 plus tax for Saturday only; and $30 plus tax for Sunday only. Children under age 12 are admitted for free.
Katsumi’s Teaching Kitchen, 222 Main St., Beech Grove, 317-268-8604, katsumisteachngkitchen.com, is open Friday through Sunday.