The FACE behind Kisser Nashville

The rise of Nashville’s Kisser has been remarkable, thanks in large part to its chef and co-owner, Leina Horii. The former sous chef of Catbird Seat had long considered opening a Japanese cafe, but opted for a smaller start. She and her husband, Chef Brian Lea, started pop-ups at farmers markets and venues like The Patterson House and Bastion in July 2022, including collaborations with notable chefs like Sean Brock. Pop-ups soon paved the way for a brick-and-mortar store in East Nashville, which quickly became one of the hottest spots in the city.

Back to April 2024 — Kisser has been honored as Nashville’s only 2024 James Beard Award finalist for Best New Restaurant. We caught up with Leina to talk career changes, comfort food, and what it means to be a finalist!

Woman with tattoos sits in front of a blue tiled wall.Woman with tattoos sits in front of a blue tiled wall.
Please welcome our newest FACE of Nashville, Kisser chef and co-owner, Leina Horii! Image: Camille Tambunting

What inspired you to start cooking?

My parents both cook; my parents own a sushi restaurant; my father is the sushi chef and my mother runs the kitchen. I feel like cooking is in my DNA! I graduated from NYU as a pre-med student, but have always loved the restaurant industry. It was a big disappointment to my parents that after all that education I wanted to cook as a career!

What’s the story behind opening Kisser?

My husband and I started as a farmers market stall and pop-up. ‘Kisser’ is a play on the Japanese word ‘kissaten’, which means a neighborhood meeting place for food, tea and music. It has always been our dream to have a small casual Japanese restaurant.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t ask… How does it feel to be a FINALIST of the 2024 James Beard Award?!

Crazy! We’re a pair of nobodies!

Two people, possibly chefs or bakers, are standing in front of a store or restaurant with the name "kisser," with a neon sign above the entrance.Two people, possibly chefs or bakers, are standing in front of a store or restaurant with the name "kisser," with a neon sign above the entrance.
What started as a pop-up grew into a full-fledged restaurant. And boy, are we glad that’s the case! Some original menu items remain, such as the ever-popular Chicken Katsu Sandwich, made with Kisser’s house-made milk bread. Image: Camille Tambunting

Are there any childhood memories that inspired your current restaurant menu?

Each item on the menu is built from a childhood memory or connection.

What’s your go-to comfort food, and where do you go for it if it’s not in your own kitchen?

Udon is my “last meal” food; I love making the noodles from scratch. When I’m not making it myself, Raku in NYC is my favorite place.

Are you a ‘night owl’ or an ‘early bird’? What is your favorite activity during your quiet time?

I’m definitely a night owl. My quiet time is “home time”: preparing a simple meal, reading, and being a cat parent.

Tell us one thing people might be surprised to learn about you.

Cooking was a second career for me; I only started as a professional when I was 30. It’s never too late to follow your dreams!

A woman with tattoos sits in front of a blue tiled wall.A woman with tattoos sits in front of a blue tiled wall.
“We like to serve dishes that are popular in a ‘shokudo,’ a casual Japanese cafe,” Leina told us in an interview when her Kisser pop-ups first hit the local culinary scene. “In Japan, they are often ‘mom-and-pop’ restaurants that serve comfort foods like udon and curry.” Image: Camille Tambunting

What’s the one thing you wish everyone knew about what you do?

We – our employees, Brian and I – put everything into this little restaurant. There are so many hearts and minds that go to our little lunch spot.

What is the most valuable advice you have ever received, and who gave it to you?

“Never burn your bridges.” (I was told that) by my father.

Without faith, family and friends, what three things can you live without?

Hope, love and good food.

Two smiling chefs in aprons stand in a commercial kitchen environment.Two smiling chefs in aprons stand in a commercial kitchen environment.
Leina shifts her career focus at the age of 30 and is proof that dreams know no bounds. Image: Camille Tambunting


Favorite ingredient to use when cooking: Mushrooms

Nashville’s Best Kept Secret: McKay’s books. They have a great selection of used cookbooks!

Most memorable book you’ve read: Hardboiled wonderland and the end of the world by Haruki Murakami

Dish you would eat every day if you had the chance: My mother’s udon that she made every Sunday for lunch.

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Nashville women are doing inspiring work. Meet more of them in our FACES archives!

Jenna BratcherJenna Bratcher
About the author

Jenna Bratcher

Jenna Bratcher is Associate Editor and Head Writer of StyleBlueprint Nashville. The East Coast native moved to Nashville via Los Angeles 16 years ago. She is a lover of dogs, strong coffee, traveling and exploring the local restaurant scene, one piece at a time.