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Japan Courts D.C. Chefs With Dinners Starring Its Most Cherished Ingredients

Feb 3, 2022

There are no paying customers inside Sushi Taro on Nov. 15, but some of D.C.’s top chefs are huddled in the back room pouring themselves sake as they revel in a rare night off. Chef Nobu Yamazaki is in a festive mood while preparing rice dishes that have never appeared on the restaurant’s menu for his peers. It’s a Japanophile’s dream.

One of the masters of ceremony takes the microphone to explain how rice is ingrained in Japanese society. Until 150 years ago, some Japanese people still used it as currency. “Japanese rice is very important for Japanese people because it’s a staple food,” Counselor Tatsumasa Miyata says, greeting the chefs. He works as a food and agriculture specialist for the Embassy of Japan. “That’s why they’re interested in exporting it all over the world. It’s a kind of Japanese pride similar to American beef. American beef is very sacred for American people.”

Yamazaki is tasked with showcasing the versatility of rice and he delivers. The chef smushes cooked rice onto a sturdy chopstick, forming a cylinder and grilling it until the outside has a slight char. Then he slides the rice roll off the chopstick, slices it into bite-size pieces, and floats them in a chicken soup. Later, Yamazaki wows the chefs by cooking rice over an open fire inside a girthy bamboo stalk like his family used to do while camping in Japan. “Somehow it makes it so much better tasting than if you use a $1,000 rice cooker because of the open air and aroma from the fire,” he says.

The technique left a lasting impression on Reverie Chef Johnny Spero. “That inspired a dish we do on the menu now,” he says. Spero easily acquires koshihikari rice from Japan, but finds American bamboo too narrow so he subs in coconut. He fills the shells with rice and coconut water and buries them in the embers of his Japanese-style charcoal grill. The finished product is an aromatic rice pudding. “I literally put it on the menu two days after the event because I was obsessed,” he says.

Over the past year, Japan, through the Embassy of Japan and the Japan External Trade Organization, has attempted to woo local chefs into working with more Japanese ingredients. They have held events centered around rice, wagyu beef, and shōchū. Engaging chefs during the pandemic was easier because they theoretically had more time on their hands.

Miyata says the official purpose is cultural exchange. “We don’t push people to buy more Japanese ingredients,” he says. “We can’t go to Japan right now, so under the pandemic, it’s a kind of soft power thing. It’s very important in terms of friendship between two nations.”

When you consider how Japanese cuisine is practically synonymous with Japanese culture, it makes sense. But increasing exports couldn’t hurt. There’s a movement to sell more Japanese agricultural products overseas. The country’s birth rate continues to plummet and a shrinking population means fewer mouths to feed.

“It’s a win-win atmosphere because Japanese farmers are very pleased if U.S. people purchase a lot of Japanese ingredients,” Miyata says. “I would like U.S. people to feel a piece of Japanese culture and maybe apply our Japanese ingredients to the American style.”

D.C. is an ideal place to concentrate their efforts, not only because the embassy is here. “It’s one of the biggest cities in the U.S. and also the capital,” Miyata explains. “Lots of Americans from the countryside and all over America come to Washington, D.C. That’s why it’s a kind of window of opportunity to sell Japanese ingredients.”

The escape of partying at embassies and sampling food from around the world is one of the perks of living in the District and a fun facet of the local culinary landscape. It’s difficult to measure whether embassy crawls and the like leave any lasting impressions.

“It used to be that promoting any product was just having a bunch of guests at the embassy,” Yamazaki says. “When you have a sake tasting, people just drink and nothing follows after that.” The chef strategy, by comparison, has more potential for incremental impact because each restaurant has different clientele.

“You have to basically show the ingredients to the people who have influence, and those are the chefs,” says Daisuke Utagawa, who has been part of one of D.C.’s first Japanese restaurants since 1983. The original location of Sushiko in Glover Park closed, but the one in Chevy Chase is open. He’s also part of The Daikaya Group. “You can have your embassy functions all you want and invite the regular crowd of people like the diplomatic corps, but that’s not going to move any needles,” he says.

Utagawa takes some of the credit for the fresh approach and has been involved in organizing some of the chef dinners. He thinks it would behoove Japan to try new tricks for selling their products abroad. To succeed, he says, Japan must make its cherished ingredients relevant to chefs who don’t cook at Japanese restaurants. “If you go to an Italian restaurant and they have a nice grilled yellowtail collar in an interesting sauce, suddenly that jump is made,” he says. “It’s relevant to the diner. Now they look at it as a universal ingredient, not a specialty thing.”

Takahiro Hiraishi helped coordinate the rice dinner and has produced videos about Japanese ingredients and chef collaborations for the embassy’s YouTube channel and new Premium Japanese Ingredients website. He works for a consulting firm and also distributes kombu, an edible seaweed. He also encouraged the embassy to target chefs, even if results won’t be felt overnight. “Michelin chefs or James Beard chefs—through their influence or their cooking techniques—can appeal to the end user, the consumer,” Hiraishi says. “We can’t expect a quick result.”

Before rice, the embassy and JETRO focused on promoting wagyu in the D.C. area. Japanese beef is prized for its marbled fat and richness. The country grades its beef in terms of quality, yield, and marbling, and provides those who purchase it with certificates describing its merits.

The product is so expensive that prime cuts typically only find their way onto tasting menus at fine dining restaurants a few ounces at a time. At Xiquet, you can upgrade a beef course to three ounces of A5 Kagoshima wagyu, at the high end of the grading spectrum, for $45 per person.

Kagoshima is one prefecture in Japan known for its wagyu. Hyogo is another. That’s where the city of Kobe is located. “Kobe beef is very popular in the United States because of Kobe Bryant,” Miyata says. “There are some Americans who think Japanese wagyu beef is Kobe beef. If we can have an event in Washington, D.C., we can help them revise their thoughts.”

An impressive cast of chefs and restaurateurs sat down to dinner at Reverie on Oct. 25 to sample Japanese wagyu, including Nicholas Stefanelli of Masseria, Pepe Moncayo of Cranes, Rose Previte of Maydan, Danny Lledó of Xiquet, Eric Ziebold of Kinship and Metier, and Aaron Silverman of Pineapple & Pearls, Little Pearl, and Rose’s Luxury. Together they hold 10 Michelin stars.

“The quality of what the Japanese produce is fantastic,” Moncayo says. “The only challenge they’re going to face [promoting it] is prices are going up for everything.” The wagyu that consistently appears on Cranes’ menu is from Ovoka Farm in Paris, Virginia. By crossbreeding a Japanese wagyu bull with an Angus heifer, American wagyu beef was born. Ovoka breeds and raises cross- and full-blood wagyu.

Instead of pitching a room full of chefs on pricey pieces of Japanese wagyu, event organizers smartly saddled Spero with showing off two lesser cuts from the same special cow—chuck roll and brisket. “Chuck roll isn’t a dirty word, but it doesn’t sound like words from a high-end tasting menu,” Spero says. “When you slice into it, you see the webbing and fat. It was stunning. We cut it open and everyone was like, ‘We’re not making burgers out of that, are we?’”

Spero roasted it like prime rib for six hours after rubbing it with miso paste to form a crust. Then he finished it on the grill before serving it with raw shaved chestnuts and almond cream. It practically melted, tasting no less decadent than a slice of New York strip.

“Johnny did a really great job of showing it off with minimal manipulation or preparation to the meat,” says Reid Shilling, the executive chef and owner of Shilling Canning Company. “The closer you get to the hoof or the horn on a cow, the tougher the cut of meat is going to be. The most desirable parts are from the middle section because those do the least amount of work. To have these two items presented in such a way that were straight roasted and very tender was definitely a shift in viewing how and what you can do with these cuts of meat.”

Just as local chefs became more familiar with Japanese wagyu and sought more affordable cuts to cook, Japan started focusing on moving the whole animal and increasing its beef exports overall, according to Javier Arze, who owns Lorton-based wholesaler Huntsman Specialty Game & More.

He was at the Reverie dinner and says a strip or rib eye of Japanese wagyu can run $85 to $200 per pound, depending on the product. The super-rare sanuki variety of cattle, for example, eats a diet that includes the by-product of the olive oil making process and will blow most people’s budgets. Japanese wagyu chuck or brisket, by comparison, runs $45 to $65 per pound. He carries both and saw an uptick in orders after the dinner, even if not every chef was the target audience.

Shilling has no clue how he wound up on the invite list because his restaurant specializes in food sourced from the Mid-Atlantic. Still, he was impressed. “There are two ways to market a product,” he says. “You either put it in the chef’s mouth or in their hands. You’re going to have to give it away in order to get people to see its viability and this is a good way to do it rather than sending everyone a 10-pound hunk of whatever so they can play with it themselves. … If you butter them up with a few glasses of wine and sit them down at the table, you have their attention. It certainly got mine.”

Lledó was also happy to be invited, even though he already offers Japanese A5 wagyu as a supplement on his menu. “I wish the government of Spain would do this,” says the paella master. “It would make my life easier in terms of getting some products over here.”

The embassy took another clever approach when promoting Honkaku shōchū and awamori at an Aug. 30 dinner at the ambassador’s Old Residence. The distilled spirits aren’t as well known as sake. Instead of pairing a selection of them with Japanese cuisine, the dinner featured continental cuisine. The goal was to convince a handful of guests that the beverages can have wide appeal.

Most shōchū is produced in southern Japan on the island of Kyushu. It can be made from barley, buckwheat, rice, and sweet potato. Some carry strong, sweet aromas while others are more neutral, like vodka. Awamori comes from Okinawa and is mostly made from long grain rice. You can drink both spirits neat, on ice, or in cocktails.

Photo of shōchū and awamori selection at the Old Residence by Laura Hayes

Attendees included wine writers and educators, who, like chefs, can play a role in increasing Japan’s sphere of influence. The embassy invited Stephen Lyman and Christopher Pellegrini, hosts of the Japan Distilled podcast, to help educate people about shōchū and awamori. Will Witherow, the beverage director of Elo’s Italian in Alexandria, was also on the guest list.

“I was lucky enough to sit across from Chris and we had a good conversation about shōchū and how many different styles there are,” Witherow says. “I loved that there’s a funk to it.” He told Pellegrini that he makes a sweet potato and sage cocktail that would work beautifully with shōchū. So far he hasn’t purchased any, even though he thinks shōchū might eventually sell at non-Japanese bars.

Japan needs to up its game if it wants bartenders to start using shōchū in a big way, Witherow advises. Tequila Herradura once brought him to their distillery in Mexico so he would connect more with the product and have fodder for customers. “People are fascinated by what bartenders talk about,” he says. He’d like to visit the Furusawa Distillery founded in the Miyazaki prefecture in 1892. It’s currently run by the fifth generation of a family and transports you back in time. Participants at the dinner sampled their Motoko shōchū.

While Witherow may not stock shōchū anytime soon, within just a couple hours around a table with experts, he was able to grasp precisely what makes Japanese products direct expressions of the Japanese culture of mastery. “We’re promoting artisan culture,” Hiraishi says. “Two or three generations are focused on one product.” Yamazaki adds: “Japanese love making things better. They love improving things.”

Japan cut itself off from the world during part of the Edo period from about 1603 to 1868. Utagawa argues that when the country isolated itself, its ideas incubated for a long time, allowing the country “to develop wonderful things and eventually bring them to the world.”

He thinks Japan will focus on exporting more fruits and vegetables, such as sweet snow cabbage, next. After farmers in the Hokkaido prefecture harvest it, they age the cabbage under a blanket of soft snow until spring. “You haven’t eaten cabbage until you’ve eaten this cabbage,” Utagawa says.

“The Japanese have a lot going for themselves, but don’t know how to communicate what they have to outsiders,” Utagawa says. “They didn’t have to before because they couldn’t export. Now they’re saying, ‘How do we do it?’ They have to do it methodically and properly because you only get a first impression once.”

Washington City Paper Article.

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