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It’s not elitism, we really do eat better stuff.
Under way.After an eventful first week our little merry band of pirates went our separate ways for the most of the weekend. Damian, Tyo, and I doing our own things, while Nelson went to a “jazz festival” that he said wasn’t very jazzy (apparently they don’t really know what that means in these parts). Three of us did get on a train on Sunday and make it down Roppongi, though, an area where I have several dinner reservations and the area contains a few places that were on my personal to-do list. After disembarking from the train we wandered for a bit before I started to steer the group to the Hard Rock Café. Smaller than its counterparts in other places, the Tokyo Hard Rock has a gift shop that’s in a separate building you pass on the way to the main bar further down the same drive way. There was a small selection of gifts right inside the entrance to the café, enough selection for me to grab what I wanted to. The walls were lined with all the things you’d expect at one of these. A couple guitars from notable musicians (Eric Clapton, Prince, Cheap Trick, Nikki Six) along with articles of clothing worn by musicians as well as signed drum heads, portraits, and album sleeves. Having done what we came to do in short order, we left and wandered some more. We passed a place called the Pizzakaya that was of interest to Sara, but when we passed by they were closed (it was 3:30 and they opened at 5). Requiring sustenance more immediately than an hour and a half, we made our way to the sublevel of a high rise looking for the advertised restaurant section. After much searching and even more turning up of noses we found a suitable place for lunch; I was NOT going to eat at a faux American diner while in Tokyo, regardless of how hungry or how close the proximity. One thing this trip has taught me about dining in Tokyo is never settle. There’s always another option just around the corner. And so there was. Not even 20 more minutes of wandering yielded results. A top notch tonkatsu purveyor offering 3 different cuts of pork in as many different levels of quality. Damian and I went right for the throat, going for their top-of-the-line Berkshire hog loin, while Nelson went for the tenderloin. We got what we paid for. The loin chops were an inch thick and the 2 pieces of tenderloin on Nelsons plate were essentially the whole tenderloin cut in half. Served with all the usual suspects, but even those were well above average. The miso soup was wonderful with nameko mushrooms, the plate of pickled napa cabbage was outstanding, and the dressing for the shredded cabbage was vibrant and well balanced. We had a couple appetizers before that, and they too were exceptional. The service was also worth mentioning. With some command of English, the female service staff were all decked out in the same chef’s whites as the cooks and cut a striking visual as well as being a nice thematic touch. Butagumi was well worth the wait to find it and was still being talked about the next day, and into the next week. Bill paid, out the door, wandering some more. I was hoping to walk off lunch and be hungry enough to hit the Pizzakaya before we headed back to Shinjuku-ku, but no such luck. Those were some thick-ass pork chops, and a lot of food all together. With reservations at Nobu, omae XEX (the Morimoto restaurant in Tokyo), and Sushi Bar Yasuda all in Roppongi as well I’ll have my chance to return. Yasuda only offers 2 different tasting menus so that might be our opportunity if that falls short or we get out early and decide to hit one of the local bars. After the tonkatsu we quickly ran out of steam and headed back to our respective hovels. Monday morning class was fun and brought a new experience in butchering, cleaning, and making nigiri of a whole cuttlefish that was about 18 inches long from tip of the head to the tip of the longest tentacles with a good 4-5 inch diameter body. I’ve cleaned whole squid before, the kind we use for calamari in the States, but this was much more difficult. More peeling, and cleaning, and trimming involved to get the desired outcome. I’m also starting to see improvement in my nigiri technique. A couple points that were vexing me have been figured out. We continued with our hosomaki practice, and I’m doing quite well in that arena. After class no one wanted to come out and play so we all went home once again to rest up for the week to come. I did laundry. Yay. Something was brought up in Roppongi that we all agreed would be a great idea but we needed to figure out the logistics. Nelson wanted to go to Osaka, the street food capital of Japan, for the weekend. The problem was, this coming Sunday we have class, as well as the following 3 Sundays. Our 8 week class schedule is 4 weeks of 5 days, and 4 weeks of 6 days. The added Sundays being for “Japanese Cuisine Lessons”, intended to add more value to the curriculum and break the monotony of rice and fish. With all the other reservations I already had it looked like it was going to be difficult to make that a reality. But once I got home and looked at my calendar and shuffled some things around I came up with a solid plan that might actually work. So on the weekend of October 9-11 we will hopefully be in Osaka. I was thinking even before I made it out here that I would want to go out there too, so hell-fuckin-yeah! There’s tons of yakitori here in Tokyo but not much okonomiyaki, takoyaki, or yakisoba. Osaka is the place to go for those, and I love all of them, so I’m all in. Tuesday was yet another rain day, and so was Wednesday, but I wasn’t about to let it keep me in by that then. I pretty much got drenched to the bone (umbrellas only help so much) but it was worth it. I wandered Shinjuku solo that day after class. Damian was going to head back in to join me but the rain started coming down harder after he got back to his pad so he thought better of it. While I was wandering from covered area to covered area the intensity of the downpour fluctuated wildly. It would lighten up every few minutes and I would seize that opportunity to run to the next covered or semi-covered area. It was during one of these upticks that I just happened to duck into an alcove with several advertisements for dining establishments. In particular were 2 different yakitori spots. One on level 2 and one on B1 level (Basement). Kushi No Kura on B1 looked the most promising so I headed down. The young man at the host stand spoke VERY limited and broken English but he was eager to provide great service so we found ways to communicate using a combination of my limited and broken Japanese, his almost equally bad English, pointing, and gestures. I got a variety platter of sashimi, a variety platter of yakitori, and a grilled atka mackerel. I had never heard of that particular fish before, but it was a variety of mackerel, chances were pretty good it wasn’t going to suck. It did not. The standard blue Japanese mackerel is much richer, but the atka was pretty tasty. The sashimi platter was beautifully put together and had some very unique elements. Hotate scallop sliced and presented with thin slices of lemon between each piece, a pile of scallion in the center, pristine buri belly slices, skinned octopus tentacle disks with the suckers lined up at the bottom, Suzuki slices, and salmon with garnishes that included sakura cut shaved carrot, the usual suspects of shredded carrot, obah and shredded daikon, and an inch and a half long chunk of fresh wasabi root leaning up against a mini grater at one side of the plate. An ingenious touch that made the experience interactive as well as attractive and tasty. The yakitori spread was pretty good, but lacked the wow factor of the sashimi. Tsukune, thigh, heart, skin, and wing served with as many different miso based condiments for dipping as well as a large chunk of cabbage with its own dipping sauce. All told it was a good experience and I am extremely happy I did not just hunker down in my apartment and wait for the rain to pass. Speaking of mackerel, in class this week one of our main focuses was silver-skinned fish. Namely saba mackerel, kohada, salmon, and more aji mackerel. Starting from whole fish on all of them and making nigiri with them at the end of the process. We also touched on cuttlefish again and sweet shrimp, or amaebi. My lunches this week have been awesome, as the classes are set up to get butchery done early, in 1st and second period, so you can make your lunch out of the choice cuts and use the rest for nigiri practice in 3rd period. I learned a few new tricks and presentation methods. We started playing with the brûlée torch too, as these types of fatty fish are good for giving them another layer of flavor and texture in this way, applying the flame to the finished nigiri or roll. Dinner on Thursday consisted of a couple stops. Damian and I wandered Shinjuku yet again searching for something interesting and new grottoes to explore. We hit an udon place as a starter. They had a novel way of ordering that utilized a list of the dishes they offer just outside the front door and on the wall next to the door is a vending machine-style ticket delivery system. You figure out what you want and how much that comes to, drop the money in the machine, punch in the corresponding buttons, and the device spits out your order in ticket form that you then take into the establishment and hand to the person behind the counter right by the front door. It’s a speedy system (so long as there are no gaijin who can’t read the menu, requiring assistance and mucking up the gears) and I imagine it’s pretty economical for the outlet as they don’t really need servers, as much as just a runner. They seat a total of 12 people, so at peak hours like lunch time turning tables quickly is priority both for the guests with limited time for lunch break and for the business that wants to get as many heads through the door as possible. Unfortunately, the food was lack-luster. The broth was a bit flaccid and the toppings were languishing in it for an indeterminate amount of time. The noodles were good though, so at least they got that part right. For part 2 of dinner we decided to see what was in the main Shinjuku train station, a small city within a city. Levels 7 and 8 are the dining levels, and there are quite a few options to choose from ranging from traditional Japanese, family dining, sushi, noodles, yakiniku, Italian, an oyster bar and the place we selected. Boucherie touts itself as “French Yakiniku” specializing in wagyu beef. With a grill in the center of every table, a partially bilingual menu of Japanese and a little English that contains mostly French food, and a service staff that speaks next to no English, it felt a little disjointed from the onset, but we soldiered through it hoping for a payoff. We both ordered a variety platter of meats, each coming with several different cuts of fatty bovine goodness from various parts of the animal, as well as a plate of veggies to roll across the grill and a house made charcuterie platter. The charcuterie was surprisingly good, with smoked beef tongue, large chunks of bacon, duck breast, genoa salami, pate, rillettes, pickles and whole grain mustard. The only disappointing part of that plate were the baguette croutons the rillettes were served on. They had a texture like they were 3 days old, stale and flabby. The grill was WAY too cold to effectively sear the thin slices of meat we got on our variety platters before they were cooked through, so we had to try to get some color on the meat while not letting it overcook. A daunting challenge with a shitty grill. With some high points and a few glaring low points, it was an interesting meal, at least. At the end of it we admired their spirit of trying to marry French bistro cuisine with Japanese yakiniku, but if you can’t pull it together in such a way as to make sure the seams aren’t showing the two should probably remain mutually exclusive. Then came Friday night, crashing in like a wrecking ball. I had a ton of crap to haul back to the apartment after school so I did that as well as getting a load of school uniforms and whites washed before heading back out to meet up with Nelson, Tyo, Damian, and 2 of the Japanese students from class. It was a memorable night. We all met at a 24 hour fish joint that grills and fries anything you might want and there is a gas grill on each table as well for an interactive touch. A few of the things we ate were maguro kama (tuna collar), karaage (boneless batter fried chicken bits), and tsukune (skewered chicken meatballs). By the time I arrived, after some searching due to a miscommunication between the maps in our chosen messenger and Google maps, the rest of the crew were under way and starting to get red-faced already. After I got a couple beers in me to catch up, we headed out in search of whatever the night might bring. Nelson was looking for women, but he always is. At 22 it’s not surprising. After a bit of wandering Damian cut out at this point, saying he wanted to drop his backpack off at home and that he would catch up later. One of our Japanese friends acted like he knew where to go to quell Nelson’s nearly incessant yammering about meeting some girls, but we wandered in circles for nearly an hour it seemed, back-tracking and circumnavigating Shinjuku until we found ourselves in the “entertainment district”. Most other cities would call this the “red light district”. After giving up he asked a guy on a street corner wearing an expensive suit where we should go. Suit guy then made a couple calls and escorted us to a bar. I had no idea what was in store next, but I had a strong feeling that I knew where this was headed. We were led to a hostess bar. It felt very much like a high-end strip club, but there was no stage and the girls were not dancing. Rather, they serve you drinks, mostly bottle service, and the girls sit with you and just chat, rotating new girls in every 15 minutes or so. The girls all have the same feel and personality types you would expect of strippers in the States, but they serve you drinks, keeping your glass full for you the whole time, and watering down your liquor the whole time to keep you from getting too plastered as to keep you there as long as possible. All for an hourly fee on top of the inflated cost of the bottles. As soon as we figured out that little detail we paid and left. Screw that noise. We were getting hungry again anyway. As we poured back out into the street and started once again searching for the next destination our hapless navigator announced that he had to retire for the evening. I was a bit relieved by this. His bumbling and cluelessness where wearing very thin with me. We landed in a super cramped, nearly claustrophobic yakitori place where the seating is so tightly packed there is no room for the servers to maneuver and the guests are inches away from being back to back with each other. There was a stunningly beautiful Japanese woman sitting alone at the end of the counter that sat 5, and there were 4 of us left, so Nelson naturally made a bee-line for the seat next to her. While he chatted her up and our remaining native Japanese classmate helped translate for them as far as he could, Tyo and I enjoyed some conversation about food, sake, and the culinary business. After we had our fill and Nelson wasn’t getting anywhere beyond pleasant chatter with the woman at the end of the counter we once again hit the streets. On top of Nelson’s blathering about finding girls he also mentioned finding a karaoke bar more than once. So that was the next destination. Now that our cross-eyed guide was out of the picture our pathways to what we were looking for were much less aimless and far more direct. On the way we were accosted at every turn by guys trying to attract our attention to whatever they had to sell. Nelson fell for more than a few of them. Myself coming from an area where a not insignificant portion of the population prides themselves on their “hustling” skills, I know a bullshit peddler when I see one, so I just stood back and let him learn, while being sure to keep an eye on the situation so he didn’t get taken. I found the situation amusing, it was amazing to me how many times he got sucked into a conversation with one of them. He is a wide-eyed 22 year old and not a jaded 40 year-old, though. No matter how well traveled he is that fact still remains. We finally got to our destination, a karaoke joint with a unique approach. You bring a group of people and rent a room by the hour with a TV screen and an impressive list of songs to choose from and everyone takes turns. The rooms are pretty private and you figure out the order yourself. No waiting for a DJ to get to your song and call your name. There was a call button to get the servers to bring more drinks, and you were left to your own devices. Our Japanese ambassador set it all up for us, renting the room for 2 hours. It was… interesting. By the end of that 2 hours it was getting very late and we all started parting ways. First our guide, then Tyo, Nelson and I walked a ways together until it was at the point where Tyo had to break off, and then Nelson and I parted ways on the walk back to our beds. It was 4am by the time I got back. I locked up, put my phone on its charger, and passed the fuck out. We had plans for Kappabashi the following day, with a meet-up time at 1pm at a bridge that the four of us have to pass on our way to school each day. The convergence point on all of our routes. Nelson didn’t make it. He sent us a message saying so. After I sent out a group message to see who was still in and getting an affirmative reply from Damian, Nelson replied with: “No chance for me sorry guys” “I’m fucked” To which Damian replied, “Ha! Useless” And I replied also with, “You’re way too young to let a hangover do you in.” So it was just Damian and myself headed to the “kitchen town” section of Tokyo, and all the promise it held for shiny and sharp things. And that’s where I will pick up next time.
This is going to be long-winded and self-indulgent, but please bear with me. It’s going somewhere, I promise.Coming up in the food industry in the late 90's every cook and chef I worked with was in love with sushi. Once I got past the initial aversion to raw fish I also contracted this fascination. They all looked at it with great reverence for the art-form, and there was a mystique surrounding it. An ethereal glow that seemed impenetrable to western cooks. It was too involved, too disciplined, too steeped in indecipherable and occult-like tradition to ever be mastered by someone not brought up deeply entrenched in the culture. It was the untouchable talent. The realm of true mastery. The Holy Grail of culinary skill-sets that no one even knew how to approach. I mean, apprentices in Japan spend their first 3 years doing nothing but WASHING THE DAMN RICE! That's all they are allowed to touch! For 3 years! Your only job is washing rice! When you've mastered that, then, and only then, will they let you move on to more complicated tasks. Like toasting nori! To learn the art and skills needed to make sushi was to devote your life to that one thing. Not unlike a monk. Constantly meditating on rice, vinegar, fish, and knife skills. This was the only way to achieve any competence. That sounded like it was too daunting and too challenging for mere mortals to undertake. Especially if you weren't Japanese. We were forced to be content watching with awe and admiration from the other side of the counter. This was, of course, almost entirely bullshit. The part about apprentices is not, though. Not entirely, anyway. If you spent 3 years washing rice, then you probably needed that amount of time to master it. Regardless of that my fascination for the subject never waned, never decreased, and I researched it extensively. I would frequently throw dinner parties and invite all of my friends throughout my 20’s, and sushi was one of the themes in the rotation. With this hunger for learning more about it I jumped at the chance to work next to a veteran sushi chef. Picking his brain of every little morsel of knowledge I could glean out of the language barrier. And then the opportunity arose for me to join his ranks. Not without a little plotting and scheming, but I was determined. This gaijin was going to do the un-fucking-thinkable! I was going to make the leap and be able to call myself a sushi chef, and I saw just how to make it happen. It went down at a casino in Detroit, of all places. A few months after opening the permanent facility for MGM Grand it was International Auto Show season in the D', and there was a request from Ford Motor Co. to have sushi available for them for the duration. The tapas bar/club we worked at, Ignite, was set up like a sushi bar already so it was a perfect fit. They brought in a guy from a local sushi bar, Jay (his Korean name is No-Houn), to run the show completely solo. I studied his every move. How he washed the rice, how his hands moved when he was making rolls, nigiri, temaki, slicing fish. How he treated every ingredient was scrutinized from a distance that allowed him to work unhindered. His presence there was so well received we kept him on and ran a menu that was split down the middle. A sushi side and an “American Tapas” side. I eventually got comfortable enough with him to start trying to ask questions and assist him, though his English was very broken and my Korean non-existent. We quickly came to a report, though, and communication was slow at times but we both had the patience and passion to make it work. Eventually the powers that were decided to shift the menu and make the whole thing a sushi menu. That meant they would need new cooks that were experienced in sushi and a position that did not exist before needed to be created because this was a specialized skill that needed to be compensated at a higher rate than even the fine-dining crew of 4 cooks that were in there at the time (that I was one of those 4). There was only going to be 2 full-time sushi cook positions available. None of the cooks in there that ran the hot menu knew how to make sushi with any kind of consistency or speed. Well, none of them but me, of course. From jumping in and helping him when he needed it and picking his brain when he had the time to answer questions I was getting very good at sushi. My visual art and sculpture background really paid off here, giving me the basic manual dexterity to catch on very fast. Combined with my growing passion for the subject, my 16 years in kitchens already, and my eye for plate composition, I was coming along quickly. The day came to do a sushi menu tasting for all of the executives that had a say in this deal. I knew that Jay had a tendency to lag behind and run a little late with these sorts of things. He always did when there was a banquet event or a tasting. I was not asked by anyone, not even Jay, to assist him, but I knew he was going to fall behind, and I had a plan. His tasting was early in the shift, right before we opened, so I was in the back prepping for the hot menu service that night. I wrapped up what I needed to do and showed up out front (it was an open service kitchen that was out in the actual dining room) 20 minutes before Jay needed to have everything ready. He was behind, just as I predicted. I jumped in and helped him finish up making the rolls he needed and getting everything plated to present to the waiting audience of executives. They were there watching us from the other side of the counter. Just like I knew they would be. My plan was working perfectly. The General Manager of the whole property, the Vice President of Food and Beverage, the Executive Chef, the Executive Sous Chef, and the Banquet Chef were all watching me assist Jay in rolling sushi for the menu tasting to determine what would be included in this new menu roll-out. I never had to apply for the new position. I didn't even need to say I wanted it. It was just kind of universally understood that I was the guy they needed for the job. I communicated and worked well with Jay, I had the skill and the drive and the experience and they wouldn't have to go through any kind of lengthy search or hiring process. It was a no-brainer. With that new role I also had near complete autonomy. Jay and I were given control of the menu, save for a few things they wouldn't let me get rid of because of their popularity, regardless of the fact that sliders are completely out of place on a Japanese menu. But I digress... I started the new position in July of 2009 and the following 2 and a half years were some of the most challenging and rewarding years of my career. I buried my head even further in the study of Japanese cuisine. As I started outgrowing/getting weary of the position and its corporate politics and inefficiencies my eye wandered to Chicago. I could make a name for myself there in a way I didn't think Detroit was ready for at the time. I still hold that it wasn't ready then, but it might be now. Regardless, I moved out to the Chicago area and took a job I was a shoe-in for at a casino in the North-West 'burbs. The F&B department was going to be run by a few of the guys I worked under in Detroit so little was needed with regards to interviews and vetting. But as I quickly learned, Chicago is not the culinary dream-scape it might seem to be. At least not for a white, mid-western chef approaching 40 that had goals of making waves in the Japanese culinary world there. After staging a few times, getting woefully low offers, and botching one interview entirely, I didn’t feel like I was being taken very seriously. I was also starting to realize that if I wanted to find a home for myself I was going to have to create one. I was able to make a small kitchen no one seemed to care much about into the talk of the building back in Detroit, a town and location that at the time was culinarily unadventurous, and do something unique that attracted a following of regulars. I knew I could make that happen anywhere, if given the right opportunity. But that right opportunity wasn’t coming, despite throwing resumes at all of the top Japanese restaurants in Chicago. The problem, I felt, was that I didn’t have the background, an experience I could put on my resume that was more than a sushi bar at a casino. Casino kitchens don’t tend to be taken very seriously outside of casino kitchens. I needed a big name under my belt, I thought. I needed to be able to say I worked for a Nobu or a Morimoto, regardless of whether or not that experience was going to offer me anything in the way of growth. But, as I mentioned earlier, I’m 40 now. That’s a little too old to start at the bottom of the totem pole at a new place, which is what I was facing, regardless of stunningly good performance at a stage. My girlfriend Sara suggested I do an internship in Japan. That’s an experience no one could be dismissive of and would carry a lot of weight, even if I stammered at the interview. Why the fuck not, I thought? After a lengthy search and contacting people and sorting through testimonials I was narrowing down my search. There was a place in California that offered a 6 week course, the option of doing 3 weeks interning at a restaurant in Japan. They also offered several extensions and advanced classes that would turn 2 months into 4 if all options were on order. Then there was a school with an 8 week program, the Tokyo Sushi Academy, located right in the heart of downtown Tokyo. The Shinjuku district, to be exact. Both programs cost roughly the same. The biggest difference was one was based out of California, with 3 weeks spent in Japan, and the other was 8 weeks right in the center Tokyo. The decision was not very hard. Fuck those dirty hippies and whiny socialites in Cali. That was close to 2 years ago. Planning for and saving for the trip went very well. So, as I write the end of this introduction on my laptop 6 hours into the 13 hour flight to Tokyo, I’m brimming with excitement at what is to come in the next 2 months. I already have day classes booked at another cooking school near the Tsukiji market and reservations at several of Tokyo’s top restaurants. I don’t have the coveted reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro yet, but I have a lead on it (they only take reservations by phone and they only speak Japanese, and mine is horrible). My class schedule is pretty intense, at 6 days a week, 6 hours a day, but I’m determined to make the most of it and squeeze everything I can out of Tokyo while I’m there. At the request of many, many people I will be keeping a journal/travelogue here to document this (most likely) once in a lifetime experience. Highlight photos will be included here, but to keep this from becoming almost entirely a photo album more complete photo albums will be maintained on my Facebook page. Hope you all enjoy the ride, vicarious as it is. O jikan o itadaki, arigatogozaimasu, bitchez! I look forward to your feedback! What do you want to see? Let me know and if it's not already on my itinerary it might get added. I've got 2 months, after all! Live well and eat better. -Jack