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Why Did the Gaijin Cross the Pond?: A Tokyo Travelogue

This is going to be long-winded and self-indulgent, but please bear with me. It’s going somewhere, I promise.
In Fight Snacks

All Nippon Airways in-flight snack.

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.
Flight Path

Flight path from O'Hare to Narita.

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.
In Flight Meal

All Nippon Airways in-flight meal. Veggies and mackerel simmered in miso with steamed rice, fruit, pickled eggplant with edamame and sweet omelette, spinach in sesame sauce with chilled soba noodles and dipping sauce for them top center.

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

Bob’s Bacon Saganaki Recipe

The Rogue Estate's BBQ Bob and Street Eatzz's Chef Tom presented a cooking demo at the first Baconfest Michigan in the Royal Oak Farmer's Market on June 2, 2012. This is one of the dishes they prepared for the crowd. It started innocently enough - What can we do with our sponsor's product - Bakon Vodka - that hasn't already been done before? Every variation of savory cocktail is pretty much covered on their website and we're cooks, not bartenders. "Let's torch something... flambe' style." The answer became obvious - Detroit has a large Greek population and our exposure to their culinary culture over the decades has led to a local love with the customary flaming cheese dish: Saganaki. At GreekTown restaurants and late night coneys scattered around the Metro Detroit area the familiar shout of "OPA!" and the woosh of alcohol fueled flames have delighted diners for generations. So how to take this classic and make it our own? The traditional Saganaki uses the Greek cheese Kasseri, which is a semi soft cheese of sheep's milk. We had trouble finding a decent Kasseri that didn't disintegrate during the cooking process, so we switched to a semi soft Mexican Queso which fried up much nicer and maintained a rich, creamy consistency over it's crispy when fried skin, with the added benefits of tasting better, being easier to find and costing much less than the Kasseri. Frankly, Saganaki isn't a high art - any rich, semi-soft melting cheese will do. A word of caution: This dish does require open flame. As such, prepare it outside if at all possible. If you must cook it indoors, do so only with a very small amount of alcohol, preferably in a kitchen with very high ceilings. The Software: 1 round of Greek style (fluffy) Pita Bread 2 tblsp Bacon Jam* 4 strips of smoked bacon 2-4oz of Queso or other Semi-soft cheese 2 oz Bakon Vodka or other savory, flammable booze. 1 lemon, halved and seeded 1 tsp minced fresh chives Special Hardware: Cast Iron Skillet, fry pan or sizzler platter Long Reach grill lighter or fireplace match Procedure: Preheat Oven or Toaster Oven to 200F. Halve the lemon and pick out all the visible seeds. Heat up your cast iron and fry the bacon as desired. The point here is to render the bacon grease out to fry the cheese in. When the bacon is cooked to your liking, remove it from the pan to a paper towel and snack as desired. Slice your cheese as thick as you wish. We find 1/2 inch thick slabs to be the perfect balance of decadent and manageable as far as cook time is concerned. Place the cheese slabs into the cast iron on medium low heat until the bottom begins to brown and the top begins to melt. Remove the cast iron from the heat source and place in an area free from flammable overhead objects. Pour Bakon Vodka over the cheese, stand back and light the sizzling and highly flammable steam with your grill lighter or long fireplace match. Yell "OPA!" when the fireball erupts. Squeeze the lemon halves over the diminishing flames and melty cheese. Remove the pita from the oven and using a spatula, place the melty fried cheese on top of the Bacon Jam Pita. Sprinkle with minced chives and additional lemon juice as desired and eat immediately. *Slow Jams Jam developed our Bacon Jam for us. In time we hope it will be a regular part of their product line up. Meanwhile, their Cranberry Red Onion or Sweet Pepper Jams mixed with some fried and finely minced bacon would also be fantastic. Did you get to see our cooking demo and try this awesome dish at Baconfest Michigan? How'd you like it? Let us know in the comments.  
A consummate nerd, yet still plays well with others.

BaconFest Michigan Recipe: Pancetta Pasta Fritatta

The Rogue Estate's BBQ Bob and Street Eatzz's Chef Tom presented a cooking demo at the first Baconfest Michigan in the Royal Oak Farmer's Market on June 2, 2012. This is one of the dishes they prepared for the crowd. Chef Tom’s Pancetta Pasta Frittata begins with a pile of pancetta in a sauté pan, to which capers, sun-dried tomatoes, wild mushrooms and pre-cooked linguine are combined. Chef Tom’s 313 hot sauce (available in a market or restaurant near you soon) is added to the mix and the ingredients are tossed, then the whole thing is deglazed with (go figure) Bakon Vodka. Well-beaten eggs are added to cement it all together. The frittata is browned on both sides similar to an American omelet and finished with Gorgonzola cheese. Let it set up for a few to cool then cut into wedges and enjoy with a glass or two of your favorite nightcap. Software: 5 slices of pancetta, cut into julienne strips 2 Tbsp of capers 2 Tbsp of sun dried tomatoes, cut into julienne strips 1 cup of morels or wild mushroom blend, roughly chopped 4 large eggs, beaten and a little cream or milk added 1 cup of cooked linguine 1 Tbsp of Street Eatzz 313 Sauce 1 shot of Bakon Vodka A few twists of cracked black pepper Pinch of kosher salt Method:
  1.     In a bowl, crack the eggs and add one half egg shell of cream. Whip the eggs until frothy. Hold off to the side.
  2.     In a non-stick omelet pan, sauté the pancetta, do not drain off the fat.
  3.     Add the mushrooms to the pancetta and lightly sauté.
  4.     Add the sun-dried tomatoes and capers to the mix and bring up to heat.
  5.     Add the 313 sauce, remembering not to breathe in the fumes from the hot sauce! (As it heats up the capsicum is released into the air for a few seconds.)
  6.     Add the linguine and toss to coat well with all of the above.
  7.     Take that shot of Bakon Vodka and deglaze the pan, remember to stand back and watch out for the flame.
  8.     Pour in the egg mixture and season with salt and pepper, using a rubber spatula mix all the ingredients well and spread out evenly.
  9.     Turn the heat down to medium and cook as you would a regular omelet.
  10.     When the frittata is browned on one side flip it over or for those less daring, slide onto a plate the turn it over into the pan.
  11.     Add crumbled Gorgonzola to the browned top and let it finish off cooking.
  12.     When fully cooked place the frittata on a cutting board let it set up and cool down a bit.
  13.     Cut into wedges and enjoy with some crusty ciabatta bread and fruit garnish.
Did you get to see our cooking demo and try this awesome dish at Baconfest Michigan? How'd you like it? Let us know in the comments. -Chef Tom
A consummate nerd, yet still plays well with others.

Baconfest Michigan Recipe: Bacon Pops

The Rogue Estate's BBQ Bob and Street Eatzz's Chef Tom presented a cooking demo at the first Baconfest Michigan in the Royal Oak Farmer's Market on June 2, 2012. This is one of the dishes they prepared for the crowd. Your new favorite party appetizer: Bacon Pops, a riff on the popular cake pop concept, made with cheeses, plenty of bacon, herbs and nuts, rolled, chilled and conveniently served on a Popsicle stick for easy enjoyment. Ingredients: 10 slices of crisp cooked bacon 4 oz cream cheese 4 oz goat cheese 2 Tbsp chopped fresh basil, divided Trader Joe's Everyday Seasoning 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts Method: In a food processor finely mince the cooled bacon strips, 1 Tbsp of the chopped fresh basil, 1/4 cup of cooled toasted pine nuts and a twist of Everyday Seasoning. Place in a bowl and set aside, clean out your food processor. Next to go into the food processor is the cream cheese, goat cheese, 1 Tbsp of chopped fresh basil and a couple more twists of Everyday Seasoning. Blend well and remove from the processor. Roll cheese mixture into small balls about the size of your thumb nail. You should yield about 15-18. Place the cheese balls on a wax papered tray and pop them into the freezer for about 20 minutes to firm up. Roll each cheese ball into the bacon mixture, pressing lightly if needed to cover well. Take a lollypop or Popsicle stick and stick it into the bacon covered cheese ball. Refrigerate to firm back up before serving. Garnish your serving platter with slices of Granny Smith apples or pears. Word to the wise ... Make them small (nickle-sized), because they are intensely rich! Did you get to see our cooking demo and try this awesome dish at Baconfest Michigan? How'd you like it? Let us know in the comments. - Chef Tom
A consummate nerd, yet still plays well with others.