According to an outline of Shiro Kashiba's daily routine, printed near the close of his new memoir, the Seattle sushi chef wakes up at 9 a.m.; eats miso soup at 10 a.m.; shops for geoduck in the afternoon and drinks a single Bud Light before heading to bed at midnight. What the schedule doesn't include are the biweekly 11 a.m. oral history sessions that resulted in Shiro: Wit, Wisdom & Recipes from a Sushi Pioneer, written with Bruce Rutledge and Yuko Enomoto.
The book, set for release today, is as much a scrapbook as a memoir. Kashiba didn't just share stories with Rutledge and Enomoto: He provided pictures of his teenage hiking trips in Japan; sales statistics for nigiri at his eponymous Belltown restaurant (salmon and tuna outsell every other fish, by a wide margin) and half a dozen recipes for smelt. Together with Kashiba's recollections, the images and illustrations make up a compelling portrait of a chef who crystallized a very specific Seattle food ethos long before the national media had taken note of Pacific Northwesterners' locavore tendencies.
Kashiba was drawn to sushi shops as a boy in Kyoto. "The process was so involved and precise, it enthralled me," he writes. "Plus, I've always been a gregarious fellow, and the friendly confidence of the chefs appealed to me." Yet he knew so little about food preparation when he started work in Tokyo that he dumped the liquid from a pot of stock and presented the wrung-out heap of dried bonito flakes and mushrooms as dashi. "I still laugh when I think of what a fool I was that day," he writes.
Hoping to win a job in the U.S., Kashiba asked a friend who was traveling overseas to return with any information he could find on Japanese restaurants in America. Kashiba dutifully contacted all the restaurants from which his friend had collected chopstick wrappers and matchbooks, but didn't land a position until a customer mentioned him to Ted Tanaka, who ran a very popular restaurant in Seattle's International District. Tanaka in 1965 invited Kashiba to "serve as a manservant," doing whatever the restaurant required. Kashiba arrived in the U.S. the next year, making a first meal of apple pie at the Jackson Cafe.
After Tanaka's death in 1970, Kashiba took a job at Maneki, where he opened Seattle's first full-service sushi bar. He opened his own restaurant two years later. Although sushi wasn't unknown in Seattle in the early 1970s, most eaters - Japanese and non-Japanese alike - favored rice balls and thick futomaki rolls. "There was still a stigma to eating raw fish, as if it would make you keel over in pain after a bite or two," Kashiba writes.
Kashiba tried to lure anxious eaters with delicious food they couldn't refuse - and might never have previously encountered. He pulled kelp from the Puget Sound; dug up geoducks and rescued the salmon roe and crab guts that Pike Place vendors trashed. He treated the mountains and ocean as his pantry. But today, he writes, the region's supply of mushrooms, clams and clean water has dwindled.
"Nothing lasts forever," he writes. "As I look back on my life, I realize how blessed I was to be a chef in the Seattle area before the city grew up."