When Taichi Kitamura arrived in Seattle as a foreign exchange student from Kyoto, Japan, his time spent living with different host families exposed him to various subcultures of the area. While training under renowned sushi chef Shiro Kashiba, Kitamura learned most about what it took to be a sushi chef in America. Now, as owner of Showa and executive chef of Sushi Kappo Tamura, Kitamura's education continues with all walks of life entering his doors and sitting at his sushi bar, and his insights reflect the wisdom of a chef that has interacted with more people than most.
Photo courtesy of Taichi Kitamura
When you first started, you trained with Chef Shiro Kashiba, how was that experience?
I started working there when I was in college. In a way, I always knew that I wanted to do this, but when I was in college, I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. I started working there in college and I see Shiro-san, he's a really happy person and he's making a lot of people happy. At the same time, he's introducing Japanese culture to people in America. I thought, "I want to do that, I want to be like that. If I do that, I'll be happy like Shiro and I'll make other people happy too. If I can make money while doing it, that'd be great." Also, I learned a lot in terms of techniques and what it is to be a Japanese chef in this country. I learned that communication with customers is very important to introduce new food to people, and the importance of local and seasonal ingredients. Shiro is a big advocate of that. For people to try the food, you need to establish trust and communication. That's what I learned at Shiro.
Many people have watched the documentary about Jiro and assume that you must have went through some arduous process of toasting seaweed for five years before even touching the fish, did your training experience in America differ from that?
That's what's great about training in America. You know in Japan, you don't even get to touch food until after three years of washing dishes or stuff like that. Here, it's like, because I know the language and the culture, you don't have to go through that. You can start cooking right away. So when I was in college, I was working the kitchen at Shiro making tempura and working with fish. When I asked Shiro to train me, that same day, I made my first roll and I think he sold that roll. I don't know how I got away with that!
You get a lot of practice doing high quantities, and because he uses a lot of local ingredients, you have to apply that specific technique to prepare that. Let's say, silver smelt. They don't really have that in Japan, but they use a similar technique to filet sardines. I wouldn't have known unless I worked there and I'm featuring [silver smelt] on my menu today as well. Now I'm training my guys to do the same.
When you first came to America, what were some customs that you found peculiar or had to adapt to?
The whole American grocery store culture, and how they grocery shop. When I first came here, I stayed with a host family and when they would grocery shop, ice cream came in a bucket and instant ramen came in a box of at least 24. The Hershey's chocolate syrup was I don't know, a gallon? I was like, "Wow, how much do those people eat?" Turns out that they go grocery shopping once a week, or every other week. In Japan, you buy a little every day. So as a result, you don't get as much fresh vegetables. You're buying a lot of frozen foods, canned foods. This is also changing now. That was a culture shock to me.
Do you keep in touch with your host family? Do they know about you being here?
No. I suspect they do, but they're pretty old now. That was over 20 years ago. I came to this country in 1991. I moved around a lot. I stayed with three different host families: a Mormon family, an Evangelical Christian family, and the other one was a hippie vegetarian family. It was very interesting. I learned a lot. For me, that was the best year of my life because I was young and I was able to absorb and really learn how they live and how they think. I'm still Japanese, so I can perceive it as a third party. They were all nice people. I don't know if I'd ever live with a vegetarian couple but... (laughs).
What are some American dishes that you love or have grown to appreciate?
Oh yeah! Great pizza! I think the last five years or so, Seattle has experienced a huge jump on pizza quality. I think when I first came here, it's like, "Oh, Pagliacci, YEAH!" That was the best pizza. Now it's like there's Bar del Corso and Delancey. That's great. Ever since Tutta Bella came on, it seems like the pizza quality has changed.
Really quality steaks, even the quality meats you get from fine grocery stores to cook at home. Its not the same in Japan. In Japan, you can get that nice well-marbled Wagyu beef, but here, it's like nice, really meaty if it's done right. It's hard to find that in Japan.
The burger. In Japan, when I was growing up, McDonalds was the best burger you can get. The Japanese version of hamburger was basically a meatloaf patty, it's different from that half pound patty, 100 percent beef.
Were there dishes from home you missed that you worked to recreate at your restaurants?
There is a lot. One good example is of the ramen that I'm serving at Showa. I mean, no one was doing it like that, so I had to do it myself. Another good example was Unagi. Everybody was using the packaged, processed Chinese product. To me, it doesn't taste right. It was rather concerning because I heard about how they couldn't serve it in Japan so they had to sell it here. When I hear something like that, that's not something I eat personally. I just refuse to serve that to my customers.
Unagi though, it's very expensive, I pay close to $30 for one fish. I get unagi fresh from Japan. I get it fresh and kill it myself. I don't think anybody else is doing that on the West Coast except for the guy who took over our Chiso restaurant. It's very bad for business though because you buy it for $30 and you charge $30 for it, that doesn't count for labor or anything like that.
Working at the sushi bar, have there been some some strange conversations that come up, or any conversations that you enjoy?
Yeah, lots! These days, there are a lot of lonely people out there. I'm like the first person they talk to all day for those guys, and they've been working with their computers. They probably communicate with people through the computers and some people don't have to go into an office, you know. But they don't necessarily want to go to a bar, but instead they come to a sushi bar. It gets kind of sad, to be honest. Sometimes, it gets too personal, so I need to make sure I let them know this is a line you don't cross and this is a line I draw. If I don't do that, it's bad business. It doesn't benefit either of us because it just gets too awkward and emotionally draining.
I certainly learned a lot because I had my old restaurant in Fremont. We served the fishing community of Ballard. I learned a lot from the fishing community about how the fish is caught, so I have more appreciation for the ingredients that I'm serving. These days, I meet different food bloggers. Sushi chefs, we're right there. So for them, I think it's weird to spend that much time talking to a chef. That's how I met Nancy Leson. We talked and talked and talked. When I first met her, I didn't know her, but we talked about restaurants in Lynwood and Edmonds for an hour. I was like, "Wow, this person knows a lot about restaurants." I didn't have any suspicions, but she called back a few days later and I was like, "Okay, now I know."
I definitely learn a lot from my customers about what's going on in the city. I meet people from different parts of the world, South Africa, Tanzania, Lithuania ... It's great. Because of what I do, I know people from all over the world. I'm just having a great time working at the sushi bar. It's so entertaining. I just have the whole world walking in. It's better than reading the newspaper or a book.