Posts Tagged ‘Sushiko’

 

The most memorable hospitality I’ve ever experienced while traveling, was not at the most refined Kyoto Ryokan nor discreet old world small hotels of Europe, although they were all unforgettable places with impeccable service and care, the most memorable hospitality I’ve ever experienced was in a village about an hour drive outside of Fes in Morocco.

 

Fes is an incredible ancient city. Once inside the city walls, it seems like you travel back in time several hundred years. But before walking into the city, every visitor is greeted by a swarm of kids who offer to be your guide. There is no way around it, these kids are clever, and most of them know just enough phrases in many different languages to grab your attention. It seems the only way to have them leave us alone was to hire one, so we did.

 

Our guide Mohamed said he was 15 years old but I think he was more like 11 and after about 15 minutes of walking trough the maze like streets with him, he was joined by another boy (I forgot his name) who said he was 18 years old but did not look a day older than 14. They were mostly interested in taking us to the shops so they could earn commissions from the shop owners. After a         couple of hours, we grew hungry, so I asked them to take us to a good place to eat, a place where a local might go to have a good relaxing lunch. They took us to what seemed like a hole in the wall, but turned out to be very spacious and beautiful once inside, then told us they would wait outside while we eat. I was not having that so I told them they must join us and if they did not, I would not eat.  Reluctantly, they came in to the restaurant with us. Once inside, a gentleman who appeared to be the proprietor of the restaurant received us but said something rather sternly to the kids. The kids then told me that they should wait outside, or if they are going to eat at all, they could not eat in the dining room. I then finally understood why our guides were so reluctant to come in and eat with us. So I told the proprietor that these young men were my guests, and they will sit with me to dine together. The lunch was very good, well prepared, and we all had a good time, but what was most remarkable was in that moment, everything changed, our guides became our friends and we became their guests to the city. In the afternoon, they took us to see many interesting places, now avoiding the shops. They now wanted us to see their Fes. They even took us through some gaps and holes (a short cut) within the walls. They made us feel like kids again in this ancient city.

 

At the end of the day, I asked them what we were doing tomorrow? They looked puzzled but responded we could do whatever we wanted. So I asked them to take me to their village. I had learned during lunch that they were Berber and their village was about a 2-hour drive from Fes. “ Do you really want to see our village? They asked me, responding that no one had asked them that before.” “Yes, I would love to “I replied.

 

The next morning we drove out to the countryside. After about an hour I started seeing fields with peculiar dome like structures of about 2 feet high. The kids told us that they were bread ovens and since the farmers only have time to bake once a day, they have more than one oven so they can bake enough bread for the whole family. “Would you like to see one?” they asked me. “Sure” I said. “OK, then lets go to that house” as they pointed to a small house in the distance “That small one? I asked. Do you know them?” “No, but its ok, we will have some tea there.” “What?!?!?”   A little hesitant I did what I was told and pulled onto the dirt road and headed to the tiny house.

 

We were total strangers and we showed up at this house un-announced and empty-handed. At the door, we were greeted by a girl of about 8 years old who was caring for her little brother (5YO) and little sister (2YO) while her parents where out working the fields. The tiny house was humble and had a warm feel to it. It was one room home and had hardened dirt like clay floors with one very large piece of carpet on it. The girl, or I should say our hostess asked us to go and wait for her under the tree shade outside because it was getting very hot inside the house, and I will never forget what happened after that.

 

Our hostess dragged and carried out the only carpet in her house for us so we could sit under the tree in comfort. Of course I tried to help as the carpet was probably three times her weight, but she would have none of that. We were her guests and we were to sit and relax. She then brought us fresh brewed mint tea, home made bread, olives, home churned butter, home made yogurt, and honey. She basically brought out everything she had in her house for us to enjoy in comfort under this beautiful tree.

 

The food was amazing, simple, rich flavors of nature. But what made the experience so memorable was the hospitality. She was responsible for her guests’ comfort and nourishment while we were under her care, and she did everything she could to make sure that this was done. I was moved, beyond moved. I had done nothing to deserve such hospitality and we were total strangers to her. I asked my guides what I could do to repay her. The boys told me not worry, that this was their local custom, but I had to do something in return. I went to look for a store and bought a hand full of loose candies and brought it back to her. The look on her face when I gave her the candies was that of surprise, joy, and slight embarrassment.

 

What I took away from her and this experience was learning the most important thing about hospitality. That true hospitality is to touch the guest’s heart, and the only thing that can touch a person’s heart is the heart of another.

 

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In the 90’s, I started pairing Burgundy red wines with Japanese food. I thought that the delicate tannins in burgundy reds helped define the elusive umami in Japanese food. And by tannins leaving the wine to pair off with umami, it unlocked the hidden flavors of the wine. The result was like a savory flavor of fish coming back on your palate holding a bouquet of fresh and exotic flowers. Philosophically speaking, I think wine making in Burgundy region and Japanese cuisine is essentially the same. Both practice the idea of refining what nature has to offer to show its true and best quality, rather than to “create the taste”. In Burgundy, they say the “expression of the terroir” in Japan, we say “to give life to the ingredients”.

Back then, I was just having fun with my wine friends but one day an article came out on Wall Street Journal about my efforts. The article itself was fairly written quoting those who have tried it (and liked it) and those who did not. But the article ended with a quote from some wine guy in Boston saying “I’ve never tried it but I think it would be a waste of a good burgundy bottle”. I was a bit ticked off by it and so I decided to bring Sushiko staff to France and cook for the winemakers themselves. Let them tell me themselves if its waste of their wines! Needing guidance of how to go about inviting the wine makers, I spoke with my friend Becky Wasserman, who is a bit like an Ambassador of burgundy wines and who also lives in Burgundy. Becky, without even trying the pairing herself, embraced the idea and told me that normally no one will come to such event but if she hosted it, the winemakers would have to come. So we decided to do it on one Sunday in November for lunch. I believe it was 1999.

When the day came, I thought to my self, “what the hell did I get myself in to?” The wine makers came with their own wines of course, but they were all visibly uncomfortable, some were down right angry. Burgundian wine makers are not the sort who masks their feelings when it comes to wines or food. Most of them came to me and actually told me that this is going to be a disaster! Of course it helped that I did not understand French back then. To make matters worse, since I did not know which wines from their portfolio each of the 6 wine makers would bring for the event, I had to taste them on the spot and pair them with our food. When I was done choosing the order in which these wines will be served, Becky came to me and politely asked me if I might had miss communicated the order of wines with the staff. I told her I did not. Well that did not go well with the guests as I have put some Grand Cru wines before 1er Cru wines. That is never done in France! “What a savage!” must have thought the guests. But I was more interested in the emergence of the third character the sum of wine and the food pairing, and its progression as the story unfolds rather than just the progression of wines or food alone. Of course the fact they all brought fabulous wines helped. (I knew they were not going to bring wines that did not show well to the event, after all, there are other wine makers there!)

By the time Becky introduced me and I gave my simple explanation of what my idea is about, we began. By this time, the crowd was super skeptical and rather upset. As a result when the first course was served, no one uttered a word or even a sound. Second course, a little murmur was heard in the dinning room. People were looking at each-other as if to say “do you taste what I’m tasting?” Third course, an explosion of complimentary adjectives! After the sixth course was all mopped up, all the winemakers got up and sang a burgundian harvest song in our honor! I had to hold back my tears…

Because of the overwhelming response, we did the same event for few years in a row after that. Always inviting different wine makers. Then the word spread and our team was invited to Japan to do the same event for Berry Brothers & Rudd, a prominent wine merchant from London, we even did a gig at the James Beard House as well. The funny thing is one day in NYC, I was having a dinner at a restaurant and the proprietor spotted the wine I was having and started to tell me about this “Old Chef in Washington DC who started the pairing of burgundy wine and Japanese cuisine, I had to tell him that the person in question is not old!

Daisuke Utagawa