Part Three: Japanese Culture and Cuisine

Read all parts in this series: Part One | Part Two | Part Four

I’m gonna switch gears totally on you. I know from my personal experience with you, your passion for Japanese culture. Tell us a little bit about what you have done, not only related to food, but just in general, and why and then talk to us about Japanese food culture.

I lived in Asia when I was a younger guy. I was in South Korea for three and a half years. We traveled pretty extensively through Asia. Japan being one of the favorite places I’d ever been. As you look back, those experiences had a huge impact on you at the time, because it was when I was 13…14, until I was almost 16…17 years old. It’s during that time when you really start, I wouldn’t say appreciating food like in a very haughty kind of way. But your impressions of what food you like really kind of take hold. I’ll point out that at that time, in the early 1980s, they didn’t have McDonald’s in South Korea. So, I didn’t eat McDonald’s, for years. The first time I got to eat it was on the Ginza in Tokyo. I remember, I think it might be one of the first stops, like look man, it’s been it’s been a year or two, like we need to get down with a Big Mac. 

You start to appreciate in a very different way living within that culture what you like and don’t like. It was a very interesting experience, and I took away from that a deep appreciation for the food cultures of Asia. So, when I started cooking professionally, I sort of fell in with a lot of the elements that I really appreciated about Asia, started making their way into my cooking. 

I think it was the first year we had The Crimson Sparrow, we decided we’d take a couple of weeks off. So, I decided to go to Japanese friend of mine, a Michelin-starred sushi chef, and ask him if he would just let me work in his kitchen for a couple of weeks, in New York. Funny story…I asked him during dinner, he just looked at me and said “no.” I was like, ‘well, that’s kind of a bummer.’ Then he went downstairs, and he came back about 20 minutes later and said “look, I don’t want you working here. I’m gonna send you to Japan to work with my master. Let’s get drunk.” 

So yeah, went to Tokyo to work in his master’s restaurant. I think it was like four weeks. Lived with one of the sushi chefs. I’ll tell you, one month of doing that routine really gives you an appreciation for how hard it is on sushi chefs in Japan. The experience of getting up at four in the morning, going with the chef to Tsukiji market, buy fresh fish and coming back and butchering on a line with all the other chefs. Eating breakfast with them, and then getting ready for lunch service. Cleaning for lunch service. Taking a one-hour nap, then coming back for dinner service. Wiping the whole place down, having some drinks, getting up four hours later. I mean, you do that six days a week, it is a brutal existence. But it’s incredibly eye-opening. You build on things. We were able to do pretty much anything we wanted to do at The Crimson Sparrow. The menu became more Japanese ingredient driven. It’s not traditional Japanese

One of my favorite dishes that you served me is still on my mind was a charred carrot dish. What was that, and where did it come from?

So, we were at the time cooking a lot of pork belly. We would have a lot of pork fat left. So, we were trying to make the carrot taste like a barbecued hot dog. We would cook them…how did we do that now? We would cook them, and then we would hard char them. Then we dehydrated them for about four hours. And then we would put them in a bag with pork fat and vacuum seal it. And then we would cook it a little bit more, and it would rehydrate. And then we would obviously serve. I think we served that with…I can’t remember…I think it was a yeasty sauce, ’cause it was supposed to be like the roll or something. That was an involved process. It was quite a few steps. A couple of people were like “hey, why’d you ruin this carrot by vacuum sealing it with pork fat?” I was like, ‘this person will never be my friend.’ 

We tried to do different things. We had the ability to do it. Interestingly, Crimson Sparrow was interesting on several levels in Columbia County, New York. One is, we were the first to have a HACCP license. We were also, I think, one of the first restaurants that Open Table took keen interest in. I think there are 75 or 125 restaurants now on Open Table in Columbia County. There are a lot of forward-leaning, pioneering, leading things. It’s never easy being the first. The second usually has an easier go of it. Just ask the Donner Party, right? If you’re the first you’re going to put up with a lot of, not frustration, but heavy lifting. But we were able to do things like that.

Red Sparrow Tasting Plate

Getting back to how CVap worked in those early days. When we opened, we had six cooks in the kitchen. Slowly, as attrition goes, we were slowly down to four, maybe three cooks. Basically, what we were doing was readjusting the manner in which we were preparing food, and serving food, and altering the menu design. We went to a full…well, we were doing an ala carte dining. And then about eight, nine months in, I think it was, we said “look, let’s put up a tasting menu.” Because frankly, people didn’t know how to order off ala carte. Maybe that was my fault. But we put up a tasting menu. The first weekend say we did 150 covers. 148 would be the fair number this ordered the tasting menu. We kind of looked at each other and said “well, we’re a tasting menu restaurant.” 

We were offering two different levels of tasting menu, one was shorter, one was longer…had more ingredients: obviously more expensive. Incorporated some things like truffles and foi gras, things like that. What we saw was, as we lost a cook, we would just change the manner of preparation. CVap was a big part of that. Because some point, if you’re pulling two or three dishes off the fish station or meat station, you no longer need a second cook, you just adjust your preparation to use the CVap to fill the cook’s position. So, it actually got down to three cooks. Meat, fish, and a pastry chef. And then each of us would rotate, take care of various amuse-bouche. We’d alternate by week, or two weeks, and would take on the pastry when we lost the pastry chef. At one point it was me and one other cook. We did that for almost a year, serving a sometimes 13 course tasting menu. We were able to do it. And it’s primarily due to the way that we were preparing, serving, cooking, holding, and being able to get food out in a very timely fashion. I think I told you that before, CVap was critical.

Read Part Four: Working with CVap, and Painting for Pleasure