Part Three: Japanese Culture and Cuisine

Maiatake Mushrooms

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

Part Four: John McCarthy CVap and Painting

Pax No. 3

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

When you think about CVap itself, and you did tell me that…you absolutely credit it to being able to do this.

I think I brought you and Mr. Winston back, and I said “look, it’s me, Matt, and see that CVap? It’s named Bob.

So, what about CVap do you think allowed you to do that?

Well, we were serving, I think, food that visually was very appealing. Also, incredibly delicious. The way we were doing it is, we were able to approach it from the perspective of, if I can have one cook, or myself, prepare the garnish for the dish, the protein can go into the CVap for a set period of minutes or time, or even longer. Just hold it there. Then I don’t need to worry about the second or third pan on the pickup. And if you’re able to do that, you’ve now freed yourself to take care of one, two, maybe three other dishes that need to go out in the course of the service, to set up again that particular course.

And that’s the way we ran that restaurant for several years. It’s somewhat difficult, because you’ve got to make sure if you’re using it for several applications, whatever setting you’re using that CVap for, that it’s going to apply to both. Otherwise, you’re going to have a wall of CVaps. That may work for the Culinary Institute of America, but we’re a restaurant. We were able to do it successfully.

Octopus

Cool, cool. This has been very interesting. Through your career, and I mean both as a lawyer and a chef and restauranteur, consultant. Who were your mentors? How did you find them?

Well, in terms of CVap, it was always a fascinating machine. When we got to The Crimson Sparrow…I can’t remember how I came to run into Tony Martino. I don’t know how that came about. But between you and Tony, that’s where we got most of learning and information about the CVap. Because like I said, we were very fascinated by it. We didn’t want to spend the $25,000 for the combi ovens. We thought this was a better application for what we wanted to do anyway. And, you know, CVap…you and Tony were incredibly generous with your time. And you also had a great deal of information about recipes and cooking. But I remember at the time a lot of the recipes we were given were really large industrial kind of school menus. We had to kind of extrapolate a little bit, do a little experimentation. We also had the HACCP license so, things that we could do…sous vide we could also do in the CVap oven. 

So, in terms of CVap, it was you and Tony and the folks right there. Because I’ll tell you right now, I didn’t know a lot of people who used them. It was only after, I guess we’d been open five or six years when I went to one of the Star Chefs, and I think there was a whole presentation about CVap. People were like “wow, this sounds great! Where do you get it?” At that time, I’m not making it out as ancient history, we were finishing up the last corner on the wheel. It was a situation where there wasn’t a whole lot information…and I want to make this sound right…not a whole lot of information out there for standalone restaurants that were interested in the technology. It was a different application that was driving Winston at that point. 

I think since then, now you have all these chefs and people talking about how they use it, the best application for it. There’s much more information. So, I think in terms of trying to proffer to a younger chef or a restaurant owner ‘hey you ought to look into this machine.’ There’s a lot more available information to actually see it being done. I think we did a video in the early, early days of Crimson Sparrow about how about we used the CVap cooking octopus. We did an octopus dish; I think it was a kimchi romesco.

We did that video, I think…I haven’t looked at that video in a long time. If you look at that video, I don’t think we have the shelves up in the kitchen. But yeah, those are the types of things that I think…we were learning along with running the restaurant.

I would go one step further; I’d say we were learning with you as well, because I’d been using it for years, and doing all types of cooking with it myself and the fashion that you’re talking about. But the focus of Winston’s business really was chain oriented, like you said. And also, school and institutional type cooking. So, when we started working with you, we saw things that we’d not seen before because the things you were doing with it hadn’t been done before. And then, all of the sudden it’s like there was an explosion. Now there’s not a serious chef, I don’t think, that doesn’t know what CVap is and what they can do with them.

Exactly. It’s incredible how it’s become part of the equipment lexicon in restaurants. I’ve got a lot of ideas I’d like to share with you. One of ’em, I just wanna make sure you understand…we did really screw some things up, foodwise. We got one of those industrial machines with the juiced fan. I remember, there as a time, we tried to put pheasant in it. We made the best pheasant jerky you can imagine. I mean, there was no rulebook. I don’t know that Mary Monroe High School in Bel Air, Maryland is cooking pheasant for the kids. 

So, we were trying to learn with you guys. And that was the whole point of the exchanges. We found that one of the coolest applications…we found that for our pastry program…muffins, cakes…man, it was magic and incredibly easy and almost, I wanna say, almost failsafe. Unless, like, in the last ten minutes of cooking you got drunk and slipped into a three-hour nap and woke up, I mean, you couldn’t screw it up. It was really, really a great application for it.

I know you did a lot with custards and eggs well.

We were doing a lot of things in the CVap. Particularly fish. I mean salmon, and it made a fine dining restaurant’s preparation of salmon completely easy. There were no overcooked. It came out perfectly warmed in the center, pink and unctuous and delicious. Those were things that, again, not only did I save on labor costs, I didn’t even have to teach someone out of culinary school or a restaurant “hey look, don’t hammer the salmon!” It made life much easier.

What is your favorite fish, and why? And then, what’s the secret to good sake?

Ah, sake. So, in terms of a fish, I eat an extraordinary amount of fish. I’ll tell you what I don’t like. I don’t like salmon.

I’m in the same camp.

It’s too oily, I just don’t like it. Orange and red meat fish, I’m not a fan of. I prefer things that have crispy skins, like sebring, things like that. Then my other favorites are things like clams, squid, octopus, I’m a big fan of that texture. It’s got a good chew to it. I prefer that if we’re going to say “hey, let’s eat some seafood.” I prefer that, or like a shellfish. In terms of sake, if you can’t have a sake advisor, a san, whatever term you want to use. 

We had an extensive sake menu at The Crimson Sparrow, and later at Oka, and a couple other restaurants. But sake is another one of those things, it’s incredibly delicious, incredibly fascinating cultural aspect of Japanese cuisine and dining and izakaya culture as well. But it’s really up to the taste of the drinker. There are sakes that are inherently light. Maybe a bit sweet. There are ones that are really ricey, and then some that are very bold, very forward in their flavors. You have floral types, and you have aged sake. There’s a myriad of different types of sake. If you were to pin me down and say, “what is your favorite sake?” My flavor usually tends toward Junmai Ginjo. Junmai is a rice brew, it has no added alcohol to it, and then the ginjo indicating the polish rate, which is less than 60% remaining after they’ve polished the rice. I find those to be a nice balance of rice, florality, also mouthfeel. It’s really delicious. 

We were doing beverage programs at The Crimson Sparrow that incorporate it. It was another one of those situations where in the beginning we were offering a full wine pairing, and we found that incorporating sake added a different adventuresome element that diners seem to really appreciate. I will tell you that one of the benefits of serving sake as part of your beverage program is that the waste rate on wine is horrendous. You open a bottle of wine, you go through it, then you have to open one more bottle to get through the service. And a day or so later you got to dump it, or use it for some application in the kitchen, hopefully. Whereas sake, the shelf life is long. In a successful ongoing restaurant operation, you should have zero sake waste. So, if you look at it the perspective of 50% of your beverage drains are sake, you hopefully cut down on your wastage, anywhere from 30 to 50 percent. We loved that aspect of it. More, we appreciated the fact that sake has what wine will never have, which is elements of umami that helps the whole experience, and helps the dining experience.

You were asking me about restaurants in New York. And the startup of a restaurant in New York is incredibly expensive. One thing that I was thinking about in anticipation of our talk today was even before the pandemic, it was becoming increasingly difficult for restaurants to recruit cooks. For whatever reason. People don’t want to be in the kitchen. Don’t want to cook. Don’t wanna put in the hours, find that there’s more money out front of house. Whatever the case is.

So, before the pandemic, and this has been going on for a while, I have been bouncing the idea of a restaurant that would incorporate one, two, three different CVaps, which would allow a kitchen to be run on a skeleton, like we talked about before. But because there are aspects of CVap that provide other cost savings…namely, it doesn’t need to be hooded. So, if you’re looking at the construction of a restaurant, and you’re looking at a ten-foot hood, you’re looking at a hood that’s incredibly expensive. However, if you’ve got elements of your equipment, namely a CVap, that can then be slid under a counter and have more workable space, you can now have a six-foot hood, or a five-foot hood. You have just cut the major cost in your kitchen design in half. It also takes care of the labor issue, to an extent, in that you’ve got a unit that can not only on a large format basis prepare the food, during serve it can serve to hold things or reheat things that you can make for an easy pick up.

Those are the things that, I think, as we were looking at spaces in New York, we were looking to design smaller spaces with heavy influence or heavy intention on the sake and shōchū beverage end of it. And then saving money on the kitchen operation by eliminating the need for six chefs or five cooks and a dishwasher. We were looking at an operation that could be run by one or two people.

The thing that I would recommend to anyone is look into the CVap because of the variety of applications, both from browning, searing, capacity, poaching capacity, steaming…it goes on and on and on. As opposed to “I gotta have this conventional convection oven, I’ve gotta have this whole line.” You can replace a whole line in one piece of equipment.

As we come out of the pandemic, I think we’re going to see a reversion back to smaller restaurants. I think the days of the 400-seat meat packing bazaar (and I mean both b-a-z-a-a-r and b-i-z-a-r-r-e), I think those days are gone. Because if this revists us, you’re back to 50-person capacity in a 400-seat food hall. I think we’re going to see a return to airier, lighter, smaller spaces that can absorb an impact. If that’s the case, then chefs and operators really need to readjust their thinking to how they can save on equipment, but also labor. The way that they need to smartly do that is to consider multi-application machines like CVap. That is the way that you get around a lot of these issues. It’s going to take a corresponding adjustment, sort of a re-calculation of how they prepare food, what food they prepare. Find innovative ways to simulate and/or achieve the same textures and flavors they did before with other applications. But that’s where we’re gonna be post-pandemic. I think that’s one of the important things, in a city like New York, particularly, the multiple application uses of a machine that basically slides under your counter and quietly does the work that two cooks could do.

Man, I couldn’t have asked for a better advertisement there!

I looked at three different spaces and basically, we were lining them out to be CVap kitchens. It would have been fun, but we’ll see what post-pandemic holds.

This is something that everybody else doesn’t know. A lot of people don’t know this, but you’re a pretty well-known artist. Tell us about that.

A lot of people know me…I don’t think they know me as an artist. I started painting a couple of years ago. I still had The Crimson Sparrow. You know, you find things in life that you really, really enjoy doing, and that’s one of ’em. I paint every single day. I have had a great sort of mentor guiding me through and kind of giving me the encouragement that I think I needed. His name is Paul Hunter, he’s an incredible artist. He is very, very well known.

I’ve sold some paintings. Just recently I’ve been picked up by a very large Japanese gallery in Tokyo. Also, a couple other opportunities have that popped up. So, things you force in life usually end up not working out, things that you pursue because you enjoy them, you find it to be a healthy outlet usually lead to things that are beneficial or opportunities that you really never knew existed or you never imagined taking advantage of.

So right now, I’m just really enjoying it. Let’s face it, outside of trying to help people through very difficult times it’s a way to, one decompresses, kind of forget about all the nonsense that is going on, but also the hope that it will lead to something financially beneficial and also make my life a little bit better. I’ve really enjoyed. If you want to check it all out it’s on Instagram at @Sparrow_Suzume_art.

The Last of Summer

There you go! So, it’s all about flow, right?

You just gotta go with the flow. Particularly nowadays. People say, ‘oh, you’re doing this consulting, you’re taking money from people that really don’t have it.’ I’m not crazy about it myself, but a lot of my consulting is well below market average, and in many cases, it’s free. It’s the idea that we’ve got to get together and help each other and get people through this. Yeah, it’s not to take advantage of them and not to parasitically benefit from their trying times.

And what we’re trying to do, not to make it sound too heroic, we’re trying to save an industry and people within it who have set up their life around this. In some cases, generationally. These people need our help. It’s incredibly difficult to hear these stories. You think I’m frustrated. Thankfully, when this broke, I had just got out of my last restaurant deal, and so I don’t have a restaurant right now.

I’ve got that figured out, and it’s in the future, and it’s in Louisville. It’s a sake bar – art gallery.

Let’s buy some horses too.

Maybe a sake and bourbon bar or something.

Throw some shōchū in there too, some of the barrel-aged shōchū. It tastes like bourbon. My encouragement would be…there is something to be said for helping other people. And if you own a restaurant and you’re floundering, and you don’t know what to do, ask another restaurant owner. Ask someone for help. I mean, call me if you want. But also, if you’re holding water if you’re doing well, help your neighbor. If you know someone who’s in trouble, someone in dire straits or on the skids, call them, reach out to them. Nobody in this industry should be left alone at this point. Not only from the perspective of financial health and business health. We also need to take care of people’s mental health. There was mental health and addiction in the industry long before the pandemic. I can almost virtually assure you 101 percent that it hasn’t gotten better during the pandemic.

So, people really need to take care of each other, to help each other, and need to offer. You know, sometimes we want to tear down the competition, beat the competition. There’s no competition anymore. This is six people in a floundering boat. We need all pails on deck, and people really need to help. If you’re not helping, you’re part of problem.

What a beautiful message to end this on. John, I appreciate your friendship and your time.

Autumn Heather
Lernaean Hydra in Situ
Yesteryear