October 24, 2012

Bringing New Life to Japanese American Hero Gordon Hirabayashi's Story

Three men, Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui, defied President Franklin Roosevelt's order to 110,000 West Coast Japanese to submit to evacuation and imprisonment during World War II. Among their stories, Gordon Hirabayashi's has always struck me as the most dramatic.

Convinced that Executive Order 9066 was unconstitutional, he possessed the moral courage to defy it. He ignored a curfew placed on targeted Japanese, refused to post bail that would have sent him to a prison camp, and challenged the government on the constitutionality of the Order. Upon conviction, lacking the funds to get himself from Seattle, where he had been at senior at the University of Washington, he hitchhiked to Tuscon, where he was to serve out his sentence, sleeping in ditches along the way.

Forty-three years later, Hirabayashi's conviction (upheld by the Supreme Court in 1943) was overturned by a San Francisco federal appeals court. Earlier this year, President Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

So I was excited to hear that actor and playwright Jeanne Sakata's play about Hirabayashi, Hold These Truths, was coming to New York's Epic Theater. Last night Sakata spoke at a meeting of JAJA (an informal group of Japanese Americans and Japanese living in New York) at the Manhattan loft of Tamio Spiegel and Julie Azuma.

It was fascinating to hear the story of how Sakata's initial curiosity about Hirabayashi turned into a driving passion, inspiring her to try her hand at play writing for the first time. She forged a relationship with Hirabayashi, and immersed herself in his correspondence and papers at the University of Washington library. She lucked out, meeting Hirabashi when he was in his early 80s, his memory sharp and his naturally sunny personality on full display. Hirabayashi died in January after suffering from Alzheimer's disease for a number of years, at 93.

Hirabayashi's personality was so positive in fact, that pinpointing those moment of self-doubt and anguish that Sakata  knew she needed to give her one-man play dramatic tension proved to be one of the challenges of the project. Even though Hirabayashi gave her licence to "just make up" what she lacked, she preferred not to; luckily she came across enough early primary source material to illuminate those desperate moments. One  such discovery came when she learned that when Hirabayashi's parents were brought from their prison camp to Seattle to testify against him, the government refused to put them up in decent lodgings, instead making them stay in his prison cell with him. Hirabayashi swore he would never forgive the U.S. government for doing that to his parents. He was also, Sakata told the audience, deeply anguished over the pain he caused his mother by his actions, which she feared would separate him from the family forever. 

Asked how she felt about a non-Japanese, playing the role of Hirabayashi (Filipino American Joel de la Fuente stars), Sakata noted that the theaters at which Hold These Truths has been staged all conduct open auditions, and that all the leading Japanese American male actors who might have fit the part were busy working, which for any actor is  "a good thing."

From all reports this latest incarnation of the play is moving, beautifully acted and powerful theater; I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Hold These Truths
By Jeanne Sakata
Starring Joel de la Fuente
344 E. 14th St.
New York, NY 1009
Through November 18

October 11, 2012

Ishikawa Prefecture Drops in on NYC

Here are a few photos from a beautifully cooked and presented dinner I attended last night at Gramercy Tavern in celebration of one of Japan's most culturally rich areas, Ishikawa Prefecture. Hosts Michael Romano, president of culinary development for Union Square Hospitality Group and  GT executive chef  Michael Anthony presided over the event, held in a private room decked out to the nines by USHG's talented in-house floral designer Roberta Bendavid.

Before guests arrive,  ChefAnthony decides to preserve the moment.

Paying homage to the foods of Ishikawa, which is located on the more picturesque side of the country, the Sea of Japan coast, nine courses showcased oysters, lobster, crab and kinmedai (golden sea bream) among other delicacies. We sat down to a first course of sea urchin, creamy Hakurei turnips and apples dressed in miso and pumpkin seeds. A teepee-like wooden construction stood over each dish, an allusion to the yukitsuri rope coverings used to protect wintering trees in Japan, and in Ishikawa's Kenrokuen park.

Two of Ishikawa most famous exports (besides Chairman Kaga of Iron Chef  fame) are Kutani ceramics and Wajima lacquerware, both of which were represented at the table. I was so taken with this Wajimaware bowl, but the matsutake mushroom and crab soup inside it was equally refined. Chefs Romano and Anthony were assisted by a surprise guest, chef Shinichiro Takagi of Zeniya restaurant in Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture. (Orchestrating the dinner behind the scenes was Gohan Society founder and Korin Japanese Trading Corp. President Saori Kawano.) Later, Anthony noted that the one word he took away from the kitchen lessons of the evening was "restraint;" this clear soup exemplified that value.

Romano, who has been given the honorary title of "Ambassador of Culture and Fine Dining" by the governor of Ishikawa Prefecture, enthusiastically discussed his Ishikawa culinary finds, especially koji, the mold-innoculated rice that is enjoying its moment in Japan, especially mixed with salt to form a kind of super-seasoning, and ishiri, an Ishikawa-made super-powered fish sauce containing pickled and fermented squid intestines. In what must have been catnip to the roomful of chefs, Romano evoked those moments "when you just need a little something to round out a dish, fill in the middle." A squirt of ishiri, he marveled, "fills up a whole flavor spectrum on your palate." 

October 5, 2012

Kitchen Assistant Confidential

As promised, a little about the chefs who were invited to Cakebread Cellars' American Harvest Workshop in Napa. Not only were they a fun-loving bunch of guys, they were key players in arguably the highlight of the event, two amazing dinners that showcased both their talents and the products of selected purveyors.

Included were David Hawskworth, who made a name for himself at Vancouver's West restaurant before launching his eponymous Hawskworth (it was the talk of the town last time I was in Vancouver) in the Rosewood Hotel Georgia; Cuban-born chef Louis Pous, who headed The Dining Room at Little Palm Island in the Florida Keys before being tapped to become chef for the resort's parent company, Noble House; Daniel Stern, who heads his own restaurant group in Philadelphia, including showpiece R2L; Louisiana-born Danny Trace, who cut his teeth at Commander's Palace in New Orleans and now heads the kitchen at Brennan's of Houston, and Will Bradof and Paul Wireman of Trio in Jackson, Wyoming.

For the two dinners, each chef drew an ingredient that he (yes, it was an all-male group, though there have been women chefs invited to previous workshops) had to cook with, typically one provided by one of the 18 purveyors. Not only did each have to build his dishes around the designated ingredient, he had to try to incorporate as many other purveyor ingredients as possible.

It wasn't exactly a hardship, what with the likes of Broken Arrow Ranch, which harvests wild antelope, Napa Valley Lamb Company, The Hog Island Oyster Company, Sonoma County Poultry (home to the excellent Liberty Ducks), Sparrow Lane vinegars, and Devil's Gulch Ranch for rabbit.

Below is a menu-planning session with the six chefs, led by Brian Streeter, Cakebread Cellars' culinary director and American Harvest Workshop manager.

It was probably not easy for the chefs at first, not knowing each other and having to riff out loud on ingredients as they conceptualized their dishes, but they gradually warmed to the task. A good-natured Pous changed course on his quail dish, incorporating  a plantain mofongo (smashed with bacon and garlic, Puerto Rican style) that the rest of the group cajoled out of him. Stern described an antelope loin preparation wrapped in Fatted Calf lardo with a fried green tomato salad dressed with walnut champagne vinegar (as mouth-watering in reality as it sounded at the meeting). Trace decided on a king salmon caviar club with avocado squash and Bellwether Farms creme fraiche. As each came up with his dish, Michael Weiss, professor of wine and spirits at the Culinary Institute of America, suggested Cakebread vintages and varietals that would pair best with them.

One of the best parts for the non-chefs was getting to cook in the kitchen with the professionals. I assisted Trace and sliced the avocado squash on a Japanese benriner mandoline, washed arugula, chopped tiny cherry tomatoes and peppers and most painstakingly of all, helped placed micro-green garnishes on the tomatoes. We really could have used tweezers, but thankfully it wasn't that kind of kitchen.

Cakebread President Bruce Cakebread, in blue shirt, flashing his knife skills. 
Danny Trace assembling his salmon caviar club sandwiches.
My handiwork, sliced avocado squash, forms the base. 

In process: David Hawksworth's albacore tataki with
smoked jalapeno and corn vinaigrette. 

Things I learned from my time in the kitchen: that plating a dish like the one above requires the eye of an abstract artist; that six chefs can really produce a lot of dirty pots and pans and it helps to have cheerful dishwashers; that sheep's milk ice cream really does taste wonderful (that is when made with Bellwether Farms product and paired, as Trace expertly did, with Gourmet Mushrooms bread pudding, Marshall's Farm honey and a red-wine beurre rouge), and that it's more fun to be in the kitchen with the cooks than with the wine-and-hors d'oeuvres crowd on the patio