JACCC to Celebrate ‘A Taste of Success’

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“A Taste of Success: Shaping Generations of Japanese Culture and Cuisine to the American Palate” is the theme of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center’s 33rd anniversary celebration and awards dinner, to be held Sunday, June 30, from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Beverly Hilton, 9876 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills.

For more information and reservations, contact Janet Hiroshima at [email protected] or (213) 628-2725.

“Strong culinary traditions are important to every culture,” the JACCC said in a statement. “For the Japanese who came to America and the generations that have followed them, what and how we eat are key to our cultural identity and it’s these traditions that we pass on that help preserve our culture. The hope and natural social progression moves from culinary traditions to other cultural traditions, including language.

“In most families, culinary traditions are passed down through the women for example, Obaachan’s teriyaki chicken, or as things evolved in America, Grandma’s teriyaki weenies. And it’s not just what we eat but how we eat it. Some of our strongest traditions are passed down at the dinner table.

Itadakimasu does not just mean ‘bon appetit’ or ‘dig in’ – it’s derived from the kanji ‘to receive,’ meant to show appreciation to the once living ingredients we receive from nature to nourish our bodies, to those who attentively cultivate them, and to the persons who prepare the meal. It is to show gratitude.

Enryo, one of the quintessential Japanese values, means to refrain or restrain oneself upon others. This one too, we learn around the dinner table. We teach our children never to take the last piece of pizza in the pie in consideration of the other people eating with them.

“And embedded in the Japanese culture is another important mindset of omotenashi, an open and unpretentious art of heartfelt hospitality, practiced throughout the service industry and into homes when receiving guests.

“Through food and eating, we also share our culture with others outside of our community. In 2004, the JACCC honored Mr. Noritoshi Kanai with the Pacific Pioneer award for his life work of promoting Japanese foods in America and worldwide. Long known as ‘The Culinary Ambassador of Japan,’ providing fine Japanese foods to restaurants and retail markets across America, this story of Japanese American culinary arts is not complete without recognizing Mr. Kanai and the achievements of Mutual Trading Company. 

“With his lifetime devotion to ‘Bringing the Fun and Flavors of Japan to the People of the World,’ Kanai has made it possible for everyone in America to experience the realm of authentic Japanese culinary culture: Edomae sushi, soba, udon, ramen, premium jizake and many other fine Japanese foods.

“Mr. Kanai is considered the ‘Father of Sushi’ as he first introduced the cuisine in 1965 in Little Tokyo. Today there are 17,000 Japanese restaurants in the U.S. serving sushi. It was introduced by the Kawafuku Restaurant after much persuasion from Mr. Kanai. Today, he is pursuing the expansion of sake with the same fervor and expects the market to consider this as a staple of fine Japanese cuisine.

“Like Mr. Kanai, the three awardees, Frances Hashimoto-Friedman, Chef Akira Hirose and Michael Hide Cardenas, all recognize the power of the culinary arts to bring community together and keep culture alive in traditional and non-traditional ways – and for this we salute them.”

• Frances Hashimoto Friedman, Chairman’s Award. Hashimoto (Aug. 26, 1943-Nov. 4, 2012) was one of Little Tokyo’s most influential, visionary leaders, dedicating her life to preserving the neighborhood’s Japanese cultural traditions. She was the president of Mikawaya, the 102-year-old, three-generation family business that introduced mochi ice cream and other Japanese confectioneries to delighted dessert lovers around the world.

Born in Arizona, she grew up in and around Little Tokyo and with her parents’ urging, studied classical dance and tea ceremony. She attended Hollenbeck Junior High, graduated from Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, and received a bachelor’s degree in 1966 from the University of Southern California along with a general teaching credential, which qualified her to teach elementary school for four years.

At the urging of her widowed mother, in 1970, Hashimoto left teaching and took over the family business at age 27. She vastly expanded its reach from a single shop to four retail stores in Little Tokyo, Gardena, Torrance and Honolulu. In 1994, under her leadership, Mikawaya fused Japanese mochi with American ice cream and a culinary phenomenon was launched.

Mikawaya (named after a Japanese province) first opened at 365 E. First St. in Little Tokyo in 1910 and was purchased by Ryuzaburo Hashimoto, who employed his nephew and his nephew’s wife, Koroku and Haru Hashimoto. The couple purchased the business in 1925 and ran it until 1942, when they were incarcerated at the Poston internment camp, where their daughter Frances was born. 

They returned in 1945 and reopened the shop, offering yomogi daifuku, a mugwort-infused ball of green mochi filled with red bean anko paste; chi chi dango, the softest mochi imaginable that come in eight brightly colored varieties; and hiyoko, a baby chick-shaped pastry filled with sweet lima bean paste.

Mikawaya’s famous mochi ice cream come in seven flavors: vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, mango, green tea, coffee and red bean and can be found in grocery stores such as Trader Joe’s, Safeway, Gelson’s, and Albertsons. Hashimoto and her husband Joel Friedman always strove for innovation, and more recently secured kosher certification for Mikawaya desserts and introduced a new line of mochi-wrapped gelato.

Over four decades, Hashimoto worked to protect the history, integrity and identity of Little Tokyo. She was the longest-serving board member of the JACCC and also served on the boards of the Little Tokyo Business Association, Nisei Week Foundation, Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Southern California, Mayor’s Little Tokyo Community Development Advisory Committee, and various other panels overseeing the neighborhood’s redevelopment and transportation projects. She was selected to be included in Who’s Who of American Women (16th Edition, 1989-90), Who’s Who in California (20th Edition, 1991) and Who’s Who in the World (10th Edition, 199l-92).

In November 2012, the Los Angeles City Council voted to memorialize her leadership and contributions to the community by dedicating the Frances K Hashimoto Plaza at Second and Azusa streets in Little Tokyo. The plaque marking the plaza reads: “A Life of Leadership, Tradition, Philanthropy, and Service to Little Tokyo.”

• Chef Akira Hirose, Pacific Pioneer Award. Maison Akira, located on a tree-lined boulevard in Pasadena, is Hirose’s creative home. Since 1998, he has built Maison Akira’s exquisite menu based on his unique interpretation of French dishes infused with Japanese ingredients and flavors.

Diners might begin the meal with simple French classic like escargots de Bourgogne and onion soup gratinée followed by Asian-influenced dishes like shiso-dusted tuna served rare in yuzu soy, or an eel chawanmushi. His signature dish, a classic miso-marinated grilled Chilean sea bass with ratatouille and quinoa in a honey-lemon sauce, was served to Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko during a visit to Los Angeles.

As a child, Kyoto native Hirose had his first experience of dining in a European-style restaurant in Japan, complete with chandeliers and white tablecloths, and was swept away by the elegance of the cuisine and atmosphere. By the time he was a high school student, he had decided to pursue his dream to move to France in a quest to master the flavors of classic French cuisine.

In 1973, he moved to the Loir Valley, a small village with a population of 1,800, where he learned about the chef’s role in building fundamental relationships with farmers and seasonal ingredients, while living and working with a French family who owned a small restaurant and hotel. Within a few years, his skills in the kitchen and friendships with Japanese chefs in France helped Hirose land a prestigious spot working under world-renowned chef and restaurateur Joel Robuchon at the Nikko de Paris. In addition to studying the fine art of pastries at Ecole de Lenotre, he continued to work in esteemed kitchens such as Maxim’s in Paris and the Michelin two-star restaurant Chez Hosten.

In 1981, Hirose made his first trip to the U.S. to work at the French haute cuisine restaurant L’Orangerie in West Hollywood, where he met his future wife. A year later, he returned to Kyoto to open his first restaurant, the 50-seat Azay-Le-Rideau, offering strictly traditional French cuisine to Japanese guests. After a wildly successful seven years, he closed Azay-Le-Rideau and returned to Los Angeles.

Upon his return, Hirose worked at various French restaurants in Los Angeles such as Citrus Restaurant, the Pasadena Ritz Carlton Georgian Room, and the Belvedere Restaurant in the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, where he was first requested to consider building a menu of French cuisine with an Asian twist. In 1994, Hirose had the distinct honor of preparing a special luncheon for Japan’s imperial couple with 100 additional guests while working at the world-renowned Tower Restaurant, formerly located at the top of the Transamerica Building in downtown Los Angeles.

He has graced the JACCC’s Autumn Fest and numerous receptions with his fusion French-Japanese bento and amazing pastries. He also volunteers his culinary talents to a variety of causes, including the California Hospital L’Grande Affaire Dinner, the Club Culinaire’s Annual Picnic Committee, City Club on Bunker Hill Benefit Dinner for Augie’s Quest/Cure for ALS, Los Angeles Zoo Beastly Ball, Pasadena Huntington Hospital Food and Wine Festival, and the Pasadena Playhouse event.

Hirose’s generosity extends into the Asian Pacific American community in Los Angeles, where he has donated his time and services to non-profit organizations such as Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches (A3M), Project by Project, Little Tokyo Service Center’s Tofu Festival and Sake Event, the Japanese American National Museum, the Asia America Symphony, and Visual Communications.

Hirose has received accolades, including being named the Club Culinaire Francaise of Southern California’s Chef of the Year in 1998 and the recipient of the LTSC Community Award that same year. He has also received the Pacific Asian Heritage Hero Award from KCET and Union Bank. Maison Akira has received Zagat’s Excellent Rating from 2004 to 2008 as well as rave reviews from local publications.

• Michael Hide Cardenas, Ambassador’s Award. It is customary in Japan to casually pop into an izakaya (which loosely translates into a tavern or pub) to drink a little, eat a little, then drink a little more. The best izakaya food is salty and spicy, crunch and savory, and engineered to be especially delicious with beer or wine. Cardenas was born in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, to a Mexican American father who served in the U.S. Navy and a Japanese mother from Osaka. Raised in Japan until he was 17, he was familiar with the popular eating trends of snack bars and izakaya when he decided to explore his American roots by moving to California.

He began his culinary career as a teppan grill chef in San Diego after graduating from the Benihana Chef School in New Orleans in 1981. In 1984, he was recruited to become general manager for Teru Sushi in Studio City, which led to a prestigious position of opening general manager of Chaya Venice. At that juncture in his career, Cardenas decided to travel around the world to try different cuisines, and set out for Jamaica, Hong Kong, and other places where he wanted to test his palate.

When he returned to Los Angeles in 1991, he was eager to start afresh. He managed to persuade the renowned Nobuyuki Matsuhisa to hire him for “just a month” and before they both knew it, Cardenas had been with “Nobu” for five years, helping oversee the rapid growth of Matsuhisa Restaurants by opening locations in London and New York.

In 1997, Cardenas forged a partnership known as Innovative Dining, and opened his first restaurant, Sushi Roku, on La Cienega and Third Street (inside the Beverly Center) as partner and general manager. It quickly expanded into three locations. Cardenas’ and his partners’ next projects reconceptualized the classic steakhouse (Boa) and robatayaki (Katana and Robata Bar) by delivering Japanese food with artisanal ingredients for a sleek, urban crowd. To this day, he is involved in the daily operation of nine Innovative Dining outlets in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Beginning in 2009, Cardenas opened a string of prestigious restaurants of his own, each with a unique vibe, all within walking distance of one another in the Little Tokyo neighborhood. Within the past three years, he has done more to refine and perfect both modern American izakaya and Japanese comfort foods like live octopus sashimi with a punchy yuzu pepper sauce, or jidori fried chicken karaage served with a plate of blistered shishitos and a confetti of bonito shavings, through restaurants Aburiya Toranoko, Fat Spoon and the Lazy Ox Canteen.

To keep up with the ever-changing food trends, Cardenas visits his homeland of Japan at least four to five times a year, and since Japanese is his first language, he has no trouble honing in on exciting flavor profiles and innovative food. His upcoming project, Taberna Arroz y Vi, will feature chef Perfecto Rocher, formerly of El Bulli in Spain, and is due to open late fall 2013 in Santa Monica.

• Noritoshi Kanai is the man at the very heart of the sushi revolution in America. Due in large part to his efforts, Los Angeles is celebrated as one of the top cities in the world for sushi because the city is blessed with a bounty of superior fish markets, master itamae, and diners who are hungry for the best.

Born in Tokyo in 1923, Kanai served in World War II. Stationed in Burma as a second lieutenant in charge of supplies/food/medication, he learned to make shoyu, miso and konnyaku in the jungles, not by choice but out of necessity. Through the bitter experience of the war, he learned the importance of logistics, the lifeline to all trade. These turned out to become the best life lessons for his future career as an international businessman.

Returning home to Japan in 1946, he completed his master’s degree in economics at Tokyo Shoka Daigaku (Hitotsubashi University) and later co-founded a Japanese food export company in 1951. In 1964, Kanai, with his wife Fusako and children Scott and Atsuko, moved to the U.S. to manage Mutual Trading Company, a Japanese business founded in 1926 to meet the needs of the early Japanese immigrant community in Southern California.

His first venture in the U.S. importing Harvest Honey Sesame Cookies and thin rice crackers was an instant success. However, it was short-lived, as Nabisco launched a knock-off three years later and nearly put Mutual Trading out of business.

As a last-ditch effort to find another culinary hit, Kanai traveled to Japan with his business partner, Harry Wolff Jr. After scouring the markets across Asia, they ended up in Tokyo with no new ideas. Then on a dare, Kanai took Wolff to a sushi shop to introduce him to true Japanese cuisine, thinking that he would be deterred from the raw fish. On the contrary, without hesitation, Wolff ate some sushi. 

He said: “I am Jewish from Europe. There are many Europeans who have culinary familiarity with raw fish. How much fresher can raw fish become, prepared before my own eyes? Most Western chefs are snobby and won’t talk to a guest. A sushi man is open and friendly. I like the way I can customize my order, made to how I like my sushi. Most importantly, this is purely Japanese, and no American can copy it easily.”

Kanai returned to L.A. and went to every Japanese restaurant in Little Tokyo to start serving sushi; he was shut out with a resounding “Americans will not eat raw fish!” After months of persuasion, Tokijiro Nakajima of Kawafuku Restaurant agreed on the venture and launched the very first sushi bar outside of Japan in 1965, with only seven seats. It only took a few years before sushi bars proliferated all over the country, and today there are an estimated 17,000 Japanese restaurants in the U.S., 30,000 around the world, many serving sushi.

More recently, Kanai founded the Sushi Institute of America in collaboration with Katsuya Uechi, a renowned sushi chef, and in 2010, the Sake School of America. Both schools were founded to ensure that true Japanese culinary form and the art of sake are properly taught to the new generations of chefs worldwide.

Today, Mutual Trading is the premier Japanese food service supplier and global trendsetter. Just recently, even the Japanese government has followed suit to recognize Japanese food culture as an internationally marketable property, unique only to Japan and thus sustainable, unlike electronics and automobiles. Mutual Trading’s offices dot the two coasts, Honolulu and Tokyo. 

To shoulder the responsibility of promoting and perpetuating the Japanese culinary arts, Mutual Trading hosts Japanese food expositions as well as Hocho cutlery service centers, and showcases thousands of specialty kitchen supplies in its showrooms. Through it all, Kanai has continued to be connected with the Little Tokyo community, where the corporation had its humble beginnings, supporting non-profits and helping communicate the legacy of Japanese culture for the benefit of future generations of Nikkei.

His long-running quest to popularize soba is still his aim: nutritious, healthy, economical, good-tasting, sustainable agri-business. It’s the ultimate in Japanese cuisine. Stay tuned — it’s the next Kanai cultural adventure.

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