East Meets Northwest

Seattle’s Biggest Names in Asian Food

Six chefs discuss challenges, expectations, and why the word ​authentic​ can be misleading.

By Allecia Vermillion January 29, 2016 Published in the February 2016 issue of Seattle Met

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Mutsuko Soma

Washington grows more buckwheat than any other U.S. state (and exports virtually all of it to Japan for soba). And yet there’s exactly one local chef who specializes in making these slender, nutty noodles by hand. The proprietor of Miyabi 45th in Wallingford spent three years honing her soba craft in Tokyo. Now she introduces diners to a largely unfamiliar facet of Japanese food.

"Most customers don’t know about it, so we have to educate. I tell our staff to explain, this is handmade buckwheat noodle from scratch; we are not doing sushi at all. We don’t usually explain the hot soba; we explain the cold [dipping] noodles, otherwise people just dump the hot broth over the noodle.

Noodles should be eaten fast when it’s in hot broth, otherwise they absorb the broth and get kind of soggy. With cold noodles, they’re going to get dried out and stick together and just become a pile. 

Asians who come in here know to eat fast. White people take their time and go slow. For them the meal is about conversation and spending time together."

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Shiro Kashiba

Seattle’s best-loved sushi chef just opened his new place, Sushi Kashiba, at Pike Place Market. The sleek 14-seat sushi counter is a long way from his arrival as a culinary trainee a half-century earlier.

1966  Shiro Kashiba, 25, arrives in Seattle to work at Tanaka Restaurant after training in Tokyo. He’s surprised to learn that a town with incredible access to seafood doesn’t eat much raw fish. 

1970  Kashiba takes a job at Maneki, where the owners build him Seattle’s first sushi bar. 

1972  The chef opens his own place, the Nikko. 

1980s  Boom times for both sushi and Seattle. Kashiba helps open Hana on Capitol Hill (he’s no longer involved). In 1991, the Westin buys the Nikko and moves it downtown. The chef departs in 1992. 

1994  Shiro’s opens in Belltown, showcasing Edomae sushi—traditional, pure preparations that rely on the bounty of the region. 

2007  Kashiba sells all but a minority interest, though he stays involved with the restaurant until 2013. 

2015  The man who has spent his career supporting Pike Place Market’s fish purveyors comes out of a short-lived retirement to open a restaurant here, serving his trademark Edomae sushi.

Jerry Traunfeld & Eric Johnson

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Eric Johnson parlayed his years cooking in France and China (and traveling through Southeast Asia) into his new Vietnamese restaurant, Stateside. Jerry Traunfeld parlayed his longtime fascination with China’s regional flavors into his new Sichuan restaurant, Lionhead. Recently the two chefs sat down over tea at Lionhead to discuss authenticity and what happens when a chef takes on a food culture that isn’t his own.

Jerry Traunfeld: You don’t have to delve that far into Yelp reviews to see things like that brought up. People have a certain expectation of what certain dishes are supposed to be like. I cooked at least 20 different versions of Lionhead meatballs, every version I could find, to try to come up with one that I thought would be the best for the restaurant. But people have a perception, my mother made it this way and you don’t know what you’re doing because you’re white.

Eric Johnson: Or take pho. Go to Hanoi and eat 15 versions or more and you’ll see that they’re all different. There’s no one way that pho is or lion head meatballs are or kung pao chicken is. 

JT: I do try to avoid the word authentic. We’re trying to use authentic flavors and flavor profiles, but I mean the food I’m doing still reflects my style and even more so in your restaurant right? 

EJ: I don’t use the word authentic; for me it doesn’t exist. Chilies are native to South America. How many dishes in your Sichuan restaurant have chilies? So isn’t that fusion?

JT: The world is such a smaller place now. We’re so much more used to eating foods and ingredients from different parts of the world. I don’t think the neighborhood needed another farm to table.

EJ: I’ve always been really drawn to Southeast Asia. I never got to live there—I think it’s just an excuse to keep going back.

Eric Banh

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Since opening Monsoon in 1999, Eric Banh has been on a crusade to educate diners on the difference between typical (aka inexpensive) pho and the $10–$13 bowls he and his sister Sophie serve at Monsoon and Ba Bar. The Banhs just opened a steak house, Seven Beef, and Eric still spends a lot of time thinking about meat.

"People gravitate toward a hamburger place that serves an accessible meat like Painted Hills. Then they say not very nice things about McDonald’s or anyplace that doesn’t use grass-fed, local ground beef. But when it comes to ethnic food, that philosophy goes out the window. 

I did a taste test a few years ago. You can go to a Viet supermarket and buy oxtail that cost literally 30 or 40 percent less than what you buy at Uwajimaya. Because the oxtail from Viet market are old milking cows. I cooked it for six hours and it never softened up. People seem to say, oh it’s okay because it’s ethnic. But imagine Skillet selling meat from an old milking cow—there’s no way. They’d be out of business. 

When we opened Monsoon, people were complaining about how expensive it was; it was bad. But the last decade has transformed Vietnamese cuisine in this city; there’s a market out there that’s getting bigger and bigger to support the food and good quality sourcing."

Rachel Yang

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Seattle knows Rachel Yang as the force behind Joule, Revel, and Trove, but the Korean-born chef arrived in the U.S. at age 16, went on to earn a degree at Brown University, then ended up at culinary school and fine dining temples, like Thomas Keller’s Per Se. After moving here with her husband, Seif Chirchi, Yang’s embrace of her native cuisine started as fusion, intensifying with each new restaurant.

"After working at Per Se, I was approached by this woman opening a Korean restaurant. I had never cooked Korean food before; her mom literally taught me how to make kimchi. Coming to America, I always felt like being different was something of a handicap. Learning to cook Korean food, I realized this is something that everyone gets really excited about; I found my voice way earlier than other cooks, which I think was lucky. When we opened Joule, we knew we wanted to have an Asian focus, but that’s only half our story. There was a lot of going back and forth on how much [of the food] was Korean and how much was not. When we opened Revel I was like, Hey I can showcase Korean food, but in my own way. The pancake is a great example—savory pancakes are very Korean, but I added completely non-Korean things in there. At Trove the concept is very Korean, though obviously the meat and the presentation are very different. It’s always hard for us to find a perfect balance of authenticity and creativity. 

In a way I made a big circle. If I were to be an ambassador of Korean food, I’d go back to Korea and learn these old techniques to make things very authentic. What I love about cooking is it’s such a creative process."

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