To celebrate his 70th birthday, Shiro Kashiba, the dean of Seattle sushi chefs has written a memoir.
“Shiro: Wit, Wisdom and Recipes from a Sushi Pioneer” has something to appeal to everyone. It is the success story of a plucky, ambitious young immigrant making his way in a city with its own ambitions. It is a manifesto for a sustainable Northwest cuisine. It is a manual for making it in the restaurant business. And it is a cookbook of recipes and tips from one of Seattle’s top chefs. All told in the cheerful aw-shucks voice of a friend sitting at the kitchen table with his photo album and scrapbook.
In some ways, Shiro Kashiba was lucky. Born during World War II, he grew up in a middle-class family in Kyoto, a city that was spared the ravages of the war. The first Americans he met were soldiers bearing gifts of chocolate. His parents could afford to occasionally treat the family to dinner at a restaurant where young Shiro was enthralled by the sushi chefs with their deft knife skills and confident demeanor.
“At the age of four or so, the seeds for my future were firmly planted,” he recalled.
But he needed considerable dedication and courage to pursue his dream. Kashiba spent six years as an apprentice working for room and board at a top Tokyo restaurant. While his fellow apprentices aspired to work their way up the food chain in Japan, Shiro used his few contacts to find a job in the U.S. In the days before the Internet, it took two years to secure a position at Tanaka, a family-run restaurant in the International District, where he worked evenings while attending classes in the food service program at Seattle Central Community College during the day. When Tanaka closed, he struck out on his own, creating Seattle’s first sushi bar inside Maneki. Its success gave him the confidence to open his own restaurant, Nikko in the International District. After selling Nikko in the mid-1990’s, he took a sabbatical before opening Shiro’s in Belltown, where he still presides over the sushi bar three nights a week.
“I really wanted to become a Tokyo-style sushi chef,” Kashiba recently recalled. “‘Edomae’ means Tokyo-style. I moved to Tokyo for a sushi apprenticeship. I went to Tsukiji fish market every day.” But “Edomae” is not simply replicating recipes from Tokyo. It is a philosophy based on “shun,” which loosely translates to “in season.” Shiro Kashiba was a locavore before the word was invented.
“In Japan, this is one of the most important things in food,” he asserted. “Ocean currents and weather in Japan and the Northwest are completely different. Each has a local seafood culture…once I learned the [Seatttle] area, I couldn’t leave. So much bounty! Shun.”
Shun can be good business. Kashiba introduced salmon roe and geoduck clams to Seattle diners when they could still be picked up off the docks and beaches for free. As a businessman, he is nimble enough to seize an opportunity without losing sight of his principles. He is proud to have played a role in the now international popularity of sushi, but he worries about the overfishing that has accompanied this popularity.
“As sushi goes global, it also needs to go more local,” he said.
The last third of the book is a cookbook of recipes for some of the most popular dishes at Shiro’s restaurant, as well as instruction in the elements of sushi: ingredients, knives, slicing technique, and how to cook rice. There are charts showing when various fish and vegetables are in season. Some of the recipes would be challenging for a novice, but the luscious photographs are inspirational. Besides food, there are many photographs from the author’s personal archives. They show an adventurous man enjoying the mountains, forests, and coasts of Japan and the Northwest.
“At Shiro’s, it’s about preserving tradition,” he said. “But it’s also about infusing that tradition with fresh life. Seattle is a wonderful place for me to do just that.”
Shiro Kashiba will read from his memoir, followed by a sushi demonstration, tasting, and book signing on Saturday, November 19 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wing Luke Museum. Advance tickets available until November 12: $20 general admission, $15 for museum members. Details at www.wingluke.org. Information on the book at www.chinmusicpress.com .