As the Heisei Era drew to a close, Shiro Kashiba received the honor of being named a Goodwill Ambassador to Spread Japanese Cuisine by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries on March 25, 2019. Kashiba was born in 1941, the year that the Pacific War broke out, lived through the turbulent Showa Era and is now continuing on in the new Reiwa Era. We spoke with Shiro as he looks back on his career of promoting Japanese cuisine in Seattle and beyond as a sushi chef.
Interview by Teruyo Koshimiya, translation by Bruce Rutledge. Photos courtesy of Shiro Kashiba
“Serving delicious sushi in America.
That is what is most important to me.”
As a youth, he longed to be a sushi chef and travel to the West
Born and raised in Kyoto, the third of four children, Shiro’s father was a principal at an elementary school. Though it doesn’t sound like the sort of an environment that would inspire a child to be a sushi chef, he was hooked on this path at a young age.
Right after the war, going out to eat was a special luxury for most families, especially for the kids. Shiro would sometimes get to go out with the family to an Edomae sushi restaurant in Pontochou, Kyoto. “I was pulled in by how cool the chefs looked,” he recalls. He said he was fascinated by the way the sushi chefs belted out “Irrashai” to welcome guests and the energetic ways in which they moved. He remembers how deeply the words of his mother penetrated when she said, “This work might fit you, Shiro.” The dream of becoming a sushi chef had taken root in young Shiro.
In those days, US troops were stationed in Kyoto. They’d give out chocolate and gum to the little kids who would come rushing up to them. TV was just starting to become more widespread, and people watched American dramas. Children who grew up in this era more or less were wrapped up in longing for America. Shiro’s father would often say of his four children, “I bet one of you ends up working overseas.” Shiro recalls that was something his father dreamed of.
“There are many local fish that
I was the first to prepare as sushi”
I learned, and they fed me. What could be better?
Shiro approached his father and told him, “When I graduate from middle school, I want to practice serving sushi.” But his father told him he needed to at least graduate from high school. When he graduated from high school, an acquaintance set him up with a full apprenticeship at a prestigious sushi shop in Tokyo’s Ginza district called Yoshino. Yoshino’s main shop was in Kyobashi, but Shiro started at a branch in Sukiyabashi. With the airing of the documentary film, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” this area became famous in the US as well. The star of that film, Jiro Ono, was at the time, the head chef at the Sukiyabashi branch. Shiro lived there with three or four other employees, working from early in the morning until late at night. “I would go to the market with my elder and learn how to find the best fish, prepare it, how to cook and mix the rice, how to use and sharpen knives, how to clean fish…from this to that, I learned all the basics by watching and doing.”
Shiro spent his first year and a half at the Sukiyabashi shop, then transferred to the main shop in Kyobashi, where he worked for five years. He recalls every day of his apprenticeship being enjoyable. “Japan has four seasons, and different fish would be caught in each season. I learned how to prepare for that, and they fed me. What could be better?” he says with a laugh. “I think I am very lucky for being able to find my own way.”
Edomae is eating locally caught raw fish
While spending his days fulfillingly as a sushi chef, his dream of traveling overseas continued to grow. When he heard of friends traveling overseas, he’d ask them to bring back information about the Japanese restaurants. He’d write letters to the addresses on the chopstick wrappers that his friends brought back, but never got a reply. But one day, a surprising connection with Seattle came about. A regular customer at Yoshino who was in the trade business agreed to introduce Shiro to Mr. Tanaka, the owner of a Japanese restaurant here. This was in the age before the Internet and when international phone calls were expensive. He spent two years writing letters to Mr. Tanaka to build up trust. Shiro still has those letters in his possession, and some of them have been preserved in the 2011 book, Shiro: Wit, Wisdom & Recipes from a Sushi Pioneer. The owner, struck by Shiro’s passion, flew to Tokyo to interview him. Shiro began to prepare for his move to the U.S, with the owner helping him on every front. The owner must have appreciated Shiro’s serious nature and the fact that he had experience at a prestigious restaurant like Yoshino.
On December 1, 1966, he arrived at Seatac Airport. “That was the first time in my life to get on a plane,” Shiro recalls with a smile. “I didn’t know what was going on, but I was deeply moved because I had dreamed about this day.” At the request of the owner, he arrived on a student visa and enrolled in a community college. Seattle was an international trading hub, so besides the Tanaka Restaurant there were several other Japanese restaurants, including Bush Garden, Maneki, and Tenkatsu . Most of the customers were Japanese and Japanese Americans. A lot of the customers were Japanese expats working for trading companies that did business in lumber, agriculture, or with Boeing. Other customers who Shiro fed regularly were American businessmen who frequented Japan. “There was no sushi counter at Tanaka’s,” Shiro recalls, “so I made the Edomae sushi in the kitchen and brought it out.” In fact, even in the other Japanese restaurants, there was no sushi counter in Seattle in those days. But little by little, sushi was gaining traction with Americans in Seattle.
The basic spirit of Edomae is to eat the fish that are caught locally. “There are many local fish that I was the first to prepare as sushi,” Shiro says. Sushi toppings that are established now such as geoduck, ocean smelt, and razor clams were all first served as sushi and sashimi by Shiro. In those days, those fish were practically free. There is one episode involving geoduck that Shiro relates. There was a customer who gave a geoduck to Tanaka. He brought it to Shiro and told him to make something with it. Shiro made sushi. “He was so happy,” Shiro recalls, “because there was no one else selling it.” From that point, Shiro started focusing on local seafood that had long been overlooked, serving one after another as sushi. Many of these went on to become delicacies both locally and around the world. This is why Shiro is known as a pioneer. But he also admits that he feels some responsibility for the overfishing that is happening today.
Seattle’s first sushi counter
Tanaka was a successful restaurant in the International District, but the owner died in a car crash. For a while, his widow tried to run the business, but she eventually put it up for sale. When that news was made public, another restaurant in the area, Maneki, gave Shiro a call, and he began working there. This was 1970. He persuaded Maneki’s owner to build Seattle’s first sushi counter, which still exists today. He worked there for a year, and in 1972 opened his own restaurant, Nikko, in the International District. As Japan’s bubble economy grew, Japanese firms were setting up branches in Seattle, and Japanese businessmen started to travel here in larger numbers. Shiro rode this wave. First, he sold Nikko to Aoki Construction (currently Aoki Asunaro Construction), which had recently bought the international hotel chain Westin. Two years later, Nikko moved to the Westin Hotel. However, a year later, Shiro resigned. He had been working almost nonstop for 20 years in Seattle, and it was time for a break.
“I traveled to Japan and Europe and looked for business opportunities in Vietnam, and I helped a friend open a restaurant in Tokyo. I played golf about 28 times a month,” he says with a laugh. “I just didn’t have that sort of time before. I didn’t know that much about Japan. I wanted to broaden my mind. It’s important to do that, I think.” He spent a meaningful two and a half years taking a break before he decided to return to his work as a sushi chef. In 1994, he opened a new restaurant in Belltown. Shiro’s has become well known across the U.S. Twenty years later, he would sell that restaurant to the Bellevue-based group I Love Sushi. The rumor was that he had retired, but in 2015, with the cooperation of others, he opened Sushi Kashiba in Pike Place Market. In Seattle’s sightseeing Mecca, on prime real estate, the sushi draws a hefty sum. This is not a restaurant you just swing by for a bite. More than half the customers are from out of state or overseas, and locals only go for special occasions. “Most people order the omakase courses. Visitors from overseas don’t know the fish names and don’t really know what to order. In those cases, the word ‘omakase’ has become popular. However, that puts pressure on those of us preparing the meal. We want them to have fun, be happy, and pay up,” Shiro says with a laugh.
His role as a Goodwill Ambassador to Spread Japanese Cuisine
In 2011, when he turned 70, he wondered if there was something left to leave behind as a legacy and decided to publish his story. Seattle’s Chin Music Press interviewed him and put the book together. There are lots of photos from Shiro’s youth to present day, and many more of Japanese cuisine. In the recipe section in the back of the book, Shiro shows how to make sushi rice, how to make a piece of nigiri sushi, how to clean and dress smelt, and other tips he’s learned over the years. It’s in English, but it’s plain English, so it is easy to read. The book is used as a textbook in some California schools.
In Seattle’s booming washoku scene, there are more than a few chefs who worked under or alongside Shiro at some point. There are leading chefs like Taichi Kitamura of Sushi Kappo Tamura, Kotaro Kumita of Wataru, Hiro Tawara of Wa’z, Masaaki Ishikura of Miyabi, and Jun Kobayashi of Shiro’s. Each of them is running a successful Edomae sushi restaurant. “I don’t feel like their master; I feel like their friend. No matter what is said, this trade is competitive. It’s not a light undertaking.” He continues, “They had the ambition to come to the U.S. and achieve something, so I am happy if they realize their dreams. I want to help as much as I can. It’s one more step along the path of helping non-Japanese understand our culinary culture.” He does not horde his wisdom or his skills.
Shiro has spent his career devoted to Edomae sushi in the U.S., but recently he has created quite a buzz by advancing into Japan. In 2018, he opened Shiro Kashiba inside an exhibition hall featuring the very first Boeing 787. The Flight of Dreams hall is part of the Chubu Centrair International Airport serving the Nagoya area. His restaurant is part of the Seattle Terrace, a mall featuring all sorts of Seattle businesses, including Fran’s Chocolates, Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, Pike Brewing, Starbucks and other well-known Seattle brands. “Chef Shiro Kashiba, known to all of Seattle, triumphs in Japan,” says a message on the mall’s website.
“This is something that’s happened because I am in Seattle. If I return to Japan, I’ll just be one of many sushi chefs,” Shiro says. He’s the epitome of the old saying, “the bough that hangs lowest bears the most.” This year he was appointed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to be a Goodwill Ambassador to Spread Japanese Cuisine because of his many years of activity as a sushi chef in Seattle. “It’s an honor, but I am not sure what I should do,” he says. “What I’m doing now is making delicious sushi overseas, That’s the most important thing, isn’t it? I think so.” So will Shiro ever retire? “I am not thinking about it. This is a lifelong activity,” he says with a smile.
Shiro Kashiba■ Born in Kyoto in 1941. In 1959, he began work as an apprentice at the Edomae restaurant Yoshino. In 1966, he came to Seattle and worked as a sushi chef at Tanaka, a Japanese restaurant. In 1970, he moved to Maneki, and in 1972 he opened his own restaurant, Nikko. In 1987, he sold Nikko. In 1994, he opened Shiro’s, and in 2014 he retired for a spell. In 2015, he opened Sushi Kashiba, where he currently presides. His memoir, Shiro: Wit, Wisdom & Recipes from a Sushi Pioneer, was published by Chin Music Press in 2011.
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