The competition could not possibly be more intimidating. San Francisco has more restaurants per capita than any other city in America, maybe more than any place on the entire planet.
Even so, at least two dauntless chefs from Japan have become major players in this town, despite the odds. Both men emigrated to California at the invitation of upscale restaurants impressed with their innovative work.
Yoshinori Kojima grew up in Zushi, close enough to the sea that at age 12 he used to go diving for abalone and octopus as after-school snacks. He began his culinary career at 17 as an apprentice chef in a French restaurant in coastal Hayama.
Similarly, Seiji Wakabayashi, originally from Yokohama, began his trade in Japan at 15, learning to cook Japanese, French and Chinese food.
Kojima’s path took him first to Los Angeles, but after 10 years he moved on to San Francisco. At the time both chefs arrived on the U.S. West Coast, sushi was in the midst of its popularity climb from a rare and exotic foreign dish to the mainstream of American cuisine.
The challenge for Wakabayashi and Kojima was to go beyond raw fish and create a Japanese gourmet fusion with Californian and French styles. The two men took up positions as executive chefs on opposite sides of the bay.
Kojima became master of all he purveyed at mc, a stunning modernist dining room created inside a historic 125-year-old brick warehouse near downtown San Francisco. mc was so named because the designers wanted an energetic, evolving restaurant, and Einstein’s famous formula matched their mood.
A chef with a philosophy, Kojima considers knives his most important tools.
“Japanese knives are best,” he asserts, “because of how they are crafted and still regarded as an art form. They represent the spirit of a cook. Whether you can feel the energy of food through your knife is determined by how well you take care of it.”
His doctrine on edibles is equally precise.
“I treat food with respect and appreciation. I want to create pure and natural energy in my dishes, so I insist on fresh, natural ingredients.”
Kojima lives just north of San Francisco with his wife and two kids. His abode is just above Sausalito, home of Ondine’s, presided over by friendly rival Wakabayashi. Ondine’s refined dining space is optimized by a magnificent panorama of San Francisco Bay.
One of Ondine’s major strengths is its four-page wine list. The choices are so extensive that expert opinions are called for to make selections. Luckily, the waiters act like personal consultants, and they know their craft.
It is in the kitchen, however, that the artistry resides. Both Wakabayashi and Kojima produce exotically inventive dishes that are distinctive, elegant and stylish. They maintain a Japanese sensibility, but with bold flavors that soar beyond their delicate presentations. This merging of French and Pacific Rim cuisine is dramatic but in good taste.
Wakabayashi was 27 when he came to the United States 11 years ago. Asked what his favorite food is, he replies, “Food.” Such irreverence serves a creative chef well, and it is also in synch with the location.
Sausalito is the golden “end of the rainbow” for many San Franciscans. Just a 20-minute ferry ride away from the city, Sausalito harbor holds the most impressive yachts and splendid houseboats in northern California. There is no shortage of multimillion-dollar hillside homes as well. It is a favorite day-trip getaway for cross-Bay urbanites.
There is one more alternative for those who still prefer their sushi traditional-style. Anzu restaurant inside Hotel Nikko San Francisco has a nightly steak and sushi buffet.
Georges Pompidou, former President of France, once remarked that San Francisco, more than any other U.S. city, “incites one to dream.” Wakabayashi and Kojima left Japan to follow their culinary dreams here. Fortunately, unlike somnolent fantasies, their dreams are now realities we can all share at their dining tables.