ZUNA

Akebono lives life to the full

by Victoria James

“It was,” my dining companion recalls with a sigh, “a diet with just one purpose: to get you to put on weight.”

Surveying his impressive frame, it’s hard not to conclude that those who catered to him had indeed been boning up on force-feeding techniques. Sumo legend Akebono weighed in at 230 kg when back and knee injuries forced him into retirement in January 2001. The two years since have done little to slim him down.

There’s no creak of wood, though, as the softly-spoken former wrestler leans back in his seat to laugh. That’s because we’re here to talk food at Zuna, where the chairs are custom-built to seat even this 11-times grand champion in comfort. “They’re sumo-size,” explains one of the staff when I ask for more precise measurements. “The seat width is the same as that between a wrestler’s feet when he crouches.”

A grill restaurant, Zuna was opened in December in the posh back streets of central Akasaka, with Akebono’s long-time friend Dutch O’Neal as executive chef. The restaurant is named in Akebono’s honor — he was the first foreigner to be accorded sumo’s highest rank, yokozuna — and the menu draws on the culinary heritage of Akebono’s home island of Hawaii (he became a naturalized Japanese citizen in April 1996) and O’Neal’s native Deep South.

The appetizing aromas of both places mingle on our table when a steaming bowl of Louisiana gumbo is set before us, along with a plate of South Beach soft tacos and another piled with lemongrass beef sate.

The medley of flavors in each dish is exceptional — the tacos are plump with wood-grilled white fish and served with a zingy pineapple salsa; the thick gumbo contains generous wedges of spicy cajun sausage; and the sate, already fragrant with lemongrass, is accompanied by a coconut madras curry and grilled banana salsa.

Was the switch to round-the-clock Japanese food initially tough, I ask Akebono, who was a teenager when he first came to Japan.

“I missed all the tastes of Hawaii,” says the wrestler. “I used to get my mother to send me food parcels. There was no ban on eating extra stuff!

“It’s true that wrestlers eat chanko nabe [stew] all the time. We’d wake up, train, eat, sleep, then wake up, train and eat some more. Just meat and vegetables. But it wasn’t boring — there are more than 30 different flavors of nabe: miso, kimchi, sesame. . . . And just like the other jobs at the beya ["stables" where wrestlers live], like cleaning, and serving the senior-rank wrestlers, we took it in turns [to cook].”

Indeed, before thoughts of sumo glory ever entered his head, the young Chad Rowan (as Akebono was born) dreamed of running a restaurant. “I used to study about food and baking. I really enjoyed, it and it seemed like one way of earning money. I came here to Japan with no guarantee of making it as a wrestler. None of us do when we start out. It took about 18 months before I realized it was maybe going to work for me.”

After that realization, things moved quickly: Akebono’s rise was one of the fastest in sumo history. He had reached the top a mere five years after joining the Azumazeki stables, becoming a yokozuna after competing in just 30 tournaments.

Then after his best-ever year, 2000, in which he wrestled in all six annual basho (tournaments) and won two, repeated injury forced Akebono into retirement.

It was, though, a chance for the wrestler to focus on family matters. In April 1998, he had married Japanese-American Christine Kalina, and their first child, a daughter named Caitlin Reina, was born later that year.

“We have two children now and are expecting our third. In Hawaii, children are so precious. When the first colonists came to the island, they brought all kinds of sicknesses with them. It wasn’t unusual for babies to die before their first birthday. So when a child turns 1, it’s traditional to have a huge feast and celebration. We did that [for Caitlin], and we got Dutch over to cook up a huge buffet.”

O’Neal has joined us at the table while we’ve been grazing on Zuna greens. One dish is a Californian-style array of organic spring vegetables, accompanied by a piquant goats’ cheese; the other a spinach salad with a warm vinaigrette drizzled over bacon and a coddled egg. This is almost a meal in itself, the kind of thing to share with one’s lover as a late Sunday brunch.

Organic food is O’Neal’s passion, and he talks about it with the same gusto with which I’m eating it. “We source carefully. We’re networking constantly to locate microfarms where producers can guarantee organic standards, and we commit to buying their produce, so there’s a relationship there. We also vary the menu at Zuna throughout the year to reflect seasonal vegetables and seasonal flavors.”

O’Neal can talk about his love of small-scale farming for hours. But for now he returns to the kitchen to prepare a selection of Zuna’s entrees: wood spit-roasted Datedori chicken; Mongolian marinated lamb (neither American nor Hawaiian, admittedly, but perhaps a nod to the presence of Mongolian wrestlers, such as yokozuna Asashoryu, in sumo’s top ranks); and a beefburger.

This last is no ordinary burger, though. It’s styled “Zuna’s Famous Kobe Beef Burger,” and while it may not be famous yet, it surely deserves to be. O’Neal has taken Kobe’s celebrated beef — which sells for up to $100 a kilo in the United States — and minced it up into tennis-ball size patties. It’s served with slivers of peppered foie gras and anointed with white truffle mayonnaise. This must be the most decadent beefburger on earth, and certainly merits the 3,800 yen price tag.

Akebono is no stranger to creative cooking, having been a guest judge on the popular “Iron Chef” cooking contests broadcast by Fuji TV. But despite enjoying his appearances on the show, he has no intention of following fellow Hawaiian wrestler Konishiki into a tarento career in the media spotlight.

“I want to pass on what I’ve learned to the sumo world,” he says. “Sumo has a following worldwide, yet there hasn’t been a tournament abroad since the Canada Sumo Basho in Vancouver [in June 1998]. The Sumo Association could expand its activities globally, especially with the help of English-speakers such as myself and Musashimaru. I’d love to be a part of that. I’ve used my brawn; now I want to be using my brain.”

Dinner over, Akebono courteously takes his leave before rising slowly but gracefully and walking over to the counter of the open kitchen. He and O’Neal chat briefly before shaking hands, and the champion wrestler leaves his namesake restaurant.

I remain at the table, not one but two desserts in front of me: a rich pineapple cheesecake, and an upright banana split served in a glass.

Scoring lower on flair and flavor than the rest of Zuna’s menu, these desserts don’t really float my boat — though it’d be a strong boat that could float with me in it right now. The rest of the meal has been so good I’ve not noticed till now how much I’ve eaten. Truth is, I feel like a candidate for a mewashi (wrestler’s loincloth) myself.

On June 1, Zuna will play host to a fundraising dinner in aid of the Kasumisou Foundation. This Tokyo-based charity is dedicated to improving the lives of rural communities throughout Southeast Asia, especially women and children. Its activities include building schools, supporting local crafts and funding programs to help AIDS patients, the homeless and street children.

The dinner, which costs 10,000 yen (for three courses, unlimited beer and soft drinks, and a glass of wine), includes a chance to enjoy drinks with Akebono before the meal begins.

“We’re thrilled that Akebono will be there to show his support for the foundation,” says organizer Ellen Wilner. “The restaurant’s great food and atmosphere should ensure a wonderful evening.”

For more details and reservations, contact Ellen Wilner at fcmd@ea.catv.co.jp