From the first hello, Yukari Sakamoto’s enthusiasm for Japanese cuisine is evident. Her conversation is peppered with quips about umami bombs, the best sake and what to make in a donabe (earthenware pot).

“It’s fun helping people make connections, showing them places or things that may not be on their radar,” Sakamoto says. “It’s really satisfying.”

Although she’d had an interest in food since childhood, the Japanese American chef, sommelier, author and Tokyo tour guide’s adventurous culinary career really kicked off in 2000, when she enrolled at the International Culinary Center (ICC, formerly The French Culinary Institute) in New York City, with plans to open a wine bar. After graduation, she worked for a restaurant group just north of the World Trade Center until 9/11. Sakamoto realized that her friends and family, who were mostly in Japan, were what mattered most.