The purpose of The Gohan Society is to cultivate a greater appreciation of Japanese cuisine through outreach programs and fundraisers. While the non-profit’s latest fundraiser – Sake Comes to Harlem at Red Rooster Harlem on Tuesday, March 6 – has a lot to do with sake, guests will not have one morsel of Japanese food.
Ironic? Not exactly. Nils Noren, a member of The Gohan Society’s board of directors and the Vice President of Restaurant Operations of the Marcus Samuelsson Group, created a menu heavily influenced by French and Chinese cuisine as well as Southern soul food to prove a point: “Sake can pair with anything,” says Noren.
That point is also the life’s work of Linda Noel Kawabata, Advanced Sake Specialist and USA Brand Manager of the Akita Sake Promotion and Export Council (ASPEC), a consortium of internationally award-winning artisanal brewers from Akita Prefecture in Northern Japan. Kawabata, who is providing the sake pairings for each dish served at Sake Comes to Harlem, says that The Gohan Society’s event of pairing a distinctly Japanese beverage with non-Japanese food isn’t a foreign concept – or it shouldn’t be, anyway. Through ASPEC and her own company, Ai Sake Solutions, Kawabata teaches people how to enjoy sake with whatever is on the menu.
“People don’t realize how accommodating, embracing, and welcoming sake is,” says Kawabata, who plans to introduce the “hospitality of the beverage” to guests at Sake Comes to Harlem.
The evening will accommodate only forty or so guests, as organizers “wanted a more intimate and exclusive event,” says Noren, “so that the guests can have a better chance to talk about the sake and the food.” As a result, this dinner is on a much smaller scale than The Gohan Society’s previous fundraiser, Aki Matsuri 2011, a lively party that featured eleven Japanese restaurants and several beverage reps, including Kawabata and ASPEC.
“Following her participation in The Gohan Society’s Aki Matsuri 2011, Linda approached me about working together on future events,” says Tamio Spiegel, President of The Gohan Society. “In our discussions, it was clear that she didn’t want to repeat the type of tasting environment that confined all references to sake as solely a companion beverage to Japanese food. She describes herself as someone who likes to ‘think outside the masu.’”
“The task ahead for me is to meet people where they are, in a restaurant or at a party or a tasting, and offer them a broad variety of flavor profiles from sake,” says Kawabata. She does this at a wide range of restaurants, whether it’s a Japanese place, or Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, or a Cajun eatery in New Orleans.
“People are too strict in their thinking,” says Noren, who oversees the operations of all of the restaurants, including Red Rooster Harlem, in the Marcus Samuelsson Group, a hospitality and food media company run by star chef Marcus Samuelsson, with whom Noren worked at Aquavit. “You can broaden your range of experiences,” if you open your mind to flavors of different types of cuisine, Noren says.
“The culinary experience can be expansive,” Kawabata says. “The sake story allows people to travel even if they don’t physically go anywhere.”
So Spiegel formulated the idea that people could at least go to Harlem. “I have been trying to develop events for The Gohan Society that would use our great resources, further our mission of advancing a greater understanding of Japanese food and food culture, and reach out to new palates,” says Spiegel of the fundraiser’s genesis. “I wanted to create something unique that was true to our mission, but also would be attractive to people less familiar with Japanese food and unfamiliar with or, possibly, intimidated by sake.”
Sake Comes to Harlem took shape when Spiegel turned to Noren and Kawabata. “Pairing Linda and ASPEC’s sake from Northern Japan with Red Rooster Harlem’s special contemporary take on classic American food, just came to me, one night. Fortunately, both Nils and Linda are open-minded and forward thinking, so it came together very quickly.”
“Marcus’s restaurant is known for the philosophy of bringing everyone around the world to the table,” says Kawabata of Red Rooster Harlem, making it the perfect place to send the message that sake can be paired with any cuisine. “I feel sake is a world beverage,” says Kawabata. “Sake stretches its hand out to the food.”
Noren decided the food for Sake Comes to Harlem would showcase Red Rooster Harlem’s new downstairs supper club, which has yet to be opened to the public. When he created the menu, he says, “I wasn’t so worried about finding a sake for it. Sake is so versatile and has so many flavor profiles.”
Besides, that’s Kawabata’s job. Once presented with the menu and the order of the six courses, Kawabata thought about the five sakes from Akita that would best complement each dish. Even without a prior tasting of items on Noren’s menu, Kawabata had the choices in mind. “With almost any food in the world, I can close my eyes and imagine a [sake] pairing,” says Kawabata, who speaks so lyrically that a conversation with her feels like a serenade. And she sings the praises of sake, a beverage she studied and grew to love during her 25 years in Japan. She calls sake “an incredible ambassador of the culture.”
Although there are no Japanese ingredients in Sake Comes to Harlem’s dishes, Kawabata found tastes that are similar in Japan. The first course contains collard greens, so Kawabata found a sake that would match the rich vegetable and mineral notes and the oil in the dish. For the rigatoni and cheese with shrimp, Kawabata selected a sake that “loves shrimp and loves creamy texture,” she says. Her choices reflect not only the dish with which it is paired, but also the dish that follows it because sake helps to prepare the palate for what’s next.
Noren hopes this event will spark interest in more sake pairings with all types of cuisine. “It makes no sense that sake must be served with Japanese food,” he says. “When you think about it, everything in the world is fusion. Tempura didn’t come from Japan [it was introduced by the Portuguese in the mid-sixteenth century], but it’s considered a Japanese food.”
Kawabata further points out that cuisines from around the world share the same attributes, if not the exact spices or flavorings. “One man’s karaage is another man’s barnyard chicken,” she says.
So why can’t someone enjoy sake with fried chicken in the American South?
If Japanese restaurants have wine lists, why can’t non-Japanese restaurants offer sake with their meals?
These are questions Sake Comes to Harlem hopes to answer.