The Gohan Society is sending four chefs to Japan from August 29 through September 7, 2015. Ben Pollinger, Executive Chef, Oceana; Erik Battes, Corporate Executive Chef, STARR Restaurant Group; Damien Niotis, sushi chef and graduate, C-CAP (Careers through Culinary Arts Program); and Joe Downey-Zayas, Sous Chef, All’onda are the recipients of the non-profit organization’s U.S.-Japan Culinary Exchange Scholarship program, which awards scholarships to leading Japanese and U.S.-based chefs. Each year the program brings Japanese chefs to New York to train at some of the city’s finest restaurants, and in turn sends U.S.-based chefs to Japan.
The four chefs will travel to Tokyo and Ishikawa Prefecture, where they will study Japanese cuisine and learn cooking techniques and new ingredients from highly skilled Japanese chefs. Past scholarship recipients include Chris Muller, Executive Chef of the Michelin three-star rated restaurant Le Bernardin; Chef Eddy Leroux, Chef de Cuisine at Daniel (two Michelin stars); Cédric Vongerichten, Chef de Cuisine at Perry St; and Travis Swikard, Executive Chef of Boulud Sud.
The Gohan Society will formally present the scholarship awards to the chefs at its 10th Anniversary Gala on Thursday, June 4 at SONY CLUB. The event will include the presentation of “Washoku Ambassador Awards” to David Bouley, Owner/Executive Chef of Bouley and Brushstroke, and Nobu Matsuhisa, Owner/Chef of Nobu and other restaurants worldwide. The honorees exemplify the spirit of Washoku in their cooking and their everyday lives. “Washoku” means the “harmony of food” in Japanese, and it is associated with an essential spirit of respect for nature that is closely related to the sustainable use of natural resources. It was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013.
Following the reception will be a dinner with a keynote speech by Tim and Nina Zagat, co-founders and publishers of the popular Zagat Restaurant Surveys.
“I began The Gohan Society in 2005 to serve as a resource for knowledge of traditional Japanese ingredients, cooking, and food preparation techniques,” says Saori Kawano, founder of The Gohan Society and president of Korin Japanese Trading Corporation. “Our mission was then and still is to be a catalyst for the expansion of that knowledge in the United States. With the support of generous chefs, dedicated food professionals, manufacturers, organizations, and individuals, The Gohan Society continues to offer master classes for chefs, lectures on Japanese tools and ingredients, workshops for high school students, culinary classes for the public, and scholarships for chefs to study in Japan.”
Erik Battes is a California native who attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Chef Battes’s fascination with Japanese cuisine began when he was 20 years old, working alongside a Japanese line cook at the Water Grill in Los Angeles. He trained and worked at several iconic restaurants, including Daniel, Le Bernardin, Aquavit, Chanterelle, Jean Georges, Perry St., and BLT Restaurants. He was named one of Zagat’s “30 Under 30” in New York City and joined Morimoto NYC as executive chef in 2013. Just under two years later, he was promoted to Corporate Executive Chef of STARR Restaurants, overseeing 38 restaurants, including four Japanese restaurants. Chef Battes is a member of The Gohan Society’s Culinary Advisory Board.
Joe Downey-Zayas began working as a cook at All’onda in New York and was promoted to Sous Chef after only a few months. He chose All’onda because of the Italian restaurant’s use of Japanese ingredients and dishes that are strongly influenced by Japanese culture. He credits his first bowl of ramen as a teenager to his passion for Japanese cuisine. Learning about the complexity of the history of and ingredients in ramen expanded his desire to know more about ramen and other Japanese dishes, which further fueled his quest to discover more about Japanese culture. A recent trip to Thailand also sparked an interest in the relationship between tradition and cuisine.
A native New Yorker, Damien Niotis trained in the culinary classroom at Long Island City High School, where he became involved in C-CAP. His first trip to Japan was in 2002, when he traveled the countryside and experiencing Japanese regional cuisine. He moved to Colorado in 2006 to work with Tetsuo Shimoda at Mountain Flying Fish Restaurant, where he spent five years learning the art and skill of being a sushi chef. Chef Niotis refined his sushi skills during a 2009 internship at Morimoto in New York City, and has been catering private events in Vail, Colorado, since 2013.
As the Executive Chef at Oceana, Ben Pollinger blends the finest seafood with exotic ingredients from around the world. A native of New Jersey, Chef Pollinger graduated from Boston University with an Economics major and a minor in Business Administration before earning valedictorian honors at the renowned Culinary Institute of America. He became interested in exploring Japanese cuisine as a young professional, discovering fresh fish, new vegetables, and interesting ingredients in what is now Mitsuwa Marketplace in Edgewater, NJ. While working with Chef Michael Romano at Union Square Café, Chef Pollinger learned how influential the aesthetics of Japanese culinary traditions are. Chef Pollinger serves on the Culinary Advisory Board of The Gohan Society and is the author of School of Fish, a guide to cooking fish on all skill levels.
The Gohan Society has been promoting cooperation, learning, and a spirit of friendship between cultures for the past ten years, fostering an understanding and appreciation of Japan’s culinary heritage in the United States through outreach to chefs, culinary arts professionals, and all who admire and enjoy Japanese culture.
(Full disclosure: The author is a member of The Gohan Society and is a paid writer on the staff of the non-profit organization.)