Tuesday, Oct. 03, 2023 |
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LOS ANGELES — It was the meal that changed how Angelenos eat.
And it happened more than 5,000 miles from Los Angeles.
When Noritoshi Kanai and Harry Wolff Jr. sat down for dinner in Tokyo one night in 1965, they had no way of knowing they were about to stumble onto an idea that would upend American dining — and their own lives.
On this evening, the colleagues had more urgent concerns on their minds: how to salvage a foundering trip in Asia that was launched to find a novel food product to import to the U.S.
That item, it turns out, was actually on the menu.
Kanai, who managed Mutual Trading Co., an L.A. wholesaler of Japanese food products, had suggested the restaurant, a family-run spot in the Ginza district called Shinnosuke. Wolff had never eaten sushi, but Kanai figured he’d be game.
“He’d try anything,” Kanai recalled, laughing.
Before long, Shinnosuke’s sushi chef was turning out a cascade of nigiri.
Tuna. Octopus. Cuttlefish. Scallop. Sea bream.
Wolff ate with enthusiasm. But the significance of the meal wouldn’t become apparent until five days later.
That’s when the restaurant sent a bill to Kanai’s Tokyo office — for about $275, which, when adjusted for inflation, is about $2,650 today. It was, Kanai said, a shockingly large sum. “What happened?” he asked his associate.
Wolff explained that he had been slipping away to feast on sushi at Shinnosuke. And he wasn’t just eating — he was imagining how to bring sushi to L.A. restaurants.
Kanai recalled Wolff’s earnest entreaty: “Kanai, go do sushi. Sushi is good.”
It was a bold proposition.
At the time, Los Angeles’ culinary landscape was lackluster. French cuisine dominated fine dining, and drab Continental cooking could be found at restaurants across the city. Casual diners ordered meatloaf and burgers at the local greasy spoon.
“Asian food just wasn’t part of that conversation,” said Nancy Matsumoto, an expert on Japanese food and co-author of “Exploring the World of Japanese Craft Sake.” “The world view was the Westernized world view.”
Cultural cuisines often were presented as watered-down approximations. The city’s Japanese restaurants — Kawafuku in Little Tokyo and Yamashiro in Hollywood among them — were known for specializing in items such as sukiyaki, a beef dish calibrated for Americans’ sugar-craving tastes.
If sushi could find purchase on the menus of L.A.’s Japanese restaurants, Kanai’s company, already adept at importing cookies and other products from Japan, stood to reap the benefits.
An ambitious plan soon took shape. Mutual Trading would import the ingredients and implements needed to serve sushi here — from the nori to the knives. And it would source other items such as sea urchin locally.
The aim, in essence, was to create a sushi ecosystem for Los Angeles. Would it work?
The glittering omakase bars of Beverly Hills, the hipster hand-roll spots of downtown L.A. and the strip-mall gems of Ventura Boulevard would seem to answer that question.
Kanai and Wolff forged a path for other entrepreneurs, including Nobu Matsuhisa, who opened L.A.’s Matsuhisa in 1987 and parlayed that hit into a chain of Nobu restaurants and high-end hotels scattered around the world.
With their success, Wolff and Kanai became the ultimate odd couple — one an imposing Jewish man who’d cut his teeth as a bouncer at nightspots in his native Chicago, the other a trim Japanese man who’d served as a quartermaster in the Japanese army during World War II.
The men had been bound by a love for food — and a dream of uniting disparate peoples, according to Kanai’s daughter, Atsuko Kanai. The friends saw a model for finding common ground in their own relationship. Wolff, she said, must’ve perceived “the similarities between the Japanese and the Jewish cultures and beliefs,” adding, “They were very curious to learn from each other.”
The two families grew close: One year, they all gathered for Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the biblical story of Exodus. Kanai showed up for the Seder at Wolff’s house with a platter of — what else? — sushi, relatives recalled.
Their business triumph, however, came at a cost. By the time Kanai sat for an expansive interview with The Times in 2015 at Mutual Trading’s then-headquarters near Little Tokyo, he and Wolff had long since parted ways.
Kanai, then 92, knew Wolff had died many years earlier but had few details. He had tried to track down his former collaborator’s kin, enlisting his daughter in the unsuccessful effort.
“He’s been looking for Mr. Wolff’s family forever,” Atsuko said in 2015.
They’d once been L.A.’s renegades of raw fish. Now they were something else entirely.
Los Angeles is home to eight Michelin-starred sushi restaurants — and countless other spots — that treat raw fish with the sort of reverence usually reserved for religious rites. It’s also known for places with a Mad Hatter flair for incorporating the fare into decidedly baroque concoctions such as the sushi burrito or cheeseburger sushi.
Those items are a far cry from the ancient Japanese dish of fermented fish that, over the centuries, morphed into nigiri, typically a piece of raw seafood draped over an oval of rice. According to University of Kansas professor and sushi expert Eric Rath, nigiri was popularized in Tokyo in the early 1800s, when the fish could be raw, marinated or cooked — and it was seasonal by default.
Sushi was, of course, known to Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in L.A. well before the efforts of Wolff and Kanai, but it was typically simple and homespun. Among the items frequently served in Japanese American homes, Matsumoto said, were inari sushi, a fried tofu pocket stuffed with rice; and futomaki sushi, a thick roll usually filled with vegetables and sometimes cooked seafood.
Sushi was first mentioned by The Times in an 1899 article penned by “a Japanese contributor” who referenced a bento box that included it. In the intervening decades, a handful of L.A. restaurants included sushi on their menus — in the form of inari or similar items. Kanai noticed the availability of those offerings in Little Tokyo when he first visited L.A. in 1956. But he wrote in his 1996 Japanese-language autobiography that “there was nothing close to … Tokyo-style nigiri sushi.”
Soon, that would change.
“In retrospect, it was a brilliant business plan,” said food historian Samuel Yamashita, a Pomona College professor. “One could argue the Kanai-Wolff collaboration fed into the elevation of Japanese cuisine from an ethnic to a haute cuisine.”
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