Any good caterer knows that garnishes should be fresh. But it would be a reckless understatement to call Sylvan Mishima Brackett “good.” For a casual dinner with friends, the owner of Oakland, California-based Japanese catering company Peko Peko makes a 40-minute detour to a friend’s backyard in Berkeley. In the fading light, he clambers over hillocks of wild watercress, his bee-striped sneakers growing damp as he crouches down to hunt for the tenderest shoots. He snaps off 10 or 12 of them, stem by stem.
Back in the test kitchen at his house, Brackett prepares the soup course. In the drafty converted garage where he tests new dishes, he plans to make silken tofu bathed in dashi stock and garnished with crabmeat. Serious Japanese cooks shave their own dried tuna for dashi, so he hammers the blade of his Japanese carpenter’s plane into place and unpacks the katsuobushi (dried, fermented and smoked skipjack tuna) that he bought in Japan. (Born in Kyoto and raised in California, Brackett returns to Japan at least once a year to eat and to stock his pantry.)
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Kirk Lombard, a fisherman friend, knocks on the door bearing Dungeness crab fresh from the Bay. In the warm glow of the two bulbs hanging from the raftered ceiling, Brackett hands his visitor a glass of tart-sweet plum wine, brewed from fruit harvested from another friend’s backyard. He pulls the crabs out of the bucket, their claws snapping furiously. His test kitchen has no stove, but the next afternoon, Brackett will fire up one of his three 50,000-plus BTU portable wok burners to steam the seafood.