Six days a week, my parents sold Mexican silver earrings to street peddlers for $1.50 at their cramped wholesale jewelry store in Manhattan. Every night, my mother rushed home to Queens to fix delicious Korean suppers from the meat and produce on sale at the Elmhurst Key Food supermarket. Then, in 1981, about five years after we immigrated, my father decided that knowing how to butter bread properly should be as much a part of his children’s education as algebra and spelling. He allowed me, a precocious 12-year-old, to select one fancy restaurant to study each year. On the appointed day, the Lee family would waltz into the likes of Lutèce or Le Cirque.
Our means were modest, but Dad told my two sisters and me to get whatever we fancied. “Does money die or does Lee die?” he’d say. We’d assure him of his immortality, then order beef bourguignon or sole meunière.
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I continued these explorations through college and law school, and into my new career as a novelist. Last summer, when my husband, Christopher, and I moved to Tokyo, we ate out frequently. Yet nearly a year after our arrival, we still hadn’t experienced kaiseki, the most traditional—and expensive—style of Japanese cuisine. Kaiseki is an art form: The multicourse banquet incorporates only seasonal ingredients, and the aesthetics of the plate are an important part of the ritual. When I asked native Japanese about the city’s best kaiseki, most had no interest in discussing the subject. They associated it with lengthy, sake-soaked business meals or dismissed it as culinary tourism for Westerners.