© Alice Gao
Dirt Candy owner, writer and culinary feminist Amanda Cohen spotlights talented chefs you need to know.
One of the biggest changes for New York restaurants over the past decade is the exodus of chefs from Manhattan to Brooklyn in search of cheaper rents that will let them take more risks without the fripperies island diners insist on. Chef Sawako Okochi recently made the journey to serve matzo ball ramen at Shalom Japan, the South Williamsburg restaurant she owns with her husband, Aaron Israel.
While Jewish Japanese food may sound like a joke, the restaurant wins raves because its ever-changing dishes are all more thoughtful and subtle than they first appear. Even the most basic-sounding menu items turn out to be ingenious experiments, like an order of the Japanese bar food okonomiyaki, a savory pancake that arrives crossed with a latke and served with corned lamb’s tongue and homemade sauerkraut.
Okochi’s superhero origin story has a typical arc. Born in Hiroshima, she moved to Texas in 1995. “I loved it,” she remembers. “Everything was big! I couldn’t believe how big the glasses and soda cups were.” Then she came to New York, went to culinary school, became a dishwasher at Aki, a small sushi restaurant in the West Village, and moved up to the sushi counter. After 9/11, Aki, like most restaurants, took a hit and Okochi was let go. Hungry for work, she pursued an internship at Chanterelle, an old-school French restaurant owned by Karen and David Waltuck that sported a massive kitchen, a separate pastry kitchen, a cheese cave, a wine cellar and even showers for the employees. Through the Waltucks she met Anita Lo and began a five-year stint at Lo’s Annisa where she eventually became a sous-chef.
Lo is something of a patron saint for a significant slice of New York’s restaurant world. “She taught me so much about food,” Okochi says. “Because she’s been running Annisa for 14 years, she has taught many, many people: her cooks, her interns and her students when she taught classes. She runs a very tight kitchen. She’s very intellectual and constantly creating.” Lo also received a huge boost of attention when she competed on Iron Chef and defeated Mario Batali in Battle Mushroom. “When I started working at Annisa, her kitchen was all female,” Okochi says. “I was there when she won, and they said we were the first all female team to beat an Iron Chef.”
In the past, the next phase would have been for Okochi to continue up the ranks at Annisa, or to join the line at another big restaurant. But Brooklyn now presents a whole new career path, and Okochi became the chef at Red Hook’s beloved Good Fork, the 2006 love child of chef Sohui Kim and her husband, Ben Schneider. “Red Hook is a special place,” Okochi says. “The Good Fork got me very creative. I was constantly thinking of weekend specials, and Added Value farm around the corner provided amazing produce to work with.”
During Okochi’s time there, Mother Nature Network named her one of its “40 under 40” chefs, and her food won a lot of fans. “There were a lot of people who came back on weekends for my specials,” she says. After leaving Good Fork, Okochi started the Otakara Supper Club, serving dinner twice a month in a friend’s backyard. Then came a brief stint at Lani Kai, and finally, the urge to open her own place. “I decided, it’s now or never,” she says. “I thought it would be great to run it with someone I trust.” Her partner: husband Aaron Israel, opening sous-chef at the ultra-popular Torrisi Italian Specialties and later at the über-trendy Mile End.
Thus was born the world’s first “authentically inauthentic Jewish Japanese” restaurant, serving said matzo ball ramen, sake challah bread with raisin butter, lox bowls and borscht. “It is my and Aaron’s food, not necessarily fusion cuisine,” Okochi says.
Shalom continues to earn praise, but like every restaurant, it’s not easy. “It takes seven days a week of nonstop work,” Okochi says. “But because we are both chef-owners, we can take turns doing the kitchen and paperwork.”