Local Wasabi Is a Labor of Love, and a Chef’s Secret Weapon, in the Bay Area
Wasabi shouldn’t be the same hue as Shrek. It shouldn’t send a solar flare of spice up your nostrils with each bite. It shouldn’t take a few seconds to transform from a green power into a solid Play-Doh-like hunk after adding a bit of water. Instead, real wasabi, made from grinding the sturdy pale green rhizome into a paste, should be a light mint green. It should taste mild and sweet, almost imperceptible as the supporting character to the pristine fish it accompanies. And it should take a few years to successfully see it from seed to stalk.
For the past seven years, Jeff Roller and Tim Hall have been growing fresh wasabi in the Bay Area. And in those seven years, they’ve only had four fruitful harvests due to the long growing seasons of the plant—and lots of trial and error. They’re electricians by day, but whenever they can, you’ll find them at Half Moon Bay Wasabi Company, a half-acre dedicated to the fickle Japanese plant that you won’t find grown really anywhere else in the U.S.
“I think I’m responsible for this,” says Hall. “I just found out one day that I wasn’t eating real wasabi, so I started looking into it. I realized it was really hard to grow and no one was doing it in California.”
“Everything we read said it was difficult,” adds Roller. “But we started looking at the climate in Japan and in a lot of ways it’s similar to Half Moon Bay. Plus, the niche of the product and the challenge of it was really alluring to us.”
The two never shy away from adversity. They run towards it. When they were working on kitchen renovations, they learned how to make their own concrete counters. When they came across this plot of land in Half Moon Bay, once a booming agriculture area, they had to rebuild every greenhouse on the property for their crops. And when they had complete crop failures in the early years, they kept going it at it, learning from their mistakes, relying on their biology degrees and, as Roller puts it, “started to recognize what this plant wants.”
They’ve never been to Japan, mostly sticking with their own research and understanding of their surroundings. Wasabi likes cool weather, according to Roller, so the marine layer of fog in the summer keeps it from getting too hot while warmer winters prevent the plant from freezing and going dormant. They tried growing the plant in gravel and water, like in Japan, but changed to a different growing medium better suited for the setting here.
Now, Roller and Hall harvest about 30 to 50 pounds of wasabi every Monday, and it goes out to 25 restaurants in the area, including Adam Tortosa of sushi hotspot, Robin in San Francisco. A few months before he even opened his restaurant, he reached out to Half Moon Bay Wasabi Company. You’ll find a little bit of it in almost every dish at the restaurant.
“We go through four to five pounds a week,” says Tortosa. “We spend a lot of money on wasabi.”
Priced at around $80 a pound, it adds up. But it’s a small luxury necessary for Tortosa, who was first introduced to fresh wasabi after working at Katsuya in Los Angeles.
“Chef Katsuya Uechi would do these special omakase dinners every so often, and he always brought real wasabi from Japan,” says Tortosa. “It was sweeter, milder, more complex and not just clear-your-nose-heat. It was something nuanced that you wanted to use to enhance something.”
Tortosa scales the amount of wasabi he slips into his sushi depending on the fish. For fattier fish, like toro, you need a bit more, but a leaner whitefish requires much less. He grates from the top of the rhizome and the bottom of the rhizome, since the top is less potent, and mixes together to get a more balanced flavor. Sometimes, stems and leaves are tossed into the order, which Tortosa pickles.
“It’s as good as, if not better than, what’s from Japan,” says Tortosa. “They’re a small business and I’m a small business, and I want to support them. It would be great to let them quit their day jobs.”
“That’s the dream,” says Hall. “I feel like we’re getting closer and closer to getting it right.”
And with expansion of their farm and new products like their own version of wasabi powder, on the horizon and more and more trial and error, it feels like the dream is almost within reach.