Steve Haruch's story in last week's Scene ("Turning Japanese," April 10) raised questions about authenticity and cultural appropriation, particularly as it applies to food, and it triggered quite a response. Some commenters chimed in supporting Haruch's take, while others disagreed vociferously.
Seed Hospitality CEO Patrick Burke and his restaurant Two Ten Jack were featured prominently in the article. Below is Burke's response:
Thank you for visiting Two Ten Jack, enduring the wait (our team has been able to reduce waits since opening, and we always quote accurate wait times), and for caring enough to analyze the restaurant so thoroughly. It's been gratifying that friends and neighbors are so interested in the Japanese tradition of izakaya.
You brought up an interesting element in our business: the fine point of "authenticity." I think we all want to experience cuisine and culture as authentically as possible, whether around the corner or around the world. It teaches us about our differences, but most importantly, about our similarities.
It's true that I still have a lot to learn about Japanese cuisine and culture. Raised in Louisville by parents from Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, I'm perhaps not the most obvious choice to be selling Japanese cuisine. Believe it or not, in seven years of pursuing my dream of creating the best neighborhood Japanese restaurant, this isn't the first time my ethnicity has come up. I am fortunate that my own life experience, and I imagine that of my white colleagues, has not been marred by ugly, prejudicial and racist actions and words from others. While I find this behavior disgusting, I obviously can't completely empathize with you, Steve, or anyone else from a minority group who's experienced prejudice. But that shouldn't stop me from working to share a love of Japanese cuisine with others. Should it?
I became hooked on eating sushi as often as possible in grad school, enjoying it for its health benefits. I wondered how I might create the perfect neighborhood Japanese restaurant. Turning down offers to work in banking or law in New York, I decided to pursue my passion of starting a restaurant.
My first mentor and chef was the late Gary Flood, a 51-year-old African-American master sushi chef. Gary grew up in Compton, near Gardena in South L.A., a Japanese industrial hub. As a restless teenager, Gary fell in love with a Japanese girl, and her dad, who owned a sushi restaurant, offered Gary a job: working seven days a week so he'd rarely see her. Over 30 years, Gary developed a unique perspective on the world of Japanese cuisine.
Gary taught me a great deal about sushi itself, but also about the cultural battles on the other side of the sushi bar. He told me stories of his own experiences of racism and prejudice from other chefs of all nationalities — Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican and others.
The lesson Gary instilled in me was that ethnicity didn't matter — anyone could make quality Japanese cuisine if they studied and worked hard enough.
For those of us who love Japanese cuisine, this is a good thing. Japan's aging and declining population has made it increasingly difficult to train and produce enough native sushi chefs to meet rising global demand. Enterprising chefs from all nationalities have stepped in to fill the gap. The happy result (from my perspective) is that more people, especially in the melting pot of America, are being exposed to the wonders of Japanese cuisine.
This has also introduced to Japanese cuisine one of the great elements of all artistic creativity — riffs, or artistic reinterpretations of an original work. In Music City, this creative process is not only appreciated, it's at the core of our identity as a city.
Which brings us back to the point of authenticity.
Even after devoting myself to creating the best neighborhood Japanese restaurants possible, in this city I adore, I still have a lot to learn about Japanese cuisine and culture. Aware of my own personal shortcomings, I have read countless books on sushi and Japanese cuisine; sought mentors like Gary and assembled the best team of culinarians I could find; brought in the world's leading ramen expert to teach our team; mortgaged my house and convinced a team of investors why Nashville needs these restaurants; and studied principles of Japanese design. (By the way, thank you for noticing the wabi-sabi influence — that was a guiding ethos for the design.)
So why have I undertaken this journey and invited our team to join?
Because I believe our community needs these kinds of restaurants. Neighborhood gathering places inspired by the strong sense of hospitality I experienced in Japan, where acquaintances of a few hours took me in after a typhoon stranded our bullet train in the countryside. Casual restaurants that serve interesting and healthy cuisine made from real ingredients, because there's a lack of that in general in America — and we have the waistlines to prove it.
And so, after getting my feet wet in this arduous industry with Zumi, I decided to stick with it, calling on my favorite izakaya experiences in Japan to inspire a unique experience for Nashville.
I did not use "authentic" to describe our aesthetic because we're not trying to transport people to Tokyo.
Instead, Two Ten Jack reflects similarities naturally found between Tennessee and Japan (as recently noted by Consul-General Motohiko Kato), including Japan's simple rural aesthetic, which often gets lost because most designers gravitate to Japan's modern minimalism.
The shibori and boro linen panels you referenced are indeed interpretations of an ancient Japanese tradition, created by two local enterprising women, Meg Davis and Alesandra Bellos, who started Southern Hues in an effort to bring back denim manufacturing to America using Southern-grown indigo. If there is a more authentic way of interpreting a beautiful Japanese tradition while riffing with a cool local touch (which is what Two Ten Jack aspires to be, unapologetically), I don't know what it might be.
I described our cuisine as "authentic" because we make every recipe from scratch in our restaurants using the most authentic Japanese ingredients we can source in Nashville (and then we pay to ship in others we can't find locally, from New York and elsewhere). Our culinary team has trained with Japanese chefs and is versed in a wide array of specialty Japanese ingredients.
Take the obligatory miso soup. At Zumi and Two Ten Jack we start with bonito flakes to make the dashi, then the soup, adding fresh cut green onions and tofu — when many independent Japanese establishments rehydrate a packet. For Two Ten Jack, we sourced a special grill from Japan that cost thousands of dollars just to grill meats and veggies on sticks. Why? Because they taste like the yakitori shops I visited in Japan.
At the bar, drinks are crafted by hand using local produce and careful handiwork, which is actually a very Japanese construct. Long before Patterson House brought "mixology" to Nashville (thank you, Ben and Max!), the Japanese philosophy of always putting your best effort into your craft had been applied to drinking. Spherical ice molds were perfected in Japan, and a dizzying array of the world's best cocktail-making gear is made in Japan, including much of our barware. So creating the best drinks we can is a tradition we appreciate locally as much as the Japanese do.
Gary taught me that food itself doesn't have an ethnicity — people do. Thankfully the love and painstaking effort that flow from human hands to create it aren't bound by ethnicity either. I am dead certain that the effort flowing from our team's hands (white, black, Hispanic, Asian and otherwise) is authentically borne out of a love for this cuisine. Insisting that someone be of a certain ethnicity to prepare your "authentic" food is, in fact, a prejudiced viewpoint, in my opinion.
I am honored that Nashville is embracing our interpretation of the traditional izakaya and this lesser-known element of Japanese culture.
And as I've already mentioned, Steve, it's true that I still have a lot to learn about Japanese cuisine and culture. Which is why I'm returning to Japan later this year.
CEO, Seed Hospitality
Owner, Two Ten Jack
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