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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Aiming to cook up a storm in the Big Apple

Gohan Foundation seeks to teach Americans about Japan's culinary ways


NEW YORK -- Saori Kawano was working five and a half days a week as a waitress at a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan when she realized something had to change.

Saori Kawano and Taeko Takigami, founders of the New York-based Gohan Foundation
Saori Kawano (left) and Taeko Takigami are founders of the New York-based Gohan Foundation, a nonprofit organization to promote the understanding of traditional Japanese cooking techniques and ingredients. BETH HILLMAN PHOTOS

The work was physically demanding, but not unpleasant. She liked the customers, her coworkers and her boss. But, at 28, having left her job as a junior high school teacher in Yokohama to come to the U.S. three years earlier, she felt her life lacked meaning.

"It was too simple; it was routine work. I couldn't contribute anything," Kawano says. "As a young person, I thought, 'What is my purpose here?' I couldn't see my future. I couldn't stand just to keep on doing this for years and years without seeing my future."

With poor English and few bankable skills, Kawano struggled to latch onto a goal; she only knew she wanted to find a dream to feel passionate about for the rest of her life.

An idea for her future arose from the very mindless labor she sought to escape.

Though Kawano had no interest in opening a restaurant or becoming a chef, she knew what products they used. "I thought, 'They can be my customers. I know what they need.' "

This realization inspired Kawano to establish Korin, a Japanese cookware and tableware company. Since 1982, Kawano has supplied Japanese restaurants in New York with everything from knives to ceramics to uniforms, riding the tide of increased demand for Japanese dining spots that has engulfed Manhattan, with trendy sushi bars popping up on seemingly every corner.

The makings of Kawano's dream began when she first decided to quit waitressing and market Japanese dishes to American restaurants. With no experience or connections, her business began with stacks of dishes filling her tiny apartment and months of cold calls and visits to restaurants to attract interested buyers, finally landing clients that included restaurants and florists, as well as shops that sold her wares directly to customers like Hallmark, Macy's and Bloomingdale's.

After gradually establishing herself and increasing her number of clients as Japanese restaurants continued to open, in 1991, the first Gulf War resulted in a sudden 60-percent decline in her business. Once again, Kawano was forced to make a decision about her future.

"I thought, 'How can I survive? How can I get into America's mainstream market? How about knives? Anyone can use them.' "

Kawano radically expanded her knife selection, and today the array of knives that line the walls of her Lower Manhattan showroom, with handles in everything from ebony to red sandalwood, can fetch thousands, with more frugal options for about $100 to $300.

Sales staff eagerly counsel customers testing knives or ogling huge ceramic bowls, but in-store shoppers account for only 10 percent of her sales; Kawano handles phone and Internet sales from restaurants across the country.

Knives sold in the lower Manhattan showroom of Korin
Thousands of knives are sold in the lower Manhattan showroom of Korin, the cookware company Saori Kawano has operated for 25 years. Below, the same Korin showroom also offers a vast array of Japanese ceramics, tapestries and uniforms.
Japanese ceramics, tapestries and uniforms sold at Korin

The recent rush of interest in Japanese cuisine has inspired Kawano's newest project, the Gohan Foundation, a nonprofit organization she and partner Taeko Takigami launched this year with the goal of increasing understanding and appreciation of traditional Japanese ingredients and cooking techniques.

"As a Japanese person, I wanted to do something -- not just by myself, but to get a bunch of people, and not as a business, but as a nonprofit -- to make a support system," Kawano says. "It was my dream and goal to create some bridge between U.S. and Japanese culture."

Precisely because Japanese food has become ubiquitous in America, Kawano wants to give chefs and food enthusiasts the chance to get direct exposure to authentic Japanese cooking styles and flavors.

In 1978, when she first arrived in the U.S., most Japanese restaurants in Manhattan were owned and operated by native Japanese.

Koreans and Chinese soon saw the potential for earnings and began to follow suit.

Most recently, she says, Americans, too, have begun to try their luck with Japanese restaurants.

Kawano says she sees no problem with Japanese food being prepared -- and its flavors tweaked -- for American palates by non-Japanese chefs.

"When a cuisine comes here, it has to be adjusted," she says. "I think it's a good introduction. If we bring real, authentic Japanese food and it doesn't attract customers, it's not good."

While serving spicy tuna and California rolls and miso soup with a spoon might be natural ways to ease Americans into Japanese cooking, Kawano wants to disseminate knowledge about more traditional Japanese ingredients and cooking methods so chefs and enthusiasts will have basic knowledge to draw from, even in preparing other types of cuisine.

"We aren't trying to train the chefs to become Japanese chefs," says Takigami, who became Kawano's partner in creating the foundation after a chance meeting about two years ago and does freelance work linking Japan and America.

"What we're trying to do is show the techniques and ingredients, and we want any kind of chef to absorb those skills and ingredients and use them in their own cooking."

The organization, which started operating in March and will hold its official opening event in June, will attempt to educate people in several ways.

Partnering with the French Culinary Institute, the Gohan Foundation will host a series of lectures open to the public, teaching proper methods for cutting fish and sharpening knives, explaining the uses of more obscure Japanese vegetables, demonstrating how to cook lesser-known Japanese dishes, and comparing different kinds of sake.

Kawano hopes to eventually offer Japanese language classes that focus on kitchen vocabulary to prepare chefs for study visits to Japan, as well as to set up scholarship programs to fund these trips and programs to bring Japanese chefs to learn in U.S. kitchens.

She hopes to get chefs to volunteer to give cooking lessons in New York City public high schools as well, in order to provide younger people a chance to think about foreign cuisine and healthy cooking habits.

"Introducing our culture and country is such a pleasure," Kawano says. "And seeing Americans showing interest in our cuisine is so fascinating and such an honor."

At Gohan Foundation board meetings, for example, Kawano says she feels a sense of elation when members, who include prominent New York food critics and chefs, choose to sip sake rather than wine.

Though her thriving business forces her to squeeze her efforts for the Gohan Foundation into evenings and weekends, Kawano -- who was so moved by the Sept. 11 attacks that she decided to become a U.S. citizen -- sees the organization as the best way to give something back to the country that has become her home.

"I came here and found my life here," Kawano says. "I've met so many people and have so many wonderful customers. But it's not enough. If I can do something out of my business, if I can do something to give back to the society I belong to, that will be my life satisfaction."

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