In a city of multi-talented workaholics, having a side hustle isn’t so surprising. What’s less pedestrian is a side hustle on the sidelines. Masako Morishita, who works full time as an office manager at Fuji TV, has been a cheerleader for the Washington NFL team for four years. Just check her Instagram for on-field pictures cast in burgundy and gold with celebrities like Matthew McConaughey. Morishita even served as the squad’s co-captain during the most recent season.
On top of her office day job and doing the splits, Morishita has a third venture—running a Japanese catering company called M’s Kitchen that allows the Japanese native from Kobe to share her cuisine. “I really love my country, so I want to introduce my culture to the States and my tool is cooking,” she says. When she started taking her food to parties with her team friends, she says, “they were super interested in what I made, so I thought, ‘Maybe this is something I can do.’” She booked her first catering job in October 2015.
Having only helped out at the now shuttered Seasonal Pantry in Shaw, Morishita has far more experience on the field than in the kitchen, but cooking is in her blood. Morishita’s parents ran a tachinomi (a small standing bar) in Kobe where her mother was the chef. “She’s super good at cooking and wouldn’t even let me help,” Morishita says. “I didn’t cook until I moved to the States when I had to cook to save money, and I remembered a lot of the dishes my mom made. That was my inspiration.”
Morishita’s first stint in the U.S. was when she was a 16-year-old exchange student in Wisconsin. That’s where she first picked up pom poms and cheered for her adopted school’s basketball team. When she returned to Japan, she cheered all four years in college and seven years after that for a Japanese semi-pro football team. The budding entrepreneur even brought cheerleading to the baseball diamond when Osaka’s professional team, the ORIX Buffaloes, tapped her to direct a squad.
In 2012, a romantic relationship with someone she met while living in Wisconsin brought Morishita back to the U.S. When that didn’t work out, she saw a call for cheerleader auditions for the Pigskins and made the team.
It’s an odd duality—cooking and cheering—because of the strict diet and exercise regimen the teams require. To be able to test her recipes and stay in shape, Morishita depends on daily exercise like boot camp classes and The Bar Method and drinking at least a gallon of water a day. “I do have cheat days because I really like to eat and drink,” she says. “Usually me and Andrew have dinner together, so dinner is my main food.”
Andrew Chiou is both her boyfriend and her business partner at M’s Kitchen. “Everyone else is more excited about it than I am,” he says of his girlfriend’s status as a professional cheerleader. “Even though I grew up in Texas, I don’t watch football.” The two met one night at Shaw bar A&D. “On our second date, I watched her crush a 12 ounce steak with fries. That’s what fooled me.”
Chiou brings restaurant experience and pastry skills to the partnership. He currently serves as director of operations for DCity Smokehouse and Wicked Bloom, but his resume includes an executive sous chef stint at Table after Frederik de Pue split. Japanese cuisine is familiar to Chiou. Though his family is from Taiwan, he grew up with Japanese culture and interned at Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger outside of Boston.
Both Morishita’s savory dishes and Chiou’s pastries for M’s Kitchen can be considered fusion. Morishita says she can only find a limited amount of Japanese products here at speciality stores like Hana Market on U Street NW, so she’s learned to be flexible. “We’re taking the soul of Japanese cuisine and using American ingredients, so that’s our twist,” Chiou says.
Take one of their signature dishes: mushroom “onigiri” arancini. Though the fried risotto balls are Italian in origin, Morishita spikes them with tamari, kombu dashi broth, and three kinds of Japanese mushrooms (shiitake, maitake, and shimeji). Other highlights include miso deviled eggs with Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise and ichimi pepper; War Shore oysters with shiso, cherry radish, and tamari mignonette; and pork empanadas with ginger, garlic, tamari, miso, chili pepper, and lotus root. “We try to make it a little fancy, but it’s comfort food,” Morishita says.
On the sweets side, Chiou has made black sesame macarons, matcha white chocolate lava cakes, and candied sweet potatoes with black sesame caramel.
Without an online presence beyond a Facebook page, M’s Kitchen is currently operating on a word-of-mouth basis. Morishita says she’s catered private dinners, thrown parties for nonprofit organizations, and built bento boxes for business lunches. But the scope of M’s Kitchen could expand exponentially in 2017.
“We’re right at that point where we’ve grown it enough to find a permanent home,” Chiou says. “We’re thinking of making it into an actual restaurant, so instead of going to the customers, they’ll come to us.”
The culinary lovebirds are scouting locations in both Shaw and Georgetown, with the latter more likely as Chiou is in talks with a leasing agent to potentially take over After Peacock Room, where he once worked. The couple is hoping to land a spot this year, which means Morishita’s days in uniform at FedExField could be numbered. “Something has to go,” she says, adding that she may not return to the NFL team’s cheerleading squad.
Opening any new restaurant is risky, but at least Japanese cuisine is thriving in the District. Sushi Taro, a 30-year-old sushi and kaiseki standby, was one of nine D.C. restaurants to receive a Michelin star in October, and Washingtonian’s “100 Very Best Restaurants” includes eight Japanese restaurants. One of the magazine’s food editors, Anna Spiegel, says there hasn’t been that many Japanese restaurants on the list in 20 years.
Then there are the openings. The team from Daikaya opened two ramen restaurants in 2016: Bantam King in June and Haikan in August. In November, Himitsu opened in Petworth in the former Crane & Turtle space where the ever-changing menu features everything from nigiri sushi to Japanese-style fried chicken called karaage. Next, Sushiko debuted a restaurant within a restaurant in December called Kōbō that’s an exercise in Japanese delicacies like uni (sea urchin) and Wagyu beef. Finally, there’s Conbini Café—the Japanese comfort food counter serving okonomiyaki and curry rice inside the Shopkeepers boutique off H Street NE.
What these newcomers and M’s Kitchen share is that they all take traditional Japanese cuisine to new places whether through avant-garde presentations, innovative uses of ingredients, or fresh techniques.
“When Kevin [Tien] and I decided to open a restaurant together, we immediately knew we wanted to open our doors with what we would later coin, ‘New Japanese,’” Himitsu co-owner Carlie Steiner says. “The timing seemed perfect, and we felt that D.C. was ready for something new and risky.”