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The mounds of rice that are molded for the sushi course at Kōbō aren’t snow white as they are at many Japanese eateries. Instead, they’re mauve. Chef Handry Tjan explains that traditional edomae sushi rice uses akasu, red vinegar made from sake lees, instead of the more familiar clear rice wine vinegar.
Tjan, whose hands are tattooed with the words “fish” and “rice,” cooks and speaks with authority, but he isn’t Japanese. Nor has he been to Japan. The same is true for his brother Piter Tjan, who also serves as an executive chef at Sushiko and Kōbō—the new tasting menu restaurant within Sushiko in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Piter and Handry came to Baltimore from Indonesia when they were 19 and 16, respectively. They both got their culinary start working at their uncle’s Chinese restaurant in Glen Burnie, Maryland, mostly to keep them out of trouble. “Piter and I were like bad boys when we were kids,” Handry explains.
It was Piter who first made the foray into Japanese cuisine after meeting Raku owner Marcel The while playing late night badminton. The hired him first for the Bethesda location and later for Dupont Circle. The gave Handry a job too, but it wasn’t until 2008 when both brothers landed gigs at Sushiko that they cemented their passion for Japanese food.
“The philosophy of Japanese cuisine made us hungry to learn more,” Handry says. “You’re never satisfied; you never graduate.” Piter adds, “You’re always working on everything from rice vinegar, dashi, and umami—that’s what drives me.”
But it hasn’t been easy being non-Japanese in this job. “When I first started at this restaurant, a lot of people didn’t believe me,” Piter says. “I was about to give up my job. It was too much. I was feeling like it was my fault I wasn’t born in a Japanese family.”
“Many of the guests as soon as they sit down ask if we’re Japanese,” Handry says. “We let them know that we’re not and you can see the disappointment.” The real kicker is when guests brag about having spent time in Japan before placing an Americanized order. “They talk about Japan, so I explain everything and then they order a California roll,” Piter says.
Both chefs took a break from Sushiko before reuniting there in 2014. Piter went to work at Uchi, a Japanese restaurant in Austin. “I didn’t want to do it anymore, but it’s the only skill I know and I have to support my family,” Piter says. He got the affirmation he needed seeing the success of Uchi Chef Tyson Cole, a James Beard Award winner who happens to be white, and Top Chef winner Paul Qui, a Filipino.
“Thank god people underestimate me,” Piter says. “It’s given me a lot of motivation. Hopefully, I’ll have my chance to open my own restaurant so people can see you don’t have to be Japanese to cook Japanese food.”
The Tjans are among many local chefs deftly cooking cuisine not native to them. The trend is in part a result of social media and globalization, which easily allow chefs to learn about new cultures and foods.
Maketto Chef de Cuisine James Wozniuk grew up primarily in South Carolina, where he ate filet mignon and shrimp on special occasions and dishes like borscht regularly because his paternal grandmother was Ukrainian. Yet Wozniuk is behind some of the District’s tastiest Southeast Asian cuisine.
“As soon as I decided to cook, I knew I wanted to cook Asian food,” Wozniuk says. “I fell in love with the uniqueness, the chilies, and the pungency.” But it took some time for Wozniuk to find his way into Maketto’s kitchen, having primarily worked at French-leaning restaurants like Marcel’s and Lyon Hall. “I had a real fear of failing … and then Erik [Bruner-Yang] came and pitched me this insane project.”
In addition to reading cookbooks, Wozniuk has traveled to Asian countries twice a year for the past several years. Most recently he joined a “Caring for Cambodia” trip during which he taught nutrition to new mothers and closely observed their cooking. He says visiting the birthplace of a cuisine is invaluable. “Hawkers at street stalls just throw it together. It’s the most amazing thing.”
If there’s been any criticism of Maketto’s authenticity, it’s been minor. One person wrote that the color of the sausage wasn’t right. “It drives me to work harder and do better,” Wozniuk says. “I try to make the best food possible. Hopefully people can see past race because good food is good food.”
Traveling to a country to find recipes is always advisable, but Chef Mario Monte argues that just as important is understanding “why” a dish came to be. “It’s getting to know the people and how they are as a culture and how their food has evolved,” he says.
The executive chef of forthcoming 14th Street Cuban café Colada Shop, Monte grew up in Venezuela with an Italian mother and a Cuban father but wasn’t exposed to Cuban food until he moved to Miami as a teen. Though there’s some overlap, Venezuelan food is heavily influenced by indigenous ingredients like corn, cilantro, and quinoa while Cuban cuisine is inspired by Africa and Europe.
Because of the political climate, Monte hasn’t visited Cuba, but he has nevertheless immersed himself in the culture. “Once I moved to Miami, I understood and was exposed to the hard truths of what they had to go through and, more importantly, what they had to let go of,” he says.
Chef Scott Drewno, who grew up in the Finger Lakes noshing on Polish food like kielbasa and kapusta, cooks Chinese at The Source by Wolfgang Puck. Drewno is a voracious reader of old Chinese cookbooks and articles about Chinese food but agrees that travel is critical to understanding ethnic cuisine.
Having been to China four times, Drewno encourages restaurateurs to send their chefs abroad. “I advocate for my brothers and sisters in the food world that we want to travel, so send us!” he says. “It’s empowering for the chef, and a good investment for the restaurant.”
Drewno’s been at The Source for a decade, but there are still diners surprised to learn he’s not Chinese. “People make comments all of the time—it is what it is,” Drewno says. But he says attitudes are evolving. “If you’re passionate and you practice and do all the things you need to do, you should be able to be good at it. With the access to recipes and food TV, it’s not as much of an issue as it used to be, which is a good thing.”
Chef Paul Pelt, formerly of Tabard Inn, shares Drewno’s fondness for Chinese food and finally fell into a position cooking dan dan noodles, fried rice, and spare ribs at Chao Ku. Pelt, who is black, hasn’t been to China but he’s long loved the cuisine. “Me and my best friend would get out of high school and go get Chinese food on Capitol Hill,” he says, adding that he’s also frequented Chinatowns in New York and Chicago. At Tabard Inn, he often cooked Chinese for staff meals.
“Some people might say you’re appropriating someone’s culture, but that doesn’t really count when it comes to food,” Pelt says. “You just have to be respectful.” That extends to naming restaurants. “When we were coming up with a logo, we were very cautious.”
Chef Lonnie Zoeller, who cooks Colombian food like arepas and salchipapas at Policy, grew up in Cooperstown, New York, eating an all-American diet, but he married into a Colombian family after meeting his wife at Vinoteca. They traveled to Bogota often before starting a family, so he was prepared when The Royal tapped him to roll out a Colombian menu.
He agrees with Pelt that respect for the food is crucial. “When people get too clever, too cute, it takes away from it. You should try to be respectful about the style of cuisine you’re being influenced by.”
Chef Khan Gayabazar has a different perspective, having cooked Japanese in the District since moving here 16 years ago from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. He started cooking traditional Japanese at Chopsticks in Georgetown before fusing Japanese with Latin American at Mate, Fujimar, and Sakerum, where he is now the executive chef.
He believes “authentic” food will die out—and discrimination with it—in favor of well-executed fusion fare. “Food has completely changed,” he says. “If you open an Italian restaurant—an authentic Italian restaurant—it’s not going to work out. Ten years ago it would, but people are looking for new, different styles of fusion.”
Khan, after all, is the mastermind behind the menu at Buredo—a rapidly expanding local chainlet that serves sushi burritos. “All of the restaurants are mixing new tastes,” he says. “New food is coming out. It’s getting crazy now.”
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