Behind the Scenes of the Award-winning “Family Ingredients”
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
They migrated to Hawai‘i from all corners of the world. They bid farewell to family, friends and the place they called home, knowing they might never return. To describe this upheaval as unsettling is a gross understatement. But the cultural foods they ate brought some level of comfort and resemblance of home. Those daily meals helped to ease the transition to their new lives in a strange land.
That was the role food played in the lives of newly arrived immigrants in our multicultural community and it became the foundation for the PBS television series, “Family Ingredients,” celebrating Hawai‘i’s multicultural community through food. “Family Ingredients” takes the featured guest’s fondest food memory or a family dish and traces it back to its origin. The show is hosted by Ed Kenney, a part-Hawaiian, Irish, Spanish and Filipino chef.
Heather Giugni, the show’s executive producer, approached me with the show’s concept and asked if I would help produce it. That was a no-brainer — I was all in. She wanted to do an hour-long television pilot to introduce the show, and she wanted part of it shot in Japan. She asked me who I thought would be an ideal person to feature on this trip. I didn’t have to think very long for that answer: Chef Alan Wong.
Alan Wong and I grew up in Wahiawä. He’s my brother’s Leilehua High School classmate and a good friend. I knew his story, and it’s a very compelling one.
Alan was born in Tökyö to a Japanese mother. When he was 5 years old and his sister, Beverly, 3, their mother made the difficult and courageous decision to leave Japan and come to Hawai‘i. A strong-willed woman, she wanted her children to be educated in America, the land of opportunity, so she took the proverbial leap of faith. Life wasn’t easy, but she managed to provide for her children. That story, along with the fact that Alan is an internationally renowned chef who would bring gravitas to the show, made him a no-brainer. Heather was all in, too.
Alan grew up in Waipi‘o Acres, just outside of Wahiawä. In its early days, Wahiawä was surrounded by pineapple fields, as was the old two-lane Kamehameha Highway, which was the only way to get to and from Honolulu before the H-2 was built. Like most kids who grew up in Wahiawä at the time, Alan worked in the pineapple fields during his summers. Today we like to call it “tradition.” Back then, however, your parents mostly wanted you to learn the value of a dollar through hard work. Part of it is in his DNA, but I believe that for Alan, having the upbringing he had, gave him the drive to ascend to the top of the culinary world.
When Heather and I first met with Alan to discuss the “Family Ingredients” pilot, we asked him what his favorite dish was growing up. “Tamago kake gohan,” he replied — a raw egg mixed with hot rice, the quintessential comfort food of Japan.
Heather and I looked “blank-faced” at each other, wondering how we were going to produce a one-hour show based on such a simple dish. After getting over the initial shock and letting the idea of the dish sink in, pieces of the story began to reveal themselves.
Simplicity and food traditions are integral parts of Japanese culture. In the vast flow of life, they help to bring balance. There was more to this dish than met the eye.
I had just finished reading Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s award-winning cookbook, “Japanese Farm Food.” Her stories of Japanese food from a home cook perspective and how food intertwined with culture, the changing seasons, and the ebb and flow of daily life brought more clarity to shaping the “Family Ingredients” story. In her book, she featured her husband, Tadaaki Hachisu, an organic egg and rice farmer — the ingredients for tamago kake gohan! There was even a page dedicated to that very dish. If we could feature them in the show, we would be able to “close the loop” on Alan’s story and bring it full-circle. But what were the odds of making that connection and getting them onboard?
Undaunted, Heather and I started “stalking” Nancy online and on social media. Finally, by chance, Heather found Nancy’s email and shared the story idea with her. Nancy agreed to work with us and became our “fixer,” or coordinator, in Japan.
The question now was: How would Chef Alan and the show’s host, Chef Ed Kenney, interact? We started filming in Wahiawä. Following protocol, we went to Kükaniloko, outside of Wahiawä, the ancient birthing stone site of sacred ali‘i. That was followed by visits to Honda Tofu and Petersons’ Upland Farm, Wahiawä landmarks, where, as a young boy, Alan and his mom would go to buy their tofu and eggs. After that first full day of filming, our question had been answered. Alan and Ed were naturals together; in fact, they complemented each other’s personality. As chefs, they also brought great insight, witty banter and colorful commentary to the show.
Our goal for the pilot was to get the “green light” for a national PBS series. We had a talented crew — Heather as executive producer; Renea Veneri Stewart, director of photography and producer; Ty Sanga, director and writer; Todd Fink, cinematographer and writer; John Saimo, sound engineer; and myself, producer and researcher. Together with the chefs, Ed and Alan, we thought we had a good shot at that green light. With great expectations, off we were to Japan.
As a producer, it was my job to research the culture and customs of the places prior to our getting on the plane. The dos and don’ts, protocols and dress codes were then passed on to the crew. We represented America and Hawai‘i, PBS, and Rock Salt Media, the “Family Ingredients” production company. We would try our best to not be “Ugly Americans.” Because of the expense of the travel and production, our schedule was packed, going from one location to the next and from morning to night. The time we allotted for a location and travel to the next destination didn’t always go as planned. Being on time is a common courtesy anywhere in the world, but in Japan, it’s a strict custom to be followed.
We tried to plan our trip to coincide with the blooming of the sakura cherry blossoms and had the good fortune of arriving in Tökyö at the peak of the season. Japan is a wonderland when it comes to filming, and being there with the sakura in full bloom was like a dream-come-true for our camera crew. But, it also made being on time for appointments all the more challenging. And yet, when I saw what the crew was capturing on-camera, it was worth the stress. We were late for two appointments in Tökyö, and in both instances, the owners were upset and asked to speak with me. I offered our sincere apologies, which they accepted. We ended up having great shoots at both of those locations.
In keeping with Alan’s food memory, our first scheduled shoot was at Asano Poultry, a small farm on the outskirts of Tökyö. We met the proprietors, Yoshishito Asano and his lovely wife, Toshiko, and their loyal German Shepherd, Cherry. Yoshishito-san was 77 years old and a Renaissance man. Besides being a livestock farmer who raised chickens for eggs, he was a “mad scientist,” who created contraptions to make farming easier. He also painted with oils, sang opera and flew an ultra-lite aircraft so he could soar over the surrounding farmlands.
Yoshishito-san showed us his injured hand — he lost part of a finger in an accident while repairing the engine of his aircraft. He complained that the injury was keeping him grounded.
As if all that weren’t enough, he was also reviving a breed of chicken from the Edo Period, the Shamo rooster. These are meat birds that almost went extinct when U.S. broiler chickens were introduced to Japan. Shamo roosters are prized over hens, which is contrary to U.S. birds. The meat is said to be superior to that of U.S. broiler chickens. We were going to taste and judge for ourselves at our next location.
If filming with the Asanos was a precursor for the rest of the trip, we were going to have an amazing experience in Japan. The crew was pumped!
Stepping into Tamahide restaurant was like embarking on a journey back in time. The current proprietor and chef, Koonosuke Yamada, is the eighth generation in his family to run this restaurant, which was established in 1760. The restaurant started as a Shamo chicken slaughter and processing house for a ruling shogunate during the Edo Period (1603-1868). Later it became known as a restaurant that served Shamo nabe, a hotpot dish.
Today, Tamahide is known for its oyako donburi, the popular egg and chicken over rice dish, which was created in 1891 by Toku Yamada, the wife of a fifth-generation Yamada. Chef Koonosuke-san serves Shamo chicken raised by our newly made friend, Yoshishito Asano. So, we had followed the ingredient from the farm to the table.
The wait for a table in this restaurant can be over 30 minutes, and we quickly found out why. The oyako donburi was so delicious, unlike any we had tasted in Hawai‘i. I asked Chef Koonosuke-san if he had ever been to Hawai‘i. He said he had prepared Tamahide’s oyako donburi for a cooking demonstration at Shirokiya a few years earlier. He said some people in Hawai‘i didn’t like it because the egg mixture on the rice was too runny for their taste. Some of them are concerned about food safety and are afraid of a runny egg. To his or her own, but in Japan, a raw or runny egg is a common ingredient in every day fare. My advice? Know where your eggs come from so you can partake without worrying.
Our next location was one I was steadfastly determined not to be late to: Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten, the three-star Michelin restaurant of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” fame. Before going there, however, I scheduled a quick stop at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, a 144-acre park with roughly 1,500 cherry trees. It was established during the Edo Period and the trees were massive and bursting with sakura in all their glory. It was a beautiful refrain. We were now ready for our climax in Tökyö.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe entertained President Barack Obama at Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten. World-renowned chefs like the late Joel Robuchon of France, Denmark’s Rene Redzepi and a host of others made the pilgrimage there to eat sushi prepared by the restaurant’s 88-year old chef, Jiro Ono. Anthony Bourdain had dined and filmed there, so our crew studied his show to gain insight on camera angles and lighting.
We arrived at Sukiyabashi Jiro early and started to unpack our gear outside the restaurant. I peered inside and saw Chef Jiro-san, his son Yoshikazu-san and their three apprentices, all standing like soldiers in front of the sushi counter. They were waiting for an obligatory introduction, a protocol that had me stumped. I quickly ushered everyone inside. It was showtime — 45 minutes of sushi choreographed by Chef Jiro-san, and our crew of pros nailed it.
“So was it hype, or the real deal?” I whispered to Alan as he exited the restaurant. “It was the best sushi I’ve ever had,” he replied.
That was a wrap on the Tökyö portion of the trip. It was time to celebrate before heading north to Saitama.
With the help of our hotel concierge, I found an izakaya (a bar and appetizer spot) within walking distance of our hotel. It was a clear and cool evening, perfect for a nice walk and a night of celebration. Although we were in Tökyö, our destination had the ambiance of a warm little izakaya in the country. We loved it. Useful advice: When you travel to Japan with chefs and you go to an izakaya, be prepared to sample everything on the menu, including a good portion of the sake list. The chefs want to be “informed” and are always looking for inspiration for that new signature dish. Needless to say, they got no complaints from the crew. It was a fabulous and fun evening of camaraderie!
Nancy Singleton Hachisu was born in Palo Alto, Calif., and graduated from Stanford University. She’s adventurous, stubbornly independent and is deeply fascinated with Japan and Japanese food. So it was no surprise at all that she ended up in Japan, pursuing her dream to learn more and teaching English as a Second Language to survive.
In her class was another adventurous soul, Tadaaki Hachisu, who had grown up on a farm and hailed from generations of farmers before him. He introduced himself to Nancy, saying, “Just call me Rodrigo.” Tadaaki had spent a year in Brazil, where he worked as a cowboy. He also sailed to the old USSR on the Peace Boat, and did a farming mission in North Korea and in Mao Tse-Tung’s China. Not your typical Japanese country farm boy.
As a producer, finding that ideal location to shoot is like unearthing treasure. That first night at the Hachisus’ 80-year-old farmhouse in Saitama was like realizing a dream. The farmhouse, and especially the kitchen, where a lot of the activity in Nancy’s cookbook took place, were beautifully photographed for her book. Those images had captured my imagination — to be there in person was surreal. Nancy and Tadaaki are great cooks, and to have them in that kitchen cooking alongside chefs Alan and Ed was over-the-top! That night, we ate Japanese farm food. It was some of the best food of the trip because of the ingredients and the people who had prepared them.
The next morning, we were at the farmhouse, preparing to visit a couple of farms when Alan suddenly disappeared. I found him in a small room in the farm shed, sitting across from Tadaaki as the two cleaned eggs and talked story. Cleaning eggs was something Alan knew well. When he and his mom first started buying eggs from Petersons’ Upland Farm in Wahiawä, you could purchase uncleaned eggs at a discount. These were the eggs whose outer shell hadn’t yet been wiped clean. Alan’s job was to clean those eggs at home. He was sitting there with Tadaaki, reliving his childhood.
While in Saitama, we visited farms and a tofu and miso factory. And, we ate wonderful traditional and contemporary Japanese food unique to the chefs who prepared it. But what we were really after was the tamago kake gohan that only Tadaaki and Nancy could provide. Tadaaki raised the chickens that laid the eggs, and he also grew the rice — all organically. Nancy made the soy sauce from scratch, and in small batches. We were keeping with tradition. And all of this was happening in their beautiful 80-year-old farmhouse.
Early in the morning, before we left Saitama, the chefs sat at the table with Tadaaki. Filming with Chef Jiro-san had been a big deal, but this segment with Tadaaki was even bigger, as it related to Alan’s story.
Tadaaki proceeded to show the chefs how he makes his tamago kake gohan, which he makes quite often, he said. With a pair of chopsticks, he made a well in the center of a bowl of steaming hot rice. He then cracked a fresh raw egg in it and broke the yolk. Tadaaki stirred gently at first and then more vigorously in a circular motion while turning the bowl as he stirred. He added a dash of Nancy’s soy sauce and continued to stir the egg and rice mixture until it was creamy.
Those of us who had eaten tamago kake gohan before were witnessing a technique totally new to us. Western food press would call it a “food find.” The three cooks connected and created a fitting close to Alan’s story in Japan.
When we travel to foreign countries, we make new friends with people of different cultures and eat their cultural foods; we have fun along the way. It takes thoughtful planning to put a story together; all the pieces have to fall into place, although they don’t always. We want to immerse our audience in the place, the people and the stories we are telling. We want them to live vicariously through our host and guest and to have a virtual experience along with them. But in the end, it comes down to bringing a person’s food memory to life in the place of its origin.
Food memories have the power to transport you to a special place and time in your life. They can conjure up warm memories of a person you hold dearly. Oddly enough, I had one of those food memory moments on the trip that gave me pause.
We were having breakfast at our hotel in Tökyö. As I made my way through the buffet spread, I spotted bowls of okai, the soft boiled rice, with an impressive array of tsukemono (Japanese pickles), some of which I hadn’t seen or tasted in a long time. I remembered sitting at the kitchen table with my baban (grandmother) as a young boy, eating a simple lunch of okai and tsukemono. Without hesitation, I placed a bowl on my tray and went to find a seat. I sat down and started to savor it. With that first bite, a flood of memories came rushing back to me. I could almost hear Baban’s broken English, telling me to eat some more. I could see her warm face again, a face I missed. The sense of taste and the memories they evoke from long ago is a powerful and beautiful thing.
Heather entered Alan’s “Family Ingredients” pilot into the 2014 regional Emmys competition. The regional Emmy organization is headquartered in San Francisco, where the awards ceremony is held. “Family Ingredients” was up against two other films that were based in San Francisco. None of us flew up for the awards ceremony.
When I turned on my phone the morning after the ceremony, it started buzzing like crazy. Our “Family Ingredients” pilot had received an Emmy. And not long after that, we got the “green light” for the national PBS series.
Dan Nakasone is a Sansei Uchinanchu from Wahiawä. He is a marketing and advertising professional.