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Sake Sommelier

The Self Made Sake Ambassador — Chris Johnson


He is one of the first Americans to receive the title of sake sommelier. He’s often invited to judge sake competitions. He’s Chris Johnson the owner of Bao Noodles and Bao 111 and here he reveals his philosophy on bringing sake to the United States.

When did you first encounter sake?
I first encountered sake in, let’s say, 1991 when I was accepted to the JET program (Japan Exchange Teaching). In JET, I lived in the countryside, Oita-ken, Kusu-machi, and I was introduced to sake because we drank a lot of atsukan (hot) or nurukan (lukewarm) sake, but we didn’t drink a lot of reishu (cold). It was rarity to have cold sake. So my return to the US was the first time I was exposed to cold sake.

You won the title of sake sommelier in the sake tasting competition organized by SSI (Sake Sommelier Institute) although you didn’t have a formal sake education. How did you gain that knowledge and tasting ability?
I’m self-educated, I guess that’s the best way to explain it. At the end of the day, there was no true sake education system. When I did the competition in Japan they awarded me the title of sake sommelier and now I’m an ambassador for sake, which is good because that’s the main thing. I want to get sake out to the public beyond Japanese restaurants, beyond Asian restaurants, and share it with as many people as possible. Sake is such an amazing product. It’sa so diverse. You can drink it warm, hot, cold, ice cold, on the rocks, in cocktails. There are so many different ways, so many different expressions. You can pair sake with so many different cuisines.

Tell me about sake and food pairings.
There’s a myth that I’m always trying to move people away from: sake and sushi – it’s not necessarily true. Sake is made from rice. Sushi has vinegar in the rice and sugar added to the rice. So you’re complicating the flavor and battling the sour flavor. You’re having that sushi, which is beautiful and delicate, but sometimes it works well with sake and sometimes it doesn’t, it all depends on what sake you’re using. The same sake won’t taste the same with different fish. Speaking of temperature, I can serve cold sake out of the refrigerator or the cellar for your first course. And I say you leave it on the table to warm it up for your next course. And then, if your third course is perhaps meat or duck, I warm it up a little bit to serve with your duck. Now you had just one sake from a sashimi salad to a warm entree, and it’s all the same sake, I just treat it differently. Wine can’t do that, Champagne can’t do that, beer can’t do that, the only thing we can do that with is sake.

How do you introduce sake to first timers?
It’s convenient to have little bit of wine knowledge. When I have a customer coming in who says, “I don’t know much about sake,” I ask, what kind of wine they drink. If they say that they drink Cabernet Flanc or Cabernet Sauvingon, those are big, fuller reds, and therefore it might be easier to bring them junmai or yamahai style sake because they like a full, rich flavor.

You serve Vietnamese food here. How do you pair that with sake?
Vietnamese dishes tend to have spice. So, your ginjo sakes, Dewazakura, Ouka, go very well with our food because it has a little bit of sweetness and a little bit of floral taste to accent the spice. Then, in the sense of having a more rustic sake, a more earthy sake, we have Nebuta Honjozo that you can use to balance Hoisin Sauce. When you have the rich, earthy flavors of Hoisin Sauce you need a nice acidic sake that has junmai character. The acidity in the sake cleanses the palate but follows up with an earthy, mineral flavor, which is similar to the taste of Hoisin sauce. You’re bringing your food and beverage together.

Do a lot of customers order sake here?
I’d say we do about 35 % sake sales on our beverage sales, which is a fairly high percentage. We also sell infused sake, which I create here myself. The idea of infused sake is that’s easier for newcomers who can say, “Oh I like that one. Let me taste another sake that has citrus in it.” So it’s a nice introduction, and that makes it easier for some people.

What kind of flavors do you have?
Sake can be infused with so many things. It started out with hot sake. I make pomegranate in hot sake, and I make apple sake with cinnamon that’s served hot. In the summer I make kiwi and strawberry, we do kumquat, orange. And I’ve served these to a lot of different sake brewers from Japan when they come to the restaurant and they’re very interested in it. They really like it.

–Bao Noodles–
392 2nd Ave. (bet. 22nd & 23rd St.)
New York, NY 10010
TEL: 212-725-7770

–Bao 111–
111 Avenue C. (bet. 7th & 8th Sts.)
New York, NY 10009
TEL: 212-254-7773