“In order to be a successful food writer, you have to differentiate yourself.”
Food writer Akiko Katayama has been regaling readers with her stories of restaurants and their offerings for nearly a decade. Not only does she contribute to print publications, but she also served as a judge for the Food Network television program Iron Chef America. She recently sat down with Chopsticks NY to discuss her views on the industry, Japanese food in the States and her memories of Japanese New Year.
Why did you want to become a food writer?
When I was 7, at school we had to write about “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up.” I said a writer, so this dream has been with me for a while. After graduating from school in London, I worked at an accounting firm there which eventually transferred me to NY. Then I went to business school here and became a business consultant. However, I later realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do, and I decided I had to make a change in order to be more true to myself.
I thought about what would enable me to take advantage of my business skills and my identity as an overseas Japanese. I realized that I enjoyed going to restaurants and talking to chefs who were fully dedicated to their work. I also loved visiting wineries, and I determined that becoming a food writer would be in line with these passions. Then I took two weeks to compose a proposal which I sent to four publications, and one gave me a positive response. It was a long-established specialized magazine for the food industry that targets chefs, and they happened to be looking for a NY-based writer. So I started working for them and next year will mark my 10th year with the magazine.
How did you become involved with Iron Chef America on the Food Network?
One of my interviews at the time was with a New York Times food critic. We met for what was supposed to be a half hour, but we were still chatting over three hours later. When he retired as a critic, he was asked to be a judge on Iron Chef America. He couldn’t accept but recommended me instead, and that was how it began.
What advice would you give to those looking to become food writers?
There is no universal formula for developing a career in this field, in the way that someone who wants to become a chef could be told to go to a certain school, etc. I’d say the most important thing is uniqueness. In order to establish yourself as a food writer, it is important to differentiate yourself by appealing with something special that others don’t have. One way is to become associated with a specific niche. In my case, I often write about restaurant management issues based on my business background.
It seems like an ideal job, but what is the downside to being a food writer?
Well, first of all you have to eat what is put in front of you even if you don’t want to or aren’t hungry. Eating for purely personal enjoyment and eating for the purpose of tasting and analyzing are two totally different things. Using your head while eating is tiring!
How do you decide which restaurants you want to cover?
In terms of interview subjects, I have three conditions that I abide by when selecting a restaurant. It has to be unique, high quality and have one more interesting thing about it, such as a chef with a fascinating back story. Because I am not a food critic, everywhere I go I properly introduce myself and ask the chefs what foods they would like to showcase. I want to give them the chance to put their best foot forward for the purpose of the article.
We have seen sushi and ramen booms here in New York, but what do you see as a new trend in Japanese food over the next few years?
Donburi (rice bowl) is a food which I think has great potential, and I wonder why it’s not more widely known. I think a big part of sushi’s success was its packaging as a simple, cheap food, and the same can be said for donburi. As for toppings, anything goes. New ones or familiar ones like tonkatsu (pork cutlet), tempura (deep fried food) and maguro (tuna)…you are only limited by your imagination! In the same way that the California roll was an original American creation based on traditional Japanese sushi, with donburi you could experiment with jasmine rice and make other changes as you like.
I also want New Yorkers to appreciate the umami of Japanese ingredients such as dashi (soup stock), konbu (kelp), katsuobushi (bonito) and miso (soybean paste). You can pick them up at a Japanese supermarket and easily make them. For example, most people are familiar with chicken stock, but dashi is even more basic in its preparation. Katsuobushi on top of pasta is absolutely delicious! I hope that their umami can be understood like it has been for parmesan. Via these kinds of ingredients, it would be great if New Yorkers could recognize the astounding variety of Japanese food beyond just sushi and ramen.
What are some restaurants or foods that you have been taken with recently?
Lately I’ve been focused on local, sustainable farm practices. I had a chance to interview the chef at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and I was amazed at what they are doing over there. They grow most of their own ingredients, as well as carefully handle and prepare them. They convince diners how wonderful it is to eat food like their great-grandparents did. I also like seeing traditional ethnic cuisine evolve into something new and unique here in New York, like the new Korean restaurant Jung Sik in Tribeca.
This issue of Chopsticks NY focuses on home cooking, so what are your favorite New Year’s foods?
My memories of osechi ryori (New Year’s food) are of kazunoko (herring roe) and kurikinton (chestnuts sweetened and mashed). They have special tastes and textures, such as kazunoko’s saltiness and crunchiness. I think what makes osechi distinctive is the fact that it’s served in a box packed with a variety of foods. Once the lid comes off, everyone gathered excitedly digs in with their respective chopsticks. It’s nice to share the holiday together in this way.
What would you recommend to Chopsticks NY readers who want to visit Japan?Tokyo is a must-see as well as Kyoto, but it is also important to visit regions outside of the big cities to gain an appreciation of that contrast. Through my work I’ve had the opportunity to go to remote places such as Yamaguchi, where I had the best fugu (blowfish) in season. Also sake breweries in Niigata and shochu distilleries in Kumamoto have exposed me to things I wasn’t aware of when I lived in Tokyo. By all means try the regional specialties when you are there!
—————— Interview by Stacy Smith
Born in Tokyo. Best known as a judge on Food Network’s Iron Chef America. Ms. Katayama initially established her career in the business field, working in accounting companies in London and New York and later as a business consultant. In 2001, she decided to try her hand at food journalism, as it reflects two of her favorite pastimes of writing and dining out. Since then, she has been busy contributing to publications in Japan and the U.S., as well as appearing on television shows.
Akiko Katayama’s Not-to-Miss Recent Favorite NYC Restaurants
138 N. 8th St., Brooklyn, NY 11211
You can use this sister restaurant of ‘inoteca as a cozy wine bar or an Italian/New American restaurant. “The whole animals” on the menu is a great value.
42 E. 20th St., New York, NY 10003
It is a classic name, but its New American menu is better than ever. The walk-in only Tavern Room is a lot of fun.
251 W. 55th St., New York, NY 10019
This mom & pop kaiseki place makes you feel like you are at your parents’ house.