Sushi In-fusion

Ron Takahashi is on a mission. As executive chef and CEO of Sakura Japanese Restaurant in Burlington, he believes that food can help bring more understanding, more unity and more familiarity among cultures.

by Tom Gresham

Ron Takahashi, executive chef and CEO of Sakura Japanese Restaurant in Burlington, encourages curiosity in his diners. The restaurant has swayed many opinions since it opened 15 years ago.

Ron Takahashi, the executive chef/CEO of Sakura Japanese Restaurant in Burlington, has a very specific idea of the way diners should interact at his restaurant. He wants Sakura to be a place where curious newcomers peer over shoulders onto the plates of seasoned veterans and wonder, "What is that?" Although the rookies may prove bashful with their orders at first playing it safe, Takahashi explains he believes that eventually they will grow eager to return and give some of the more surprising Japanese favorites a taste.

"Maybe the first time they are here they have tempura or teriyaki, but at the next table the people are having raw fish and [the new people] say, 'What's this? Raw fish? Wow!'" Takahashi says, acting with considerable flair the part of the surprised diner. "A lot of people are scared of it at first. Then, they try a piece and they say it's not bad. Next time, they go ahead and order sushi. For us, this gets us more excitement. It gets us more customers."

Since it opened on Church Street 15 years ago, Sakura has been persuading diners to expand their experiences in the world of Japanese cuisine. Sakura serves both the comfortable and the truly foreign to locals, tourists and students, using familiar dishes to lure guests into making often drastic departures from their customary meals.

The restaurant's physical appearance reflects a trend in American dining that has proven to be beneficial to Sakura's fortunes. Sakura's layout has seen just one major adjustment in 15 years, but it reflects this shift in the public's appetites. When it opened, Sakura featured a sushi bar prominently in the restaurant's front space. Rows of sushi, an unknown to most American palates at the time, greeted customers as they entered. Sakura's management believed that if diners were confronted with sushi immediately upon their arrival, they would become curious and more amenable to trying it. As the years passed, sushi became more familiar to Americans. During a recent remodeling of Sakura, the sushi bar was moved farther back into the restaurant.

"At first we had to introduce sushi to customers," Takahashi says. "Fifteen years ago was a little bit different situation. Before, there weren't many Japanese restaurants in Vermont, but now there are so many sushi bars in Vermont and throughout the United States. There are over 6,000 Japanese restaurants in the country. That makes a big difference. It's kind of like it's a part of American culture now.

"And it's not just Japanese restaurants that have sushi now. Chinese restaurants, Thai restaurants, American restaurants, even Italian restaurants you will see sushi. There's sushi in supermarkets now. It's good, because it's like we exchange culture. Kind of like America is: different cultures mixed together."

Learning about another culture has attracted Michael Schaal to Sakura since its earliest days. Schaal, who works as a psychotherapist and organizational consultant in the building that houses Sakura, eats sushi there about once a week. He has been coming since it opened. Schaal remembers Sakura as the only place in Burlington to go for sushi in the late 1980s.

"It's where I was introduced to sushi," says Schaal, who now considers it his favorite food. "One of the nice things about Sakura is at the sushi bar, they will tell you a lot about the food and how and why they eat it. It's interesting to hear about the traditions. You learn about the food and the customs and you learn about the culture."

Takahashi possesses great faith in the power of food to link different worlds. He mentions that, as amazing as it seems, the United States and Japan were at war less than 60 years ago. Schaal's grandparents, German-Jewish refugees, were interned by the Japanese in Shanghai during World War II. Schaal believes that eating at Sakura all these years has been an important education for him.

"Exchanging cultures means more understanding," Takahashi says. "We're human, but there's so much of a gap, so much different between the cultures. Food helps bring more understanding, more unity, more [familiarity] with each other."

This fusion of cultures is a central element in Sakura's distinctive style, according to Takahashi. Sakura's menu demonstrates a willingness to experiment and blend Western and Eastern cooking traditions. Takahashi believes Sakura's reputation rests in large part on its creative approach to Japanese food. Examples of rare but apt fare abound.

Running down his menu, Takahashi ticks off the medley of influences that flavor Sakura's dishes. The "7 Spice Tuna" appetizer offers, on one plate, a mixture of several disparate traditions. Each of the vegetarian options possesses strong Western influences. On a recent weekday, the special dessert of the day, a "Green Tea Cheesecake," succinctly summed up Sakura's attempt to bring East and West together on a plate. Sakura's double focus of hot dishes and sushi means a division of labor among the food preparation staff. Takahashi leads the "hot" staff. Although his domain is largely cooked meals, he demonstrates an obvious affinity for sushi, promoting it with the zeal of a missionary.

Sakura's staff encourages customers' creative ideas about what to serve. Here, the floor manager, Mike McGonegal (left), Kyle Naas, the cook, Ron Takahashi, executive chef and CEO, and Ari Vuotila, a waiter, take five between the lunch and dinner crunch times.

With clear pride, Takahashi points to various attempts that Sakura has made to make sushi more accessible to new patrons in the spirit of the now nationally omnipresent "California Roll." Among these Western interpretations on an Eastern idea are the "Pizza Roll" and the "Mexican Roll." Takahashi estimates that about half of Sakura's customers eat sushi, a much larger number than 15 years ago.

"We want to be a very unique restaurant," Takahashi says. "Some of our new creations help us do that. Unique rolls of sushi have more interest for American people. More creation makes it more exciting for people. Sometimes customers give us ideas and sometimes they are chef inspirations. We want customers always to say, 'What? What is this?' We think that's good for a restaurant."

Takahashi has led Sakura's staff of 23 for about three years. He is Sakura's fourth manager. Shortly after graduating from culinary school in Japan, Takahashi came to the United States with a friend who wanted help opening a restaurant in New York. Since that initial stint in an American kitchen, Takahashi has worked at restaurants in Fairfax, Va., and in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina.

Takahashi says his previous restaurants featured international menus, so he learned from a wide range of cooking traditions. He believes that versatility is an important trait for a modern chef. Takahashi appreciates the opportunity to work with the high-quality professionals who pass through Sakura. He says the high turnover in the kitchens of America's restaurants is a healthy side of the business, enabling chefs to learn under many mentors. He believes it allows American chefs to experience many varieties of approaches and styles and traditions.

"You teach them, you train them and then they go on," Takahashi says. "All the time that's what happens, but it's OK. It's good. You don't want to have just specialists. You want them to learn from different people. It's good for customers."

Takahashi came to Sakura by way of the Japanese Restaurants Association, which helps wed Japanese chefs with Japanese restaurants. He says he has enjoyed Burlington as a city, comparing its four seasons of weather to his native Niigata a city of 500,000 people on the western coast of Japan along the Sea of Japan. He notes that Burlington's population is much less diverse than the locales of his previous U.S. stops. He estimates that about 5 percent of Sakura's customers are of Asian decent.

Growing up in a seashore community, Takahashi, like many Japanese people, developed a particular fondness for the fruit of the sea. He believes that Japanese food offers the way to a healthy lifestyle and can present a contrasting style to grain- and meat-influenced American diets.

"Japanese food has very much healthy stuff," Takahashi says. "It uses a lot of fish, which is high protein and good for the body, good for the brain."

Japanese restaurants appear to be obvious beneficiaries of the trend in the United States toward a greater interest in developing healthy personal diets. "People have become more interested in health and in trying these different healthy foods," Takahashi says. "That does help us."

Schaal agrees, saying that he knows he can take regular visits to Sakura and still maintain a healthy diet. "There's a lot of thought about balance in the food," Schaal says. "It's delicious, but it's also balanced and nutritious. I know that I can go down there and have a nice lunch and feel good. All in all, it offers just a really balanced meal."

Schaal considers Sakura "my first choice for eating in town," and he's clearly not alone, judging by the flow inside Sakura's doors during its lunch and dinner hours. Sakura's popularity recently attracted the notice of the venerable New York Times. A description of Sakura and an action shot from its sushi bar were included in a piece on Vermont in the Times "Travel" section one Sunday in May. Takahashi says the attention was a thrill for both Sakura's staff and its customers, many of whom have made a point of stopping by and offering congratulations on the prestigious appearance.

Where once sushi could be found in the United States only in Japanese restaurants, now it's in Chinese, Thai, American, even Italian restaurants, says Ron Takahashi. He says, "It's kind of like America is: different cultures mixed together."

"It was a big surprise for us," Takahashi says, still almost giddy about it. "They were very good to us." The public's increasing desire for Sakura's fare led to the recent launch of a new venture for the restaurant. In April, Sakura opened a take-out/sit-down location at Taft Corners in Williston. Customers, largely a lunchtime business crowd, can order food at the counter from a menu that includes hot options and sushi. Takahashi says the early returns have been strong and he believes Sakura might expand again with a similar plan.

"There are a lot of people in business locations near Williston," Takahashi says. "It's a population of 7,000, but in the daytime there's another 9,000. In daytime, it becomes another city. There are lots of companies. The business people don't have as much time, so they can just come in and and pick up something to eat or they can stay and eat. They can just come and go. It's a different taste for them, something instead of hamburger. It's been working so far. We're picking up more people every month."

Takahashi has more plans for Sakura beyond another lunch counter but he's keeping quiet on the specifics. However, it sounds as if Takahashi, after years of stateside wandering, may have found a place to stick for a while. "I have a lot I want to do here," he says.

Schaal celebrated his 50th birthday at Sakura. Every year, Sakura presents a gift to its most loyal customers. Schaal has formed a little collection of these presents. He would argue he's received much more than that, including a favorite place to retreat and hash out problems with colleagues and clients.

"Sometimes a client will ask me a difficult question," Schaal says. "Often, I tell them, 'The answer is sushi.' "

Originally published in August 2002 Business People-Vermont