As Japan raises its alert level at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station plant from 4 to 5 today (the '86 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe was rated 7), the situation becomes graver in Japan, as does the fear of radioactivity and contamination.
Despite the fact that as of now, there is no official evidence of any food contamination in Japan, a report in Bloomberg yesterday sounds the alarm. It reminds us that after Chernobyl "people developed thyroid cancer after consuming milk from contaminated cows." Despite chemical pathologists asserting that "the likelihood of fish absorbing sufficiently large quantities of radioactivity from the ocean is 'negligible," high-end hotel chains in the region like The Mandarin Oriental and Shangri-La have already eliminated fresh Japanese seafood from their menus to ensure customer safety.
Is this happening on our shores too? How far are our restaurants erring on the side of caution? How else are they being impacted by the disaster? We called around to a handful of the best sushi restaurants around the country for a closer read on the situation at home.
Answers (below) ranged from "Food costs are more affected by gas prices than by the tragedy in Japan" to "I might have to change my job."
New York's Kanoyama
Restaurant impact: None to report.
Chef-partner Daigo Yamaguchi thought the shipments might stop, "but we're still getting it: Striped jack fish, Yellowtail, squid, and so far that's it this week. All the fish is coming from the south, so I don't think it's affected. I don't hear anything from the customers yet."
New York's Sushi Yasuda
Restaurant impact: They've only had to cut back on Japanese sea urchin.
"The fish we get from Japan, we get from the Fukuoka City Fish markets, which is in the Kyushu Islands in the South," says partner Scott Rosenberg. "So much of what we get is from all around the world. We have a tremendous variety of fish. As it turns out, we have never really sourced much fish from the north of Japan."
San Francisco's Ozumo
Restaurant impact: Uni and Iwata scallops are no longer available.
"They're two items from the North of Japan," says manager Christine Fukushima, after consulting with Executive Chef Alex Morgan. "They come from the part that was wiped out in the tsunami. Even though uni from that area is highly sought after because it is very sweet and creamy, we can get it elsewhere."
Restaurant impact: Looking to other markets for fish.
"We get sushi supplies from Japan two to three times a week and we're not necessarily changing our [suppliers]," says owner Ari Kushimoto Norris. "We're just going to be more selective about the fish we procure. We will also look at getting fish from the west coast, from the Mediterranean."
New York's Sushi Azabu
Restaurant impact: Executive Chef Toshihide Terado has seen prices drop. He cites an abundance of fish due to Tokyo restaurant closings.
"The first few weekdays following the earthquake, we were not able to receive any fish deliveries. However, moving forward it seems like it's a pretty normal pace," Terado said through a rep. Instead of going to the city's main Tsukiji fish market, he says supplies are being sent to the southern and western sides of the island for export.
San Diego's Azuki Sushi
Restaurant Impact: Stopped importing from Japan.
Says Shihomi Sakai: "Even though we want to support Japan’s economy since we’re all Japanese here and feel very bad about what's happening there, we have to protect the health of the customer. We’re currently shopping from local purveyors. That hasn't affected our prices yet. I'm sure that it will."
Restaurant impact: Sashimi chef Chris Gould has started sourcing fish from the Mediterranean (i.e. Spanish mackerel) and can no longer get the really high-end, rare stuff.
"There's this one fish that I really like to get there in the spring, and I can't get it—Sakura Masu (ocean trout). I do use a lot of local ingredients anyway—local oysters, Atlantic fluke. As of yet, I haven't seen a huge problem with pricing or anything like that."
Restaurant impact: Pulling fish from new markets; offering menu items until supplies last; hosting a fundraiser with other local chefs on April 3.
"We are very concerned. We try to go to different markets—Spain and Europe and Peru, and different coasts. Some of the quality fish we cannot get and we cannot get for a while," says Chef-owner Ting Yen. “I have two pieces of Aji [horse mackerel], that are going to be the last you will see for I don't know how long. That fish and Kohada, and also Kinmedai, a type of red snapper. Hokkaido Uni—very sweet and tasty from Japan—is not going to be around anymore. And tobiko is going to be difficult to get—just guessing that it won't be imported to this country."
Yen expresses more concerns for the long-term, especially if sea water surrounding Japan is contaminated: "One of the best imitation crab meats for California Maki is imported from Japan. That is going to be wicked expensive in the future. Tempura flour is made in Japan—I am sure the FDA won't allow anything from that area to come to the US for a long time. [Frozen] hamachi is going to be out soon. At the end of the Fall it is going to be crazy. I might have to change my job. It's just scary. It scares me."
New York's Sushi Seki
Impact: No more mackerel.
"Mostly the mackerel family is the one that we always get from Japan. Those are not going to be available like before for a while at least," says manager Koji Ohneda. "Right now they are sending the fish air-shipped from three different locations. We are hoping for the best, but we do not know."
San Francisco's Blowfish Sushi to Die For
Impact: Low, as little product is fished in Japanese waters; instituted new server training.
Says Nick Momsen, Manager of Operations: "The US has radiation detectors at every point of entry into the country that would detect even the slightest amount of radiation. We’re up to date on FDA advisories and have been educating our servers as to where our different fish come from so they’re ready in the event we do have customer concern. We have these meetings everyday before a shift.”
Dallas' Zen Sushi
Restaurant impact: Predicted increase in price of dry goods.
Says chef/owner Michelle Carpenter. "Most of what I get from Japan are dry products, and my vendors still have pre-tsunami inventory. Once that is depleted, there will be huge spikes in cost, because of availability and demand. Some of the Japanese companies (along the coast) that my vendors buy from have been destroyed." At this point, Carpenter is more concerned with survivors than business. She hasn't been able to contact her family in Japan. To help, she asks readers of The Feast to donate to the Red Cross.
[The Feast; NYT; WSJ]