Chef Allan Jiang cups balls of sushi rice in his palm and places a pat of hand-ground wasabi in the center, topping each with a slice of freshly cut fatty tuna and a single drizzle of soy sauce.
His deft hands take only minutes to compose each of the 10 Omakase courses he’s planned on the evening’s menu – all consumed within seconds – for the six guests tucked beside him.
But you won’t find Jiang slicing kampachi or ocean trout in a trendy Cow Hollow or Hayes Valley restaurant. He’s tableside inside the wooden cabin of Good Luck, a 105-year-old restored yacht docked at Alameda’s Grand Marina.
Accompanied by the sound of the wind whipping through nearby sailboats and palm trees, Jiang serves more than authentic Japanese cuisine. The intimate experience allows him to morph from chef to teacher, explaining how the warmth of ginger on his guests’ plates not only cleanses their palates but also balances the cold fish in their bellies.
These private dinner yacht experiences are put on by Xenia International, which Chef Daiji Uehara started with his business partners last year to keep fine dining afloat in Alameda and San Francisco – including on his own 25-foot Sea Ray Sundancer, Nova.
Born during the pandemic from a desire to bring people together over a shared meal, Uehara’s dream is to teach diners to savor and understand the food they eat, while providing an avenue for chefs to escape the heat of a typical kitchen and showcase their creative passions. The creative venue also offers industrious chefs a more flexible alternative to conventional brick-and-mortar restaurants, which have been battered by the coronavirus pandemic.
“This creates so much depth in the experience, so the food becomes so much more than just things to put in your mouth and stomach – it’s intimate, unique and personal,” Uehara said. “Chefs are really underrated, in my opinion. They have many great stories to tell, so we are trying to break down that barrier between chefs and diners.”
These yacht experiences, which also offer French cuisine from Chef Hemant Surendran, run from $140 to $275 per person. Reservations often book out weeks in advance.
“What’s the number one mistake people make eating sushi?” Lexine Kagiyama asked Jiang between courses at a dinner July 8. “Or how do we not look dumb?”
“Ah yes – not everything is soy sauce,” the chef replied. “American people drink soy sauce, but it’s too salty! It’s like a soup. When you come here, you’re in class; there are no secrets. Put it on fish.”
Mesmerized watching Jiang prepare each bite throughout the night, Angelo Villaflor said the cost of the meal was comparable to other Omakase menus across the Bay Area, but the connection and change of pace in Alameda was different.
In between snapping photos and videos to share on TikTok and Instagram, the group of six said the evening of conversation and questions with “Chef Allan” felt more like having sushi at a friend’s house than a luxurious rendezvous on a century-old yacht.
“Rather than just like mindlessly eating,” Marcus He, 30, chimed in, “I think it makes it a little bit more meaningful, in some sense, just to know the process and the history behind something.”
That’s the exact experience Uehara set out to create.
Born in Saratoga, the 31-year-old grew up in Japan after his parents moved there when he was 6 months old. After working in the restaurant industry in Europe during his 20’s and stints in the Southern Californian food scene when he moved back stateside, he eventually decided to start his own business – highlighting the slower, hours-long dining experiences he missed.
“Growing up, I connected with my family at the table with food,” Uehara said. “I think a lot of American people are used to a lot of quick, delicious food, so they don’t really get a chance to take time to actually enjoy.”
By October 2021, Uehara had shipped Nova, a fixer-upper Floridian yacht, to Alameda and started serving meals two months later.
Uehara wakes up early each day he’s expecting guests for dinner. He picks up fish from a local market in Berkeley — sourced from Japan, Europe and local fishermen — before joining other chefs at The Prep Station, a commercial kitchen in Alameda, where he said 95% of the work prepping the fish, rice and matcha ice cream is done before being hauled down to the docks.
Aside from the occasional blowtorch to char a piece of fish, which crackles and curls in on itself from the heat, these “boat friendly” meals don’t need grills, fryers or ovens.
That’s helpful because starting a restaurant in the Bay Area is far from cheap. Estimates range wildly online from $200,000 to $750,000, factoring in the cost of rent, permits, kitchen supplies, help staff and, of course, food and ingredients for the menu.
Uehara said hosting private dinners on boats provides more simplicity and flexibility since one of the biggest hurdles is securing a location for a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“I don’t have to have fixed real estate that I have to commit to for the next five years, for example, and we can almost test any kind of experience on a weekly basis and change the concept if it doesn’t work,” Uehara explained. “And, it’s just a cool thing to be able to work on the boat.”
Brandi Moody, the marketing manager for Kitchen Town, a commercial kitchen and food incubator in San Mateo, said this is one example of how the pandemic is still shaking up the culinary world.
“A real chef shuffle is happening and innovation is required in the space,” Moody said in an email. “The yacht meal brings together the cultural shift toward consumers looking for enriching experiences and chefs having to be nimble in a time of industry fluctuations.”
But innovative and unconventional restaurants also raise new questions around permitting and safety in the highly-regulated industry. Joan Simon, founder and principal of Full Plate Restaurant Consulting, who specializes in concept development and financials, said she often ends up playing devil’s advocate when working with restaurant owners and chefs.
While she thinks the idea of having these private evenings is very attractive, especially at a time when landlords are more hesitant than ever to rent spaces to young chefs after COVID, Simon said these new business owners can often fail to realize all of the state and local health permits, building inspections and safety requirements that go beyond food on the menu.
“If you want to propose to your beloved, what a wonderful way to do it – to have a private chef cook for you on the bay at sunset,” Simon said. “But if you think it’s going to be a viable business model for the long term, you’re going to have to deal with all the legalities and the risks that are involved with that.”
Uehara is confident he’s got all of those facts and figures of running the business accounted for in order to make these yacht dining experiences a success. But beyond financial reward, he said his goal is to provide an opportunity for more chefs to be able to break out of the grueling grind in a restaurant’s back of house and pursue cooking that embodies their love of food and connection.
“As an entrepreneur, I always had this idea to make a difference in the culinary field,” Uehara said “We want to provide a new way for chefs to pursue their career.”
Soruce : https://www.mercurynews.com/2022/07/17/chefs-keep-fine-dining-afloat-at-the-alameda-marina-san-francisco-bay/