Why This San Francisco Pop-Up Chef Pairs Sake with His Dishes
When Geoffrey Reed cooks the fish he catches himself right before his customers’ eyes, he creates a dining experience that’s more than just filling – it’s unforgettable. He enhances the occasion with sake pairings created in collaboration with Sequoia Sake, a local sake brewery in San Francisco where Reed’s roving pop-up, Ichido, also operates.
Become a fishing chef
Reed grew up with the kitchen as his playground, and naturally gravitated towards a career as a chef. After working part-time in the restaurant scene while studying at Le Cordon Bleu, he became a sous chef under Nobuo Fukuda, one of Food and Wine Magazine’s 10 Best New Chefs in the U.S. in 2003.
After working in several restaurants of different styles, however, he left the industry unable to find a workplace that was a good match for his passion for Japanese cuisine.
Reed’s later turning point came when he was earning daily wages as a Lyft driver in the Bay Area where he’d grown up. A group of passengers he was driving took an interest in his hobby of fishing, and the next day, he took them out on the water in Half Moon Bay to try it themselves. As the group pulled in Dungeness crab, monkeyface eel, and rockfish, Reed showed them how to cook the catch. Realizing at that moment that what is important to him is “fostering customers’ curiosity,” Reed started on a new job offering private fishing and cooking classes.
“It was a way to create a memory that’s more than just taking a picture and forgetting about it. It was much more immersive and hands-on. I ended up getting into the pop ups, because people understand the food side of it, like going somewhere and having dinner, and then they can hear the background in the story,” Reed says.
Encounter with a local sake in SF
Reed catches all the fish served at Ichido himself, and the ingredients that surround the catch come from a different farmer’s market each week. His reasonably-priced and live cooking pop-ups quickly became popular and led to an encounter with Sequoia Sake, a brewery in San Francisco opened in 2015.
Reed knew of sake through his experience in Japanese restaurants, but the unpasteurized sake made by wife-and-husband team Jake Myrick and Noriko Kamei at Sequoia was unlike any glass he had ever tasted before. Generally, sake is heated to stop fermentation and to pasteurize it. The freshly pressed, unpasteurized sake enjoyed in Japan was not widely distributed in the U.S. at the time, but Sequoia Sake could provide it here in the Bay Area because of their local location.
“The way I try to explain it to people to make it easy for them to understand is, say it’s like fresh lemon juice, bright and vibrant. But if you are to pasteurize it, at least there’s a lot of that life, [but] it’s not the same as a fresh lemon would be,” Reed muses.
“For me, it was really great to expose people to this beautiful product. At the dinners, I invite people to come up to the counter where I’m preparing things. Get involved, ask questions. I’ll show them the whole fish, like ‘This is the fish you’re about to eat,’ and then I’ll break it down right there. So they have a sense of ownership over their experience.”
Reed and Sequoia Sake’s affinity for stimulating guests’ curiosity and offering food as an experience led them to collaborate on events. Sometimes, they’d pair each of Sequoia’s three sake with three dishes, other times with five kinds of chocolate. Reed also succeeded in creating cocktails based on Sequoia’s three products.
“Even making the cocktails [involved] different ideas of each one; like, the nectarines and Nama worked really well. The plums and Nigori (cloudy sake) worked really well. The others were good, but it was like one does definitely stand out with that one particular ingredient,” Reed explains. “And then Genshu (undiluted sake), that worked really well with beets because you had deeper earthiness and then you had a higher alcohol content that worked better with that.”
Sake covers diverse cuisines
Reed’s cuisine is based on concepts from Japanese cooking, but incorporates various elements from French, Italian, Scandinavian, and other regional varieties. This style is inspired by his past experience in various cooking styles and his travels in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
“[I always change the style] because I don’t know what I’m going to catch. Also, the one biggest factor is what’s at the farmer’s market. Whatever looks good at the farmer’s market, I’m walking by and you smell those strawberries or you have the tomatoes or whatever looks good, tastes good. It comes home and I figure out then how to structure things together. And if I don’t use it for that week’s dinner, I’ll be doing some form of preserving it,” Reed says. “Drying it, pickling it, curing it or whatever it happens to be, it will find a way somewhere else.” Changing his cooking style to suit the ingredients available at the time does not affect Ichido and Sequoia’s pairings. This is because sake goes well with a wide variety of cuisines, not just Japanese food. “Another way that I can associate it is, would you only drink tequila in a Mexican restaurant?” Reed offers. “And then people [say], ‘Oh, no, I drink that wherever I go.’ You have cocktails that are made with tequila in every type of restaurant that there is. So it’s just putting it in the context that it’s kind of a light bulb for people; like, why are you only drinking sake with fish or with Japanese?“
According to Reed, many people only drink sake in Japanese restaurants because they are unaware of the variety of flavors it has to offer. The solution, he says, is to compare sake by flight. “I always push people towards doing a flight. You can even place like, different sake or different grades, whatever it is. Because a lot of times the differences are relatively subtle. It’s a great way, side by side where you can really see the difference in each sake and then also how each sake interacts differently with the food.”
Beyond understanding fermentation
Sake kasu, a byproduct of Sequoia’s sake pressing process, also inspires Reed. He ages it himself, with the longest-aged currently being a six year old batch. “I can do kind of a flight of the sake courses where you have a six year old, a four year old, two year old and then fresh and you can see how much it changes just in color, and Maillard reaction giving it that dark, nutty flavor to it. And it really bothers people’s mind that this is the exact same thing. They’re just there as a living, breathing animal,” Reed says, describing the kasu. In Japan, sake kasu is used for pickles and marinating fish, while Reed works more creatively, mixing it with chocolate or using it in fried chicken. It also goes well with fish garam, which he makes by fermenting fish he, of course, catches himself. In recent years, fermentation culture is growing in America, but Reed points out that until this shift, most people did not understand why pickled cucumbers didn’t spoil. It has existed around the world for a long time, and, “goes back to being able to survive,” he says.
“It’s people not seeing the full circle these days, but being able to show them like, ‘Hey, this is how it’s done.’ This is why it was done and this is why it tastes so good. So it’s building that appreciation.” Let customers experience it, discover it, and remember it. That is Reed’s calling.