And it happened more than 5,000 miles from Los Angeles.
When Noritoshi Kanai and Harry Wolff Jr. sat down for dinner in Tokyo one night in 1965, they had no way of knowing they were about to stumble onto an idea that would upend American dining — and their own lives.
On this evening, the colleagues had more urgent concerns on their minds: how to salvage a foundering trip in Asia that was launched to find a novel food product to import to the U.S.
That item, it turns out, was actually on the menu.
Kanai, who managed Mutual Trading Co., an L.A. wholesaler of Japanese food products, had suggested the restaurant, a family-run spot in the Ginza district called Shinnosuke. Wolff had never eaten sushi, but Kanai figured he’d be game.
“He’d try anything,” Kanai recalled, laughing.
Before long, Shinnosuke’s sushi chef was turning out a cascade of nigiri.
Tuna. Octopus. Cuttlefish. Scallop. Sea bream.
Wolff ate with enthusiasm. But the significance of the meal wouldn’t become apparent until five days later.
That’s when the restaurant sent a bill to Kanai’s Tokyo office — for about $275, which, when adjusted for inflation, is about $2,650 today. It was, Kanai said, a shockingly large sum. “What happened?” he asked his associate.
Wolff explained that he had been slipping away to feast on sushi at Shinnosuke. And he wasn’t just eating — he was imagining how to bring sushi to L.A. restaurants.
Kanai recalled Wolff’s earnest entreaty: “Kanai, go do sushi. Sushi is good.”
It was a bold proposition.
At the time, Los Angeles’ culinary landscape was lackluster. French cuisine dominated fine dining, and drab Continental cooking could be found at restaurants across the city. Casual diners ordered meatloaf and burgers at the local greasy spoon.
“Asian food just wasn’t part of that conversation,” said Nancy Matsumoto, an expert on Japanese food and co-author of “Exploring the World of Japanese Craft Sake.” “The world view was the Westernized world view.”
Cultural cuisines often were presented as watered-down approximations. The city’s Japanese restaurants — Kawafuku in Little Tokyo and Yamashiro in Hollywood among them — were known for specializing in items such as sukiyaki, a beef dish calibrated for Americans’ sugar-craving tastes.
If sushi could find purchase on the menus of L.A.’s Japanese restaurants, Kanai’s company, already adept at importing cookies and other products from Japan, stood to reap the benefits.
An ambitious plan soon took shape. Mutual Trading would import the ingredients and implements needed to serve sushi here — from the nori to the knives. And it would source other items such as sea urchin locally.
The aim, in essence, was to create a sushi ecosystem for Los Angeles. Would it work?