Fashion Statements: half-baked cookwear | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Fashion Statements: half-baked cookwear

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We met executive chef Hiromichi Sasaki slicing up the yellowtail at Sanko Authentic Japanese Cuisine and Karaoke Lounge on North Clark Street. Behind the sushi bar his tidy uniform gleamed pure as the polished rice. But our Fashion Gourmets, devoted snobs, turned up their noses. Was this outfit genuine? Or merely some prepackaged microwave version of the real thing? They chewed the question thoughtfully.

Sasaki's execuchef couture is prepared in layers: a crisp white shirt and red tie base sauced with a Japanese-style jacket, and finished with a sliver of cap and apron.

To the untrained palate, the kimono main course tastes authentic enough, its simple geometric form wrapping correctly left over right and tied appropriately at the hip. But to the seasoned connoisseur, it's a mighty strange recipe. The true kimono--purchased as a bolt of silk, divided into seven panels and stitched to fit, folding extra fabric into the seams--falls from shoulder to ankle. This one cuts off abruptly at the waist. The sleeves are snipped short and narrow, convenient for keeping cuffs clear of the wasabi, shockingly unorthodox to the kimono gourmet. Most bizarre is the color: dead white. In the highly ritualized world of kimono, brights are for kids, rich hues for women, drabs for men, and white for corpses.

Up top sits an abbreviated version of the European chef's toque, whose showy 100 folds celebrate the wearer's cunning with 100 egg creations. Perhaps in deference to the largely eggless and pleat-free Japanese diet, the sushi chef's flat hat is formed from a single smooth stretch of clean fabric.

In her book Kimono: Fashioning Culture, anthropologist Liza Crihfield Dalby explains how yofuku--Western clothing, which hit the Japanese racks around 1880--created wafuku, Japanese clothing. Until that time, clothing fashioned in the centuries-old rectilinear, overlapping, string-tied tradition was simply clothing. The shock of the new business suits and gowns forced the Japanese to notice--and name--their national garb. During the past century wafuku has been boiled down to a single garment, "kimono," which once meant "things to wear." Preserved and revered is not just any thing to wear but the particular kimono flaunted by the late-19th-century samurai class, complete with an elaborate set of rules regarding its proper presentation.

When Western garb first galloped into town, ordinary Japanese would add a touch of yofuku to their wafuku, perhaps a sweater buttoned over a traditional robe, to signify cosmopolitan chic and a willingness to get with the modernization program. Chef Sasaki's outfit, ordered from a restaurant supply house stateside, inverts the old recipe. Adding a splash of ersatz Japanese flavor to the international businessman's daily diet of button-down and tie, the "kimona" (Americanized kimono) adopts the all-cotton code white of kitchen competence and cleanliness. In a final gesture of cultural (con)fusion, Sasaki ties on the requisite apron--obi style.

The fusion-flavored Fashion Statement, cooked up at a restaurant where cross-cultural "Chicago maki" tops the specials board, seems designed to assuage the sushi-initiate's terror of raw fish: "Fresh off the boat."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Yael Routtenberg.

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