Shibumi’s White Chef Takes Aim at Japanese Restaurants for Not Being Japanese Enough
Shibumi’s White Chef Takes Aim at Japanese Restaurants for Not Being Japanese Enough
- Rahul Chugh
- Apr 28, 2021
A post on Shibumi’s Instagram account on Thursday, April 15 sparked a wave of criticism from members of Los Angeles’s Japanese-American community. The Michelin-starred restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, best known for chef and owner David Schlosser’s adherence to traditional Japanese cookery, shared a post intended to advertise its sakura mochi dessert special but instead ignited a conversation around colonization, cuisine ownership, and authenticity. It also raised questions about the implications of a white chef who built his career on Japanese food — and was recently named a Japanese Cuisine Goodwill Ambassador — publicly disparaging Japanese restaurants to promote his own business.
The post, which was also shared to Shibumi’s Facebook page but has since been deleted on that site, featured an image of sakura mochi with the caption: “Sakura mochi, the most iconic dessert in Japan. Yet no Japanese restaurants are featuring it? So sad. Makes my life harder. It’s because these Japanese restaurants don’t understand, appreciate, or care about promoting what Japanese cuisine is all about.” (A revised version of the caption eliminated the phrase, “So sad. Makes my life harder,” while the current caption reads: “Sakura mochi, the most iconic dessert in Japan. This important Japanese classic is a rare sight in LA.”)
Though the post received nearly 1,000 likes and some positive feedback, it quickly garnered dozens of critical comments from people who were taken aback by Schlosser’s generalizations and sense of ownership over Japanese cuisine. Some claimed Schlosser appropriated Japanese culture and failed to acknowledge Los Angeles’s Japanese restaurants and confectionaries, like Fugetsu-Do in Little Tokyo and Sakura-ya in Gardena, which have produced and sold sakura mochi for generations. Members of the Japanese-American community shared with Eater LA that they found Schlosser’s caption untrue and hurtful because it simultaneously erased countless cooks’ and chefs’ efforts while also blaming them for not upholding Schlosser’s perception of the cuisine and its authenticity markers. Schlosser’s race and his standing with the Japanese consulate and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, along with recent acts of violence directed at AAPI communities and the long history of Asian discrimination in the U.S., further complicated the dialogue around his Instagram post.
“All of us who are in Little Tokyo absolutely know Fugetsu-Do. We look forward to sakura mochi every year, and it just was kind of insulting to see somebody say that none of these other restaurants ‘get it.’ [Shibumi is] the only one [that] ‘gets it,’” says Stephanie Nitahara, who came across the post on Instagram and serves on the board of the Little Tokyo Community Council but does not speak on its behalf.
“While restaurants may not be selling sakura mochi, it’s not a lack of understanding or appreciation but a respect for a legacy business in the neighborhood that’s made sakura mochi beautifully for generations,” she wrote in a comment on April 15. She tells Eater LA that “[the post] really seemed to show a lack of understanding and appreciation for an entire community of Japanese and Japanese-American people that also reside in downtown Los Angeles.”
Jimmy Matsuki, a creative director in Long Beach, shared Japanese-American cultural practices that Schlosser might not have been aware of in his Facebook and Instagram comments, which were deleted soon after he posted them. He wrote on April 15: “Japanese restaurants not carrying [sakura mochi] doesn’t mean they don’t understand, appreciate, or care about promoting Japanese cuisine. It’s because there are plenty of specialty mochigashi shops that carry it and have been making it for decades for all to enjoy. That’s what’s so great about the Japanese and Japanese-American communities. We have been supporting and caring for one another for generations.” He tells Eater LA that “it’s a communal thing, and it’s part of our culture to go to certain shops for specific types of dishes and treats. If you understand the culture, you understand that that’s how we work.”
In addition to deleting Matsuki’s comments, Schlosser blocked him on Instagram. “I was being critical, but my choice of wording was nonaggressive and nonabrasive. I wasn’t confronting him, I was just explaining the situation,” Matsuki says.
Arcadia resident Maiko Greenleaf felt that Shibumi’s post disregarded the grassroots community-building happening in Little Tokyo and was needlessly insensitive. She left multiple comments on the Facebook and Instagram posts that were all deleted. “We have Little Tokyo with all these people trying to promote the community — [people] who do appreciate, care, and understand it — and [he’s] just tossing all that aside,” says Greenleaf. “If [Schlosser’s] trying to promote sakura mochi, none of that had to be said; he could have just talked about how great it is. I have no idea why he felt the need to throw the rest of the Japanese community under the bus.” Nitahara and Greenleaf are dedicated members of the Little Tokyo community — a neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles where dozens of Japanese restaurants have thrived since the early 1900s.
Scholosser revised the caption multiple times over the following days, deleted the majority of negative feedback, and blocked especially vocal accounts, which led to further criticism on social media for obfuscating the original narrative, silencing Japanese-American voices, and not taking accountability for his words. Melissa Angel, who resides in Northern California, saw Shibumi’s post through a Facebook group for Japanese Americans. “Having someone who’s not in the Japanese-American community having a restaurant and celebrating the cuisine and the culture is really great,” she says. “The issue [here] is taking what he wants from the culture and putting down those who are a part of the community and families who have been doing this for generations.”
Although Schlosser’s social media post reads especially uninformed in the context of America’s current social justice reckoning, spurred recently by an increase in AAPI hate crimes, conversations about cultural appropriation by chefs and restaurants have persisted in Los Angeles for decades. Chefs Rick Bayless (in 2010) and Andy Ricker (in 2015) both faced criticism for not acknowledging Los Angeles’s existing culinary riches — the city’s diverse inhabitants and the many neighborhood restaurants that feed them — before expanding their respective Mexican and Thai restaurant empires into the city. “[Pok Pok’s] worldview barely acknowledges the existence of LA’s 40-year-old Thai restaurant culture — its recipes are brought straight from Thailand, like a carefully wrapped souvenir scarf,” wrote Jonathan Gold in his 2015 review of Ricker’s restaurant in the Los Angeles Times. Japanese foodways are even more deeply rooted in Los Angeles, with immigrants settling in Little Tokyo and Boyle Heights since the late 1800s. Many Japanese restaurants have expanded into West LA and the South Bay in recent years.
In multiple conversations with Eater LA, Schlosser cited his rigorous training in Japan as the basis for his disappointment in Los Angeles’s Japanese restaurants that do not, from his perspective, uphold Japanese culinary traditions like sakura mochi. “My followers know that I’m about preserving Japan, it has nothing to do with Japanese Americans,” says Schlosser. “If you look back at our [social media] posts, it’s pretty much the same theme as you scroll down — the food is just classics or things I feel that are important in Japan. Sakura mochi is just the same post as I always post, it’s just the words are terrible. I couldn’t have had worse timing. I just don’t think there would have been such a crazy backlash if I posted this two years ago, maybe it would have gotten some bad comments, but not like this.”
Schlosser admits that the caption in his original post could have used more nuance and context. “Something that my wife said is, ‘Dave, you should have been more detailed in the post, maybe a little nicer, and a little more detailed would have been more informative,’” he says.
While Schlosser is aware of the local confectionaries that sell sakura mochi, he makes a distinction between those establishments and sit-down restaurants. He also adds that Fugetsu-Do offers sakura mochi in February rather than April, which is misaligned with the traditions he learned in Japan.
Junko Goda, who served as an interpreter for Schlosser at a Japanese-language event in 2019, first dined at Shibumi in 2017 and admired the restaurant’s interpretation of traditional Japanese cuisine. She thought that the post was “out of character” for Schlosser when she initially saw it on Instagram and even called the restaurant to confirm that Schlosser ran the social media accounts; she was informed that he did. Though Goda found the original caption to be condescending, she was even more troubled by Schlosser’s deletion of comments written by members of the Japanese-American community. “[Schlosser] might not even understand that [he’s] actively deleting all of our voices, which is why we were coming at [him] so much,” Goda said. “The words struck a chord with everyone, especially right now with so much awareness in AAPI communities and a couple hundred years of being dismissed.”
Matsuki noticed that comments were disappearing late Thursday evening and began taking screenshots every 15 minutes to preserve the important dialogue happening. He estimates that Schlosser deleted up to 50 comments after the post went live. “It’s just bad form as a business, instead of addressing the situation, it just gets people more and more angry. And the fact that he was silencing — these aren’t trolls — these were people from the community and the culture that he supposedly appreciates,” says Matsuki. “You’re not listening to us, and you’re just benefiting off of our culture. If you are a part of [the community], you would actually be listening to us and learning.”
Nitahara agrees that Schlosser is profiting off of Japanese culture without respecting its people. “I find it problematic when these folks who are not Asian, but particularly are white business owners, white restaurateurs are using our culture to capitalize and build their business and build their brand. Yet, as soon as this community of people begins to push back, they start to delete those questions,” she says. “It’s really problematic because they only want to benefit off of the culture, they don’t want to hear from the people whose culture this is from.”
For many, Schlosser’s deletions and revisions felt like he deliberately chose to not consider their feedback, work to fully interrogate his relationship to the community, or own up to his mistakes. “I think one of the most upsetting parts is his unwillingness to listen, to learn, and to really reflect on the hurt and the harmfulness of what he was saying,” says Angel. “Just trying to wash it over as opposed to addressing it. If he had right off the bat been, ‘Hey, I’m really sorry. I can see how this is perceived and I’m going to reflect on this or I’m going to try to do better,’ but instead he was just completely silencing and erasing the voices from within the community.”
Chinatown resident Ces Dimayuga saw the post on Instagram and left a comment that was also deleted. “It’s very reminiscent of our experiences as Asians coming from countries that have been colonized. It’s the same tactic that colonizers have been doing for centuries. Silence the people and remove any evidence of wrongdoing,” she wrote in an email to Eater LA.
Schlosser posted an apology in a separate Instagram post on April 17 after several days of pushback: “In an attempt to defend culinary tradition in Japan my intense feelings overtook my words. For the past 20 years I’ve dedicated my life to Japan and Japanese culture but have a lot of listening and learning to do in AAPI awareness in America. I’m so grateful to the community for letting me share my passion and knowledge in Japanese cuisine. I hope to educate in a positive and inspiring way moving forward. I truly apologize for my presumptuous remarks.” While Schlosser’s apology noted some of his missteps, it did not address his blanket dismissal of Japanese restaurants and erasure of Japanese-American voices in the comments.
Several of those interviewed say that the apology’s placement underneath a caption for mugwort mochi made it difficult to find and thus felt insincere. “It reads the same way as all of these other companies that say, ‘We’re listening and we’re learning,’ but [he] still deleted all of those comments. [He’s] not really owning up to the fact that [he] deleted like dozens of comments from community members, and particularly from Japanese and Japanese-American community members,” says Nitahara. “I don’t know that the apology goes far enough. It apologizes for presumptuous remarks, but it doesn’t apologize to the community that they were very active in silencing.”
According to Angel, Schlosser continued to delete comments and to block accounts even after posting the apology. “In his apology, he said that he needed to listen and learn to the AAPI community, but after [the apology was posted], he was still censoring, he was still deleting, still isn’t addressing the issues that were brought up,” says Angel, who learned that her Instagram account was blocked when she was unable to view the apology after initially being able to see it.
Schlosser says that he deleted comments accusing him of racism and that he considered any comments calling him a white supremacist slanderous, a claim which he refuted by citing his Jewish identity and the history of global anti-Semitic violence. He also says he deleted criticism that came from individuals with small followings on their accounts. “If you look at these people’s pages, a lot of them have 500 followers, and I don’t know their names. It’s easy to speak out when no one knows who you are,” he says.
Schlosser’s social media post comes at a moment when AAPI communities have endured a sharp increase in harassment and physical assaults, making his words and subsequent actions especially painful and difficult to rectify. “This incident hurts more because of all the violence happening against the Asian community. You have these companies pandering to us saying ‘Stop Asian Hate’ because it benefits them, not because they mean it. Other people’s cultures are not for white people to steal and profit off of,” wrote Dimayuga in an email.
“The fact that there isn’t more caution being taken towards these situations, shows that people are just not paying attention or they just don’t care — and that’s disheartening,” says Matsuki. “We just want to make sure that people do care and are listening to and hearing us.”
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