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15 East and Tocqueville Sommelier Hiromi Kiyama on the Big, Bad World of Sake

Photo: Hiromi Kiyama

Hiromi Kiyama is the sommelier at the Michelin-starred New York restaurant 15 East and its French counterpart, Tocqueville. She was born and raised in Osaka, Japan and moved to America to attend college. After spending ten years at Nobu, Kiyama joined both restaurants in the spring of 2012 and, despite her Japanese heritage, she feels as though she is discovering sake for the first time. In this interview she talks about how Japan's drinking culture compares to America's, why sake has fallen out of favor with young people in her native country, why it's growing here, and why she considers it the sommelier's secret weapon.

What is the sommelier culture like in Japan compared to urban areas in the US? Are there many career sommeliers?
It's still young, but the sommelier population is growing. I've read recently that Japan has the second largest sommelier population after Italy. That doesn't mean they are all working in restaurants, though. Some of them are businessmen or people who collect wine. It's a big trend right now and, as a result, people in Japan drink wine more than sake nowadays.

Growing up in Japan, is sake generally the first wine one would be exposed to? And how is sake a part of current, urban drinking culture in Japan?
Well now we call all the beverages that have alcohol sake. So we call everything, from beer to vodka, sake. So the Japanese expression, "let's go have sake," means, basically, "let's go have a drink." So it's a slang word for drink among young people. People, when they go for sake, don't really go for sake rice wine. When they say lets go have sake, they mean beer, probably followed by more beer, and then perhaps some wine or shochu.

So is sake seen as passé to your generation?
To me sake was always there in the fridge and in the kitchen. My great-grandparents made sake in the mountains of Hiroshima and my mother, who is originally from Hiroshima, would always have sake from the region. So, to me, sake is always there; the rice is in my blood, sake is in my blood, so I didn't find it unique or interesting to go and have sake at a bar or restaurant because you can buy sake everywhere, even on the street out of a vending machine. So, I think that's why I wasn't as interested. With young people it's seen as old fashioned and unpopular because it was too popular. My generation was more influenced by wine and elegant wine glasses with the stems; and we wanted to drink wine out of those glasses, not sake.

Sake struggles to compete with wine in the US. Do you see that struggle on a micro level, even in a restaurant like 15 East, which serves upscale Japanese food?
At 15 East we are actually very successful with sake. We are doing more sake sales than wine. People come into the restaurant and the majority of them will go for sake. I think for the people in New York and on the West Coast sake is very well known.

You're also using it at Toqueville paired with French food. There probably a lot of Americans that would have a hard time wrapping their heads around sake paired with French food. How do you view the marriage of the two?
Well as you know I'm not originally from a Western country, so for me French food is a luxury. It's a once of year thing, or an every six months thing—something for a special occasion. So when I first came here I didn't know anything about French food. But my mentor, Roger Dagorn, who was at Chanterelle (and is now the beverage director for 15 East and Tocqueville), introduced me to the possibility of pairing sake with French cuisine. It was there that I discovered how versatile sake can be. It can go with creamy, spicy, cooked, and uncooked food; it can go with vegetables that can be difficult to pair, like asparagus. So, I discovered that sake can really be a secret weapon in a pairing menu. Sometimes the customer is not ready for it and it can be difficult to break them from tradition, but 95% seem to love it.

Do you use sake with a dish that one might expect a red wine to be paired with?
Well there's a dish at Tocqueville, for example, that's asparagus with truffle vinaigrette and fresh shaved truffles. One can easily think about pairing that with Burgundy or Barbaresco to mimic the earthiness of the truffle, but I use sake, specifically Daishichi "Classic" Kimoto Junmai sake, which is slightly oxidized and served at room temperature. The beauty of sake, which is the beauty of wines of all kinds, is that temperature can turn it into a different style.

So you're not only using specific types of sake that might mimic some of the textures more commonly associated with red wine, but you're using different temperatures to achieve this as well?
Yes. So, like, with creamy, buttery dishes I like to look for fuller sake with good acidity like kimoto method or yamahai method sake. Those types of sakes have a yogurty, lactic texture on the nose and palate that creates a nice harmony with French cuisine and heavier dishes. With something like marbleized, dry-aged rib eye, for example, I'll pair yamahai and kimoto sake, but also slightly oxidized, aged sake works beautifully.

What do you see as being the most common misconception among diners when it comes to sake?
In Japan "hot" sake is served at 122 degrees Fahrenheit. If it is heated above that point its aromas change, the acid becomes more prominent and the wine is no longer balanced. What used to drive me crazy before is that when I was at Nobu when someone would order sake, for a sake bomb [laughs], 122 degrees was often not hot enough for them, so we'd have to go back and warm it up. To me, I was in a different world then. People know more about sake nowadays and they are mostly looking for colder sake. So, now I have the opportunity at 15 East to work on temperature—to try and find the best temperature for each sake and dish—and glassware, and help educate the guest further.

To close this thing out, can you recommend a few great sakes for the people out there, myself included, who are looking to get a grip on the whole sake thing?
Oze Junmai
Seikyo Takehara Junmai
Tsukasabotan Fuinshu Junmaiginjo
Hakkaisan Junmaiginjo
Daishichi Kimoto Honjozo (1.8L)
Nanbubijin Tokubetsu Junmai
Harushika Tokimeki (300ml) (sparkling off-dry sake)

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15 East

15 East 15th Street , New York, NY 10003

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