Ebbitt Room Executive Chef Jason Hanin enjoyed an epic culinary adventure in Japan this winter when he visited nine cities in 18 days. On the next few pages, we catch up with him to dish on some of his favorite things.
Jason, why did you decide to travel to Japan?
I have wanted to visit for as long as I can remember. I have been in love with the cuisine ever since I was a little boy, when my parents took me to my first Japanese restaurant.
(Left) Sensō-ji, an ancient Buddhist temple located in Tokyo. Also known as Asakusa Kannon, Sensō-ji is dedicated to Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, and is the most widely visited religious site in the world with over 30 million visitors annually. Its history can be traced back to 645AD. The current structure was built after World War II. (Right) Jason visits Kiyomizu-dera in Koyoto. Built in the early Heian period c. 800AD, the temple is now a UNESCO World Heritage site
It sounds like there were quite a few culinary highlights, but if you could nail down one dish that blew you away, what would it be?
It was the grilled eel rice bowl at Hozenji-Yamakazu that I wandered into when I was in Osaka. The chef has spent the past 40 years focusing his craft on cooking eel. Such incredible balance and a symphony of flavor -- sweet, salt, umami. The cooking technique is over a Japanese charcoal made from trees in ancient forests.
How were Japanese restaurants different than ones at home in the United States?
It’s a whole other world. First, every restaurant was either good or great. There is no room for mediocre, they don’t seem to exist. Workers there take so much pride in what they do regardless of their level or station in life. The sense of pride is extraordinary. Japan is the definition of hospitality. I was made to feel welcome in every establishment.
Do the customers interact in a different way than they do in the States?
For sure. There’s so much respect and appreciation for the food and service that they receive. And children do not act up in public or in restaurants. Dining is almost like a religious experience.
What was the most unusual dish you tried?
One of the delicacies in the Nagano region is horse meat. I had to try it. The meat was served raw and is mild, sweet and pink in color. It was served sashimi style with fresh wasabi, soy, ginger and shaved garlic. I also did a poisonous puffer fish tasting when I was in Hiroshima.
What was the most surprising thing about Japanese life?
The cleanliness everywhere you went, including the cities. They were so clean that you would not see a single cigarette butt or a bubble gum wrapper. Public restrooms are everywhere, and they are sparkling clean. Also, people are so helpful and courteous. Even if they can’t speak English, they still try to help you. People like to talk to you at the bars, even if it is just to practice their English.
Jason visits a seafood market in Kanazawa, the capital city of Ishikawa Prefecture, on Japan’s central Honshu Island
How important is it for a chef like yourself to get out of your comfort zone and try new things?
The most important thing for a chef is constantly learning, growing, evolving, and that can only happen from travel, new experiences and being open to embracing the uncomfortable. It is a big planet and there is so much diversity. I am not done learning and growing.
Obviously, you can’t turn The Ebbitt Room into a sushi restaurant, but were there any dishes that might influence the menu over the coming months?
I have a few thoughts, some of them regarding wagyu beef on a more regular basis, along with incorporating more varieties of pickled items.
What else would you like to tell us about this season’s Ebbitt Room menu?
It is a living, breathing entity, full of life, love and a staff that is committed to putting out great food on a consistent basis. I’m not completely sure where the menu will go from here, but we will always keep it exciting and approachable
Have you noticed any interesting differences in life in Cape May during the six years since you joined the Cape Resorts team?
It has gotten busier in the shoulder seasons, and the clientele has evolved as well, with more visitors from North Jersey and New York. I believe they have found a special beach resort that is easier to get to and maybe better value than some of the other options.
Are you still taking time to surf?
I am always making time to surfit is an activity that always brings me peace. It’s a total escape that helps to clear my head and fills it with bliss.
What activities will you be looking forward to enjoying at the shore this year?
As well as surfing, obviously, I’ll get on my bike a few days a week and pedal for at least 30-40 miles at a shot. And I always make time to head up the Parkway to visit family and friends in Margate.
Which restaurant in the world is at the top of your bucket list?
Not sure at the moment. While I was in Japan, I dined at two Michelin two-star restaurants. One was Ginza Kojyu in Tokyo and the other was Roan Kikunoi in Kyoto. Both were incredible and beautiful, with perfectly executed Kaiseki, which is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner. The chef and staff were engaging and their commitment to perfection was like nothing I have ever seen before, but they were still warm and welcoming. Yet the food I found in small restaurants and food stalls around the country was just as special.
What’s the next trip you’ve got planned?
It might be back to Japan! There is something so magical about that country and I just can't get enough. But if I were to mention a few other places... Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Italy, Portugal and Scandinavia. I think that is a good list. We'll see where the journey takes me.
Jason visits Matsumoto Castle, one of Japan’s premier historic castles built c.1510. Located in in Nagano Prefecture, it was the seat of Matsumoto Domain under the Edo Period Tokugawa shogunate, the military government of Japan during the Edo period from 1603 to 1868
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