Photo courtesy Fish & BIrd

InterviewsSan Francisco

Yoshika Hedberg of Fish & Bird on Tom Waits, Sousaku, and the Future

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Fish & Bird Sousaku Izakaya

4.6 · Japanese · $$

Berkeley

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Fish & Bird Sousaku Izakaya was opened by Yoshika Hedberg and chef Asuka Uchida last year in Berkeley, just before the pandemic hit. The two met while working at B-Dama, and set out on their own to create a modern izakaya. But then the pandemic hit, and things changed. We chatted with Hedberg about her restaurant — the past, the present, and the uncertain future. See below.

Note: The interview has been edited for clarity.

Resy: Tell us about the restaurant’s name. I know it’s from a Tom Waits song, but why that specific song? What does it mean to you?

Yoshika Hedberg: One of our chefs is a huge fan of Tom Waits and he suggested we name the restaurant after the song. The song is about a bird that fell in love with a whale — two lives that could never be together. It’s a sad and beautiful love song, and for expats like us who grew up in Japan and live here because we love it here, it feels like the sense of longing is the same.  And by cooking and serving our food that is uniquely us — decidedly Japanese but with flairs from local and other cultures — we hope we can communicate our story and feelings through our food and service.

What exactly does “sousaku” translate to? And in the context of Fish & Bird, what does that mean for the type of food that you and chef Asuka Uchida are creating?

Sousaku means “creative.” Sousaku ryouri, creative cuisine, is like New American cuisine in a way — pretty much anything goes, whether it’s your own creation and new ideas, or incorporating influences from other cuisine; combinations are endless.

Our executive chef, Asuka Uchida, grew up in her family’s restaurant in the Okayama prefecture, helping in the kitchen ever since she was young. The restaurant was in countryside where fresh and seasonal ingredients were abundant, naturally resulting in her cooking locally and seasonally.  She often talks about how wild yuzu trees were everywhere and how she foraged the abundance of sansai (mountain vegetables). When she grew up, she went to study French cuisine working at many renowned restaurants and learning new techniques. Sousaku really is her life, heart and soul.

When you opened the restaurant, what was supposed to be the original vision?

Our original concept was a modern izakaya: a night spot that serves small plates and alcoholic beverages, where people gather to enjoy their conversation with friends. We wanted to bring true modern Japanese cuisine here. We wanted and still want to use amazing, vibrant ingredients that are local and flavorful as much as possible, combined with great ingredients that can only obtained from Japan. I truly believe in chef Asuka’s flavors and cooking, and want people to enjoy her food.  As for the service we want to be an upscale restaurant but not formal, not white tablecloth. We want to provide knowledgeable and warm personable service.

How have you changed the menu to fit the pandemic?

The menu changed gradually to adapt to the pandemic. We weren’t doing takeout pre-pandemic, as part of the concept was to serve food at optimal temperature and condition. But obviously that was no longer a choice. Small tapas weren’t very popular once the takeout began. More casual comfort food seems to be what people crave during pandemic, and we felt that’s completely understandable. We all crave comfort during uncertainties. So we’ve added things like rice boxes, bento, Japanese sandos as well as a Wagyu burger.  We’ve also started some “cook at home” meal kits for people to take home and prepare so that they can easily have restaurant flavors at home. We’ve also taken away some items that weren’t too popular after pandemic hit, as well as things that did not hold up well for takeout.

One of the true ongoing challenges is to understand what it means to cook — as well as pack — food for takeout for the best enjoyment of our customers. For example, we separate out rice from the rest of the food for the most part, so that crispy things stay crispy. Salad and cold items are packed in a separate bag so they taste good when people get home and eat. I mean, who wants to eat warm salad with wilted greens, unless it was meant to be that way? We also purchased a warmer recently so once the food is packed the warm foods goes in the warmer until the customer picks up the food. Customers sometimes comes late, sometimes we run late when we get slammed. We can’t control everything, but we try to do things better as much as we can and adjust as we go.

Tell us about the cocktail program. Who is doing the drinks—and is there a specific style, inspiration, or specialty?

Our bar lead is Brack DeFries. He specializes in craft cocktails but his classic cocktails are amazing too. Brack is always experimenting, mixing, juicing, making special syrups, bitters and combining flavors. I feel like craft cocktail is just like sousaku ryouri (creative cuisine), in that the combinations of flavors and inspirations are endless. Brack is mindful of the cocktail flavors and balance with the modern Japanese cuisine my chefs prepare as well as seasonal ingredients and flavors.

And … he names the cocktails he creates here with Tom Waits songs.

When the pandemic is over, how do you think you’ll change the restaurant?

This is a difficult question to answer, since there is still so much uncertainty. Will this pandemic going to go away quickly or slowly? Will the virus mutate like the flu? Will it ever be over? Will people’s eating habit change forever? Especially for older diners, will people ever feel safe enough to dine inside?

I know we will need to make adjustments. I know people will want to come out for special occasions still. I know people crave the dining experience and miss having a wonderful time with friends and family. We will always have some outdoor dining, and we definitely will have indoor dining. We need to still figure out what our takeout is going to be like, since doing everything and having a huge menu won’t be possible. We need to see what people want in order to figure out how to change.

As we have adjusted over and over this past year, I know there are many more adjustments to come. But the ultimate goal for us is to serve the best flavorful food we can so that our customers can have the best experience.

Beyond the pandemic pivots, what do you see in the longer term future? 

We don’t have any plans for other restaurants at this time. But we have some pop-ups by our friends at our restaurant coming up. Sushi Salon by Joji Nonaka, formally with Utzutzu, is planning on at least one in March. Ok’s Deli has done a couple of them with us and will do more in the future. We want to help other chefs who want to do their own things.

As for the other menu items, yes, we will always have specials whenever we can get our hands on fresh great quality ingredients. You can usually see it on our online ordering website before we open. We also have a special prix fixe menu coming up for restaurant week. Our outdoor dining menu is pretty much the same as takeout, except there is yakiniku added.

What is the best way to support you right now? How can people help?

We opened six weeks before the shelter in place order, so not many people know about us. If you haven’t tried us yet, please come and try our food — takeout or outdoor dining right now. If you like our food, please spread the word. We put our heart and soul into our food and service so please come and try us.

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