Behind the Scenes: Sushi Belly Tower Pop-Up Arrives to DC
Jose Lopez-Sanchez | Feb 27, 2015 | 10:00AM |

All words: Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious.. All photos: Sarah Gerrity. For reservations / more details about Sushi Belly Tower dinner at Mess Hall tonight, contact [email protected].

The produce section of Whole Foods is surprisingly busy for this time of night.

It’s 9:00 pm on a Thursday, and the P Street shrine to healthy eating is still abuzz with late-night shoppers, equal parts LuluLemon and power suits. This is where I meet up with Michael Stember, the creative mind behind the Sushi Belly Tower dining experience.

Weather-related travel issues have pushed back our rendezvous by several hours, forcing us to move to the loft apartment that Stember is borrowing from one of his brothers. He’s here to pick up a quick bite to tide him over, and to buy the last few ingredients for our late evening meal.

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Stember stands out among the grocery store’s patrons with his scruffy beard and combination of cowboy hat and cardigan. He looks like a hipster version of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name.

He moves through the produce section quickly and knowingly, picking and prodding and feeling different fruits and vegetables, filling up the cart with an assortment of gorgeous colors. Citrus, funghi, herbs, tubers: Stember is assembling a veritable horn of plenty as he prepares to replicate the Sushi Belly meal for us on a smaller scale back at the cozy apartment.

“It’s really all about bringing the best ingredients together: Quality, fresh, and the best version of something whenever possible,” he says.

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Stember has always had a passion for food, and this culinary venture is a product of necessity as well as innate curiosity. He’s a former Olympian, having represented the United States in track at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and he credits a great portion of his success to diet.

“Part of the reason why I was able to achieve what I did in athletics was because I was eating very well, and I was eating very well because I did it myself,” he shares. “Now, I didn’t learn that all on my own. My Mother didn’t buy into the commercialism of the American diet or health trends either.”

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Stember is one of six siblings, and it’s clear that the sense of community derived from gathering around meals resonated profoundly with him. As a California native, access to a wide variety of fresh ingredients and cuisines year round meant that he was exposed to many flavors from a young age. Aside from his mother, another early influence was family friend Kotaro “Taro” Arai, founder of Mikuni Sushi.

“What I really enjoyed about the whole experience was that he was breaking the rules with all of it, compared to other sushi restaurants that were much more traditional,” he remembers. “He was cutting much larger pieces, and I was a growing boy. All of us were athletes in the family, and I was just drawn to that sense of feast that gets lost most of the time in the translation of Japanese traditional food. It’s rare to feel like ‘Wow, I just ate so much of that fish,’ but Taro always made us feel that way – that we were eating copious amounts of fish. He had this free spirit, and free-flowing approach to Japanese food.”

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We make our way to the loft after a brief detour for beer.

“We should definitely pick up a crisp lager, or a brown ale,” Stember suggests. “Something that pairs well with the fish and the vegetables.”

We settle on a six pack of Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold, as well as some Magic Hat Snow Roller.

Stember begins to work, creating an edible art installation in the cozy space. An antique desk is transformed into a wooden canvas, as he arranges leafy greens, root vegetables, blood oranges, and mushrooms around the real star of the show: a gorgeous slab of salmon, one of several that he has transported down with him from New York City in a cooler.

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“They definitely don’t get a lot of those on the bus route,” he quips with a smile.

This is how every instance of the Sushi Belly Tower experience begins: Stember lays out all of the wares for his guests to see, in a display that’s both ornamental and an endorsement of quality. What you see is what you get, quite literally.

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How does a former professional runner, without any classical culinary training, end up doing something like this?

Stember dates his inspiration to his days as a student-athlete at Stanford University.

“I found myself at a crossroads,” he recollects. “I had a full scholarship to run track, and was really focused on trying to eat right. I blew most of my Pell Grant in just a few months, eating at Fuki Sushi in Palo Alto.”

Low on funds, Stember made a discovery: “I realized that I didn’t really need the whole Japanese ‘song and dance’ part of it. I just needed the high quality fish. I staked out the restaurant for a few months, and finally connected with the fish delivery guy. I convinced him to sell me some of the fish directly. I think I gave him forty dollars and a Stanford track suit in exchange for that first giant piece of tuna. It just grew from there, and before we knew it, we were hosting weekly dinner clubs.”

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Potentially apocryphal origin stories aside, it’s evident that Stember’s competitive and innovative streak bleeds over to his views on preparing sushi.

“You don’t need to be Japanese, or spend seventy five years at a craft to be good at this,” he says. “You can learn it pretty quickly if you’re determined and you love the end result. I’ve seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and it doesn’t have to be that way. So we started breaking all the rules.”

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As he begins carving up a portion of the slab of salmon for us, it’s clear that Stember doesn’t pay much attention to the disdain from sushi purists, nor does he care about the pushback that he receives as a white, American sushi chef.

“Some of the biggest hate comes from those guys towards this project, which is funny – it turns out that real aficionados know their history a little better than what these current traditionalists are trying to defend,” he says. “What I’m doing, with raw fish and root vegetables, predates the current tradition of sushi. All that white rice, and sugar, and rice wine vinegar helps margin for a restaurant, and hides a lot of the flavors. It makes people feel full.”

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Stember points to Chef David Schlosser as one of his mentors and teachers. Somewhat whimsically, he describes Schlosser as a traditionalist who rejects the Americanization of Japanese food.

“I met David at the International Marine Products fish market – which is probably the premier fish market in the country – at like 5:30 in the morning,” he shares. “He’s really serious and contemplative, very intense guy. We’ve done like three or four dozen events together, and each time we do it, I learn so much. We have the opposite approach to food – he’s so much about the rules! Everything he does is by the book. He was the U.S. Ambassador to Japan’s Chef. He studied in Kyoto. He’s aiming to be simply a messenger for his first project, in celebrating the masters. And he’s right – everyone else in the United States has Americanized Japanese food; no one’s really done it without putting their own spin on it.”

“As you can imagine, we can really go at it on completely different terms,” he adds, laughing, “And we’ve collaborated a few times to the chagrin of his associates.”

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Even in this informal setting, there’s a real sense of showmanship at hand.

Stember whips up some wasabi from a powder base. He slices up oranges. He puts a few pieces of mirin-and-miso marinated salmon on skewers and into the broiler, speaking excitedly between swigs of beer.

He explains the difference between cuts of fish, knowledgeably walking us through the flavor and texture profiles we can expect from each piece. The creation-conversation-consumption chain repeats itself over and over, and the sequence of events seems interchangeable as we huddle up in the narrow kitchen. There’s an unexpected feeling of a familial gathering.

Despite not really knowing the space he’s working in, Stember is unfazed. He improvises and makes do with tools he’s brought with him, as well as the occasional found objects.

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“One of the things I enjoyed getting back was the sense of travel for the purpose of your skill, which I had as a professional athlete. “I think that’s one of the reasons that we have remained semi-nomadic until this point,” he reflects. “But I’ve always loved cooking, and I’ve always been able to monetize it.”
“Even if I had $10 million dollars in the bank, what would I do with my time? The answer is pretty simple:  I’d invite twenty or thirty of my friends over for dinner. I’d probably have the best fish in the world delivered, I’d cut it up in a real simple way, and I’d have some sort of live music,” he says, laughing. “So why not start doing that now?”
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Stember doesn’t consider himself a chef in the traditional sense. He prefers words like “rogue outfit” and “guerrilla warfare” for what he and his team do. But he nonetheless acknowledges a business-driven need to begin grappling with rivals and cohorts on their terms, despite describing himself as an artist.

“When you say the word ‘chef,’ you invoke all sorts of scrutiny that comes with the title,” he says. “I don’t care about title; that has nothing to do with what I’m trying to accomplish. The more the title, the less accessible you are to people. I’m trying to teach people they can do exactly what I’m about to do, which is enjoy an amazing meal that ought to be worth as much as anything you will get at a top sushi restaurant. And you can do this, as long as you can get these ingredients in your life.”

Still, Stember does plan to enter the more formal dining sphere: “I definitely have every intention of opening a restaurant in New York City in 2015, which means we’re going to have to step into the ring. Having a brick and mortar location means that we’re going to have to deal with that reality.

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Ambiance and style are paramount to Stember, with his background as an art major informing many of the design decisions.

The first order of business is ensuring that music and lighting are just right when putting together the Sushi Belly dinners, with each locale varying in shape and size, ranging from his apartment in Los Angeles to an Air BnB rental in Miami Beach during Art Basel.

After that, it’s the sense that you’re part of something special and intimate. It’s personal touch and DIY-ethos paired with a high level culinary experience.

“We’re going to have to get really creative about economics for Fish Runner Market, our upcoming brick and mortar restaurant,” he recognizes. “I do really want to compete with the Japanese, and fight the association that you can only get the best and most expensive meal in a place like Masa, or a five or seven hundred dollar experience with those types of guys. I don’t think that’s true, and I want to compete at that level.”

Stember continues: “I know I’m opening up myself to being a laughing stock by having something like that printed at this point, but just so you know, that’s where we want to go, down the road. We want to offer this experience at two socio-economic tiers: one is to that community of Stanford athletes, who are the guys in running shoes and jeans just trying to get by, with a much more open ambiance and lighter atmosphere. And in the back of Fish Runner Market, we want to offer that uber premium-gold experience, like a thousand dollars a seat. Our goal is to make the best version of everything, not just Japanese food. And you’ll see little pieces of that tomorrow night with the Wagyu beef, and in what you’re eating tonight.”

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The conversation meanders a bit more, as we sit around the makeshift display table, punctuating mouthfuls of fish and fruit with sips of beer.

On Friday, Stember and his team of four will set up shop at Mess Hall DC, a new facility in the Brookland neighborhood, and will ready the space for a dinner party for sixty or so people within a few hours.

A cooler full of fish will be lugged around Washington. Wagyu beef, flown specifically from Japan for the occasion, will be delivered in the morning. A full pop-up bar will be set up in the back, and a hired musician will put the finishing touches on his repertoire of Rolling Stones covers.

Kitchen prep beforehand is minimal to non-existent; the emphasis is on showcasing how fresh and flavorful all the food is, which means cutting it close (pun intended).

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“Something needs to be shown, where it comes from, at some point in the night, or else it feels like a part of the experience is missing,” Stember shares. “We want to draw attention to the ingredients and the process. As economics becomes a major factor, I’m going to do my best to protect these steps from being eliminated. That experience is special, and we want people to return based on this intimate experience that we’re sharing, which I think is priceless.”
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Seats are still available for Friday’s Sushi Belly Tower. Stember has plans to make Washington D.C. a monthly destination for this high-end sashimi experience. For more information, contact [email protected]