Food for Thought: All that’s old is nouveau again

Traditional Japanese dishes get a modernization at The Groton Hotel

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At the northern end of Groton’s Main Street, The Hotel Groton is still a commanding presence 166 years after its construction. At the moment, the hotel and accompanying café and bar are not open for regular business – but the kitchen has been full of activity.


Over the past few months, Executive Chef Yuko Jingu has prepared multi-course private dinners at the Hotel while working with Owner Jeff Toolan to re-envision the menus. They both share a desire to expand upon the local understanding of Japanese cuisine. “What people first say is ‘oh, Yuko, can you do sushi?’,” said Jingu. “But I’m not focusing on sushi at all… In Japan, you might be surprised but … sushi is [for] special occasions.”


On a rainy day in March, Jingu has laid out a veritable feast of soul-warming Japanese food. Soba noodles with shiitake mushrooms, fish cake, and tempura; steamed rice, golden from being made with seafood from the start; tamagoyaki – a classic breakfast egg roll; and a generous bowl of miso soup brimming with vegetables, seaweed, and bacon. It’s a mouth-watering spread and a fair representation of how she got her start in the kitchen.


“As a child, I used to spend most of my time with my grandparents because both of my parents are working,” Jingu recounted. “So, if we get hungry [my grandma] would give us instant ramen noodle or fried egg, so if I want to eat something better than that I have to try myself.” At the age of 10 she began cooking, modeling her techniques after her mother, Akemi, whose food Jingu adored. Their time together in the kitchen was limited, so Jingu experimented on her own, slowly learning how to balance flavors through trial and error, never following a recipe, and always measuring to taste.


Though cooking has been a constant in her life, Jingu never sought out formal training. At 15 she convinced her parents to allow her to move abroad. She’d hoped to live close to her aunt and uncle in New York City, both of whom she admired. It wasn’t until she arrived at the Christian boarding school in Tennessee her parents had selected that she realized she needed to be more specific.


After a difficult first year, during which she spoke almost no English, Jingu took it upon herself to make her way to the Big Apple. “At that time, New York State and New York City – I didn’t know the difference. So, I sent a letter to everything that has an NY at the end.” She was accepted by Cascadilla School on Ithaca’s East Hill.


While still in school, Jingu began waiting tables, hoping to make some quick money. “Of course, my parents were not happy, coming to U.S. and then waitress[ing], you know? … But I loved it. Being around food, being around people – I really enjoyed it.” While working in Ithaca, she began to dream of owning her own business – and noticed a hole in the market. “We don’t have real Japanese food,” Jingu stated. “Some people be like Yuko ‘you’re a good cook, come to New York and open a restaurant’ no I can’t, too many restaurants there. Too much competition. But Ithaca? This is the time. There’s no one doing it now.”


In 2017 she got her first break when the Owners of Manndible Café on Cornell’s campus – heard of her ambitions and invited her to use the café’s kitchen. Jingu created her own business, Akemi Food, named after her mother. She developed a line of to-go meals – including flavored rice balls, udon and soba noodles – which she sells at Manndible Café, Fork and Gavel, and Gimme Coffee’s Gates Hall location. With her business came compliments from friends and – at last – from her parents.


Around this time, a mutual friend introduced her to Jeff Toolan. Toolan had purchased the Hotel Groton from his parents and was in the throes renovating it. Having studied in Japan, he was very excited to learn about Jingu’s approach to cooking. “I thought this was an invitation for me to open a restaurant,” Jingu recalled. Busy with her new business and without enough capital, she demurred. The two went their separate ways, until last year when Toolan encouraged Jingu to drive out to Groton to take a look at the space. She was hooked. “The first time when I came into the bar area… I fell in love like right away,” she enthused. “I didn’t even think about that it’s far, or anything, because you know if you do something good, people want to drive, people want to come.”


The Hotel Groton aims to re-open this summer as a sustainable micro-boutique hotel, with three distinct culinary offerings. In the former bar space, will be a European-style Japanese café. “It’s like what a café in Tokyo might be like,” explained Toolan. “It’ll be sandwiches but just Japanese style sandwiches. It’ll be multi-layer desserts … which are technically French in origin but executed with a Japanese aesthetic and a Japanese low-sugar palate.”


In the adjacent salon, they’ll host events, alternating between izakaya (casual Japanese-style tapas) and private dinners with guest chefs.


“Washoku is really the izakaya I make,” said Jingu. Traditional dishes with an emphasis on seasonality and harmonious flavors are washoku. “And then we also have the yushoku which means Western-style.” The café offerings and dinner events will be yushoku: playing on tradition, but with a creative edge.
Multiple styles allow Jingu to showcase the principles and nuance of Japanese cooking. To her advantage, many local farms grow classic ingredients like daikon radish, and foragers can find wild ingredients such as burdock root. Even better? Toolan claims there’s something about the soil that makes them taste the same. “I’ve had chefs digging up burdock roots in my driveway and they can’t believe it because it tastes like the mountains of Japan. And when you see [shiitake] mushrooms, they … crackle like in Japan.”


As exciting as that may be, Jingu’s enthusiasm for the novel shines brightest. “I’m kinda excited, you know? Use totally different ingredients than Japanese people use in Japan. I want to use something that’s available here, and then create new Japanese.”


Our miso soup from lunch may be a perfect example of that. The bacon, an uncommon addition, was local and cured by Toolan’s father. “I love bacon. I always have a lot of bacon in my refrigerator because I use it as a secret [ingredient],” confided Jingu. Toolan laughed before remarking on the serendipity of the situation: “How do you find a Japanese chef who loves bacon, for a boutique hotel that looks like Europe … that’s full of bacon?”

Food For Thought is a monthly column highlighting the hidden gems of the culinary world across Tompkins County. Sarah Barden is a dedicated foodie who, along with her husband, shares her passion with neighbors and visitors through their business Ithaca is Foodies Culinary Tours. Find more information at IthacaIsFoodies.com.

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