Culinary incubator Mess Hall stays at the forefront of DC’s burgeoning food scene with innovative programming and, of course, access to delicious bites. Their ever-popular Ramen World, consists of two 2-hour time blocks where participants can indulge in ramen, cocktails and other delicacies from spots they know and love, and newcomers adding to the changing landscape.
This year’s new lineup features plenty of classics and soon to be favorites, including the likes of Chef Kaz Okochi of Kaz Sushi Bistro in Northwest. Okochi, originally from Japan, has been serving the DC area with his incredible sushi and ramen since 1999. While he’s clearly no stranger to cooking for DC’s hungry residents, this is his first appearance at Ramen World. Ahead of this weekend’s event, Okochi spoke with On Tap about his excitement to be part of this event, the dish he’ll be showcasing, and how the DC dining scene has changed – for the better – throughout his time in the city.
On Tap: Can you start by telling me a bit about yourself, your background in the culinary world and your restaurant?
Kaz Okochi: I was born and raised in Nagoya, Japan, and traveled to the United States in the late 1970s to study fine arts in Oklahoma. After graduation in 1982, I returned to Japan to attend the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka, one of Japan’s premier culinary schools. At Tsuji I became interested in French cuisine and also explored such fields as Chinese cooking, pastry, ice carving and traditional Japanese fare. It was my dream to return to the United States and develop my own style of Japanese cuisine.
My flagship in DC is Kaz Sushi Bistro and we have been operating for two decades now. I am very proud of how my team and I have been able to continue bringing cutting edge “free-style” Japanese food to Washingtonians.
OT: What drew you to participating in Ramen World this year?
KO: Ramen is very much part of Japanese culture. It not only has deep cultural significance but is also a delicious and fulfilling meal that is built around community. Almost every region in Japan has its own variation and style of ramen, so I wanted to come to Ramen World and show Washingtonians my own variation.
OT: What are you most looking forward to about being part of this year’s event?
KO: I am looking forward to being with great company of restaurants and celebrating this iconic dish.
OT: What dishes will you be showcasing at this event? Out of your extensive menu, why did you choose that selection?
KO: We will be serving tonkotsu shoyu ramen to show the authentic Japanese ramen.
OT: What do you think events like Ramen World and spaces like Mess Hall contribute to DC’s culinary community?
KO: Events like Ramen World are important to enrich the DC culinary scene. By bringing chefs from different parts of the world to showcase their own iterations with their own influences, we are collectively making people aware of a unique product represented by each of our distinct brands. These events create connections between chefs, between organizers, between guests…and some of them last a lifetime.
OT: There are so many places, new and well established, who will be participating in Ramen World alongside you. Are there any fellow participants whose food/drink you’re looking forward to trying while you’re there?
KO: I am genuinely excited to share a platform with this great repertoire of chefs. You can be sure I will try each and every one of their ramen interpretations. I am always hungry to learn more about ramen.
OT: You’ve been at the helm of Kaz Sushi Bistro for 20 years, and the DC restaurant scene has changed so much over the years. From your perspective, what have been the biggest changes to DC’s restaurant scene?
KO: Definitely the restaurant scene has dramatically changed over the years. You now have more Japanese restaurants than ever before, which is great because competition only makes you better; you have social media playing an important part of the dining experience, which provides an immediate report on your food and service; but you are also now more engaged with guests than ever, which is really great considering this is in the DNA of hospitality. So, while things have changed, I think they have changed for the better.
OT: What do you think gives your restaurant staying power? Why would you encourage someone to come out and try Kaz Sushi Bistro after they sample your offerings post-Ramen World?
KO: I think the combination of great food and unmatched hospitality is a key factor to the success of any restaurant. At Kaz Sushi Bistro, we strive to have our food prepared with the highest standards and with the best quality ingredients. In addition, our team is on top of their game and we are all working to accomplish the restaurant’s goals and we understand guests are the lifeblood of our success – so we work to make them happy.
Ramen World will only provide a glimpse of what we offer at Kaz Sushi Bistro, so I would definitely encourage guests to come and taste the other unique flavors and textures our menu has to offer.
Ramen World 2020 takes place on Saturday, February 29 from 12-2 p.m. and 3-5 p.m. at Mess Hall. For more information and a full list of participating bars, restaurants and chefs, visit www.messhalldc.com. To purchase tickets, click here. For more on Chef Kaz Okochi and Kaz Sushi Bistro, visit www.kazsushi.com.
Mess Hall: 703 Edgewood St. NE, DC; www.messhalldc.com