You may know him as the Food & Wine’s Chef of the Year 2017. Or maybe you know him as the head Chef at Austin’s Otoko restaurant, located in the historic South Congress Hotel. Better yet, maybe you remember him as the Punk-Rock Chef who joined us at Feast Portland in 2019, where he prepared and served a seventy pound tuna, flavored with Sencha tamari and Matcha-infused sea salt. However you know him, Chef Yoshi Okai has made a stir in the culinary world by fusing the delicate flavors of Japan with the bombastic flavors of Texas.
Until recently, you had to occupy one of the twelve seats at Otoko to taste this fusion for yourself. Now, however, we have the opportunity to humbly offer that experience in the form of No. 1603, Yoshi-Cha. Yoshi-Cha incorporates some of the most vivacious and unusual ingredients we have ever used, including Yerba Santa, Yaupon, and Sansho Pepper, balanced on a welcoming base of toasty Japanese Hojicha.
To hear the Chef’s own words on the blend, I had the opportunity to interview him about the tea, his culinary influence, and what he hopes people will take away from this special tea blend. Chef Yoshi, you have been dubbed by many ‘the Punk-Rock Chef. What was it that initially drew you to Smith and inspired this partnership?
“I had worked with [Smith’s] green tea before, doing a cold smoked salmon dish and a smoked porcelet with it. So f**king good! Then they invited me to do Feast and I got to see their tea house. So cool!”
Japan has one of the world’s oldest tea-drinking traditions. What was it that initially drew you to Smith and inspired this partnership?“I’m always drinking tea. [My] parents never let me have soda, just tea! My parents would get mad when I brought canned tea home once they started making it, haha. In different seasons we drink different teas, too…so many different memories, it’s hard to pick just one
With ingredients like Yerba Santa, Yaupon, and Sansho Pepper, Yoshi-Cha is an adventurous combination of flavors. What was the inspiration for this blend?
“It was a pretty fun collaboration between myself, Billy Weston [Otoko’s General Manager], and the Smith Tea Team. We discussed how kukicha and hojicha were traditional starting teas in sushi restaurants and that I wanted to have a blend of Japanese and Texas influences. [Smith’s] blenders killed it with the options they sent us!”
You have made a career out of combining the traditional flavors of Japan and Texas. What does this convergence of culture mean to you as a chef? “It happened organically being here in Texas for a long time. It wasn’t an overnight change, more of a gradual shift. I lived half my life in Japan and half here in Texas, so it just worked out together. Plus, Japanese food tends to be pretty neutral in flavor, so the techniques can be translated to other cuisines and flavors.”
Food and drink play such an important role in the way we socialize across cultures. What experiences do you hope people will have when they share this tea?
“Definitely make people go, ‘huh, Yoshi tea? Wow!’ [They will be] surprised by the Sansho pepper. That ‘blow your mind’ moment is what I look for in my dishes, so I want the same for my tea!”
If ever a tea was mind-blowing, Yoshi-Cha is it. Cooling, but with hints of spice, earth, and enlivening citrus, this tea playfully combines the elements—earth, fire, water, air, and spirit— in one exquisite cup. By incorporating some of Yoshi’s favorite ingredients, such as Sansho Pepper and Yerba Santa, this tea is a sensational homage to both the Land of the Rising Sun and the Lone Star State.
We hope that this tea surprises and delights you not only with notes of Tokyo, Austin, and Portland, but with a holistic sense of global ingenuity. At Smith Teamaker, we believe that it’s this exact synthesis that brings about game-changing flavor, and as such, we invite you to raise a glass of Yoshi-Cha in celebration of the cross-cultural culinary collaboration that keeps our restaurants, our tea-cabinets, and our lives full to the brim. Kanpai!