Chef Allan Jiang takes sushi rice balls in his palm and places a ball of hand-ground wasabi in the center, garnishing each with a slice of freshly cut fatty tuna and a single drizzle of soy sauce.
His deft hands take only minutes to compose each of the 10 Omakase dishes he has planned on the evening menu – all consumed in seconds – for the six guests nestled next to him.
But you won’t find Jiang slicing up kampachi or sea trout at a trendy restaurant in Cow Hollow or Hayes Valley. He’s next to the table inside the wooden cabin of Good Luck, a restored 105-year-old yacht docked at Alameda’s Grand Marina.
Accompanied by the sound of the wind whipping the nearby sailboats and palm trees, Jiang serves more than authentic Japanese cuisine. The intimate experience sees him go from chef to teacher, explaining how the warmth of the ginger on his guests’ plates not only cleanses their palates but also balances the cold fish in their bellies.
These private dinners yacht experiences are set up by Xenia International, which chef Daiji Uehara launched last year with his business partners to keep fine dining afloat in Alameda and San Francisco — including on his own 25-foot Sea Ray Sundancer, Nova.
Born during the pandemic out of a desire to bring people together over a shared meal, Uehara’s dream is to teach diners to savor and understand the food they eat, while providing chefs with a way to escape the heat of a typical kitchen and show their creative passions. The creative venue also offers industrious chefs a more flexible alternative to classic brick-and-mortar restaurants, which have been battered by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It creates so much depth in the experience, so the food becomes so much more than just stuff to put in your mouth and stomach – it’s intimate, unique and personal,” Uehara said. “Chefs are really underrated, in my opinion. They have a lot of great stories to tell, so we try to break down that barrier between chefs and diners.
These yacht experiences, which also feature French cuisine from Chef Hemant Surendran, cost between $140 and $275 per person. Reservations are often made weeks in advance.
“What’s the number one mistake people make when eating sushi?” Lexine Kagiyama asked Jiang between courses at a dinner party on July 8. “Or how not to look stupid?”
“Ah yes, it’s not all soy sauce,” replied the chef. “Americans drink soy sauce, but it’s too salty! It’s like a soup. When you come here, you are in class; there are no secrets. Put it on the fish.
Mesmerized by watching Jiang prepare each bite throughout the night, Angelo Villaflor said the cost of the meal was comparable to other Omakase menus in the Bay Area, but the connection and change of pace at Alameda was different.
Between snapping photos and videos to share on TikTok and Instagram, the group of six said the evening of conversation and Q&A with ‘Chef Allan’ felt more like sushi at a friend’s house than a fancy date on a century-old yacht.
“Rather than just mindlessly eating,” added Marcus He, 30, “I think it makes it a bit more meaningful, in some sense, just to know the process and the story behind something.”
This is exactly the experience that Uehara wanted to create.
Born in Saratoga, the 31-year-old grew up in Japan after his parents moved there when he was 6 months old. After working in the restaurant industry in Europe for his 20s and stints in the Southern California culinary scene when he returned to the United States, he finally decided to start his own business, setting up highlights the slower, multi-hour dining experiences he missed.
“Growing up, I connected with my family at the table with food,” Uehara said. “I think a lot of Americans are used to a lot of fast, delicious food, so they don’t really get the chance to take the time to really enjoy it.”
In October 2021, Uehara shipped Nova, a Florida yacht repairer, to Alameda and began serving meals two months later.
Uehara wakes up early every day expecting dinner guests. He picks up fish at a local market in Berkeley — sourced from Japan, Europe and local fishermen — before joining other chefs at The Prep Station, a commercial kitchen in Alameda, where he said 95% of the work preparation of fish, rice and matcha the ice cream is prepared before being transported to the docks.
Aside from the occasional blowtorch to char a piece of fish, which crackles and curls in on itself from the heat, these “boat-friendly” meals don’t need grills, fryers, or of ovens.
This helps because starting a restaurant in the Bay Area is far from cheap. Estimates vary wildly online from $200,000 to $750,000, factoring in the cost of rent, permits, kitchen supplies, support staff and, of course, food and ingredients for the menu. .
Uehara said hosting private dinners on boats offers more simplicity and flexibility, as one of the biggest hurdles is finding a location for a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“I don’t need to have fixed real estate that I have to commit to for the next five years, for example, and we can almost test any type of experiment every week and change the concept if it doesn’t work,” Uehara explained. “And, it’s just a cool thing to be able to work on the boat.”
Brandi Moody, marketing manager for Kitchen Town, a commercial kitchen and food incubator in San Mateo, said it was an example of how the pandemic is still rocking the culinary world.
“A real leadership change is happening and innovation is needed in the space,” Moody said in an email. “Yacht dining brings together the cultural shift towards consumers seeking rewarding experiences and chefs needing to be nimble in a time of industry fluctuation.”
But innovative and unconventional restaurants also raise new questions about licensing and safety in the highly regulated industry. Joan Simon, founder and director of Full Plate Restaurant Consulting, which specializes in concept development and finance, said she often ends up playing devil’s advocate when working with restaurateurs and chefs.
While she thinks the idea of having these private parties is very appealing, especially at a time when landlords are more hesitant than ever to rent spaces to young chefs post-COVID, Simon said these new owners of business may often not realize all state and local health permits, building inspections and safety requirements that go beyond menu items.
“If you want to propose to your loved one, what a wonderful way to do it – having a private chef cook for you on the bay at sunset,” Simon said. “But if you think it’s going to be a viable long-term business model, you’ll have to deal with all the legalities and the risks that come with that.”
Uehara is confident that he considered all these facts and figures about running the business in order to make these yacht catering experiences a success. But beyond the financial reward, he said his goal is to give more chefs the opportunity to break out of the grueling routine of a restaurant’s backroom and pursue cuisine that embodies their love of food and connection.
“As an entrepreneur, I’ve always had this idea of making a difference in the culinary field,” Uehara said. “We want to offer a new way for chefs to pursue their careers.”