bar in Kobe, Japan. Her family continues to operate and live above the restaurant
three generations later. It was expected that Masako would follow in her family’s
footsteps. Always wondering what life was like outside her parents’ restaurant,
Masako decided to move to Washington, D.C. to become a professional
Landing half a globe away, Masako performed with the Washington Commanders
cheerleading team for five years, obtaining the rank of captain. She struggled to find something as comforting to eat as the food she grew up with and thought the DC dining scene could use the casual, homestyle food like her mother used to make for the family. This longing inspired her pop-up Japanese diner series, Otabe, Meaning “mom encouraging kids to eat”.
After a successful three years with Otabe, Morishita accepted the role of executive
chef at Maxwell Park’s Shaw and Navy Yard locations. This October, she has embarked on a new adventure, as the executive chef of the storied Perry’s Restaurant in Adams Morgan.
Morishita’s mission remains the same as it was when she started Otabe:
using the connective power of food to transport guests inside her family’s home in
Kinfood: What was life like growing up in Kobe, Japan?
Masako: It’s a pretty big city but what is unique about Kobe is we have the ocean and the mountain within a short distance from each other. I enjoyed eating great seafood and also food from the mountains while growing up.
Kinfood: Where did your journey with food begin? What was your favorite meal growing up?
Masako: My family owns almost 100years old’s small bar/restaurant so I literally grow up there. The bar was on the first floor and our living space was on the second and third floors. My mother and grandmother have been the chefs so I learned everything from these ladies.
Kinfood: What's one of your favorite memories surrounding food and community?
Masako: Meeting my partner, and all the friends in the industry, and the guests I have met are my favorite part.
Kinfood: Why did you want to come to the US?
Masako: The first time I came to the U.S. was when I was 16 years old, and I was chosen to be a foreign exchange student and spend a year in Wisconsin. Before that, I was in the all girls high school in Kobe. Still to this day, I can’t figure out why, but I had a calling that I really needed to get out of Kobe and see the world. I started cheerleading when my days in Wisconsin and being a NFL cheerleader was a long time dream of mine. In 2013, I decided to come to D.C. to try out for the team and ended up making the team.
Kinfood: How did Otabe start?
I started Otabe to tell the story of my family, my culture and my country. I used to cook and bring the food I used to grow up eating to my teammate’s potlucks and they had no idea what they were but loved them. My goal has always been to introduce my culture in the U.S. so I thought the food could be a vessel to do that. Also I just wanted to honor the days I cook with my mother and grandmother.
Kinfood: What does kinship in the context of food mean to you? How has food served as a connector for you?
I believe in the power of food to connect people, culture, and soul. I hope when people eat my food, they are transported to my house in Kobe even though they have never been there.
Kinfood: You’re a very busy person! How would you spend your dream day off in the DMV? How do you keep yourself organized and grounded?
Masako: My dream day off would be to first sleep in, and just spend some time with my family including our dog and cat. I love cooking so cooking at home always helps me to stay calm and grounded.
Kinfood: What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing in your role/business/project right now and how are you tackling it? What is the most important lesson you’ve learned over your career?
Masako: The biggest challenge is to keep pushing myself. I can always choose the easy way, but I believe motivating myself and keeping pushing myself can take me far in the industry.
I really really love cooking, so it has always been fun. The most important thing is to be kind to everyone and treat my staff as if they are my real family. I work hard for them so they can be proud of me and my creation.
Kinfood: What’s something you’re looking forward to coming months and years?
Masako: I am looking forward to keeping having fun and creating fun dishes, and making my family proud! I would love to do Japanese breakfast/brunch popups and keep introducing the beauty of my culture and food.
Kinfood: Is there anything you’d like to share?
Masako: I feel responsible for being successful. I am an immigrant who is chasing my dream. A lot of women like me are hesitant to follow their dreams or calling, because it is really hard and scary. If I, as an immigrant woman, be successful, I truly believe that I can encourage and inspire women like me to follow their heart as I did. Of course it is hard and challenging but I want to prove that it is possible to make your dreams come true no matter who you are or where you are from. That’s what keeps me going and hustle to be a better human and a chef.
We are such big fans of Masako and admire how she raises the bar and creates community wherever she goes. Be sure to stop by Perry’s to say hello to her and her team!
A heartfelt thank you to Wakako Tokunaga for sharing her beautiful studio space with us.
Photos and styling by Amber Breitenberg @amber.breitenberg