For many kids who grow up around restaurants, they either absolutely love it or want nothing to do with it. For Masako Morishita, the last thing she ever wanted to do was to work in restaurants.
Born and raised in Kobe (yes, that Kobe), Japan, Morishita’s family owned a Tachinomi—a small, lively bar that is standing-room only. Today, this tachinomi is 85 years old.
“I grew up in the store,” Morishita recalls. “It’s where my parents always were and they took care of me while they were working.”
Morishita laughs as she recalls her childhood spent using beer kegs as a jungle gym and sneaking whiffs of sake bottles when no one was looking. By the time she was in elementary school, Morishita was working at the tachinomi.
“Guests would come in and I would talk to them,” she explains. As the older sibling (Morishita has a sister who is seven years younger), a fair amount of responsibility fell on her shoulders.
“I never wanted to work in restaurants,” Morishita says. “Seeing my parents having their own business, I understood how hard it was. They didn’t have days off. We didn’t go on trips. It was always work.”
When Morishita was 16 years old, she opted to participate in a student exchange program that brought her to Maple, Wisconsin.
“I had severe asthma since I was a kid. I couldn’t really work out or do any physical activities,” Morishita describes. “But, for some reason, when I went to Wisconsin, it went away.”
Excited by her new surroundings and newfound energy, she decided to try something she had never done before.
“I attended cheerleader tryouts,” Morishita smiles. “And got on the squad.”
Morishita pursed cheerleading after returning to Japan. She joined her college squad while earning her degree in Shakespeare and English Literature at Kobe College. Post-college, she still kept up with the sport, attending dance classes that were held each summer by the Director of the Redskins cheerleading squad. Soon, Morishita could only dream of one thing—auditioning to be a Redskins cheerleader.
“I came to D.C. with one suitcase, no job, and no place to stay,” she says. “But my dream of trying out for the Redskins came true.”
Not only did Morishita find herself on the team, she worked her way up to being Captain of the squad while working full-time at a Japanese media company. All her dreams were coming true and yet there was something profoundly amiss.
“There’s a lot of Japanese restaurants here but it’s mostly ramen or sushi. I didn’t grow up eating these foods every day. My mom never cooked sushi in our house. So, it was a struggle for me to not find the food that I loved eating.”
Frustrated with the lack of Japanese options, Morishita took matters into her own hands. Drawing upon the knowledge from watching her mother and grandmother as professional chefs, she began cooking.
“Every time there was a team party, I’d cook Japanese food. Everyone would just crush it! So, I started thinking…maybe I can do this.”
While already balancing her job and her cheerleading commitments, Morishita began offering catering services and even spent time to help open a Yakitori restaurant.
“My goal was to introduce my culture and my country to American people in some way,” Morishita offers. “For me, the only way to do that was through food. I did not think in a million years that the food I make and that I grew up with would be accepted by so many Americans who [had] never tried miso or dashi or other Japanese flavors.”
The requests for catering grew and in 2019 Morishita established a pop-up restaurant concept called Otabe, which is an informal encouragement to eat, usually from mothers to their children. Since establishing Otabe, Morishita has cooked at massive festivals like Charm City Night Market, pop-up spaces across Washington D.C., and even the James Beard House! Pop-up attendees enjoy dishes like Agedashi lotus root cake with maitake, Kimchi toast, Spam sandwiches, Donburi, and even Fruit Sandos.
“I’m in talks with potential investors,” Morishita proudly admits. “The goal is to bring my food and culture to life [in America]. Whether that’s through a restaurant or a catering business or pop-ups or something else…the goal is clear. The path is TBD.”
Otabe is hosting its next pop-up concept—Bar Kokeshi—at Room 11 (3234 11th St. NW, Washington, DC 20010) on August 23-24 and September 6-7 from 8pm to close.