Meet Harold Fields, the surprising man behind Umami Kushi.
By Kelly Guava Jelly
January 31, 2018
“This is about food; it’s about the substance, not about ethnicity,” Harold Fields says as we broach a subject he’s no doubt been asked more than few times.
“Here I am, an African-American, focusing on a unique Japanese street food. People are like, how does that happen? They get a chuckle out of it.”
But when Harold shares his story, it makes sense to those who wonder.
Born and raised in Chicago, Harold is somewhat of a culinary nomad. Like many aspiring chefs, he started working in restaurants as a dishwasher before moving up the ranks. Eventually landing a position with The Cheesecake Factory opening up new restaurants, he found himself travelling all across the United States. He traveled so often that sometimes he couldn’t remember what city he was in when he woke up in the morning. Harold met his wife Yoshie while working in San Diego and from there they moved to New Orleans.
Everything changed for Harold in August 2005. Yoshie’s father passed away and she needed to go to Japan for his funeral. At the last minute, Harold decided to drop everything he was doing and join her. This almost didn’t happen as Katrina barreled down on New Orleans and flying out of the city became increasingly precarious. Harold literally got on one of the last outgoing flights before the airport shut down.
His first trip to Japan opened his eyes to a whole new culinary world and, upon returning to New Orleans and finding themselves uprooted from their home, Harold and Yoshie took what seemed tragic as a new opportunity to live in Japan for a while. There, Harold acquired first-hand knowledge of Japanese food and culture. In Tokyo, he humbly worked double-digit shifts six days a week, without pay, and jumped right in to learn everything he could. Not knowing any Japanese, he communicated through gestures and mumbling back and forth, executing tasks and learning traditional processes.
“My style is true to the Japanese techniques because that’s how I was trained when I was there,” Harold explains. “Everything I thought I knew about food, I had to throw away. I had to go back and ask myself what it means to be a chef.”
A few years later, Harold and Yoshie chose Seattle as the place where they want to settle and raise a family. Today, when not running things as a chef at SkyCity Restaurant at the Space Needle or busy with Umami Kushi, his own Japanese specialty cuisine business, Harold can be found cooking with his family at home and playing basketball with his son or tennis with his daughter. Some of his favorite dishes are familiar enough: gumbo and black-eyed peas. Others might raise a few eyebrows: yakitori, hamburg (a Japanese meatloaf his wife makes), and his famous curry pan (stuffed bread).
He credits the invaluable techniques he learned to the great relationships he developed while in Japan. Yoshie also makes sure he stays in line with the proper traditions and flavor profiles. With Umami Kushi, Harold produces authentic yakitori catering, small batch chili sauces, beignets, and a variety of curry pans which are sold at select local coffee shops.
“There’s a certain level of authenticity that people enjoy and get a real surprise out of,” he says proudly. “There’s a lot of work that goes into each one of these [curry pans].”
His products are specialized and individualized to represent the communities in which they are sold. To create flavors that reflect each location, he goes so far as to pair his curry pans with the types of coffee offered in the shop. Each store names their curry pan accordingly and the list speaks to Seattle’s ethnic diversity.
Harold is proving to his kids and everyone around him that hard work and dedication achieve excellence. With sights on opening a production facility in Rainier Beach, Harold’s ultimate goal is to expand people’s minds and encourage them to do something they might not think they can do. He wants to do more to give back to the community, teach the youth, and be a great role model.
Check for the moves he’s making. Working together with other minority-owned small businesses like Beacon Hill’s The Station, Harold is forging a path of unity and prosperity for all of Seattle.