A Japanese Chain Restaurant That Lets You Catch and Eat Your Own Fish Wants to Come to America
Zauo takes the idea of "farm-to-table" and feeds it a barnful of meth.
Some things in this world just make sense. Looking both ways before you cross the street, listening to Dr. Dre's The Chronic, reading the New York Times, and saving for your kid's college education are some of those things. Going to a restaurant where you catch your own fish and then eat that fish is not, but it probably should be. And if the people behind Zauo, a Japanese chain restaurant that takes the idea of "farm to table" and feeds it a barn full of meth, have anything to do with it, soon it will.
On a recent trip to Japan I ate lunch at a Zauo branch in Tokyo, located inside of the Washington Hotel in the city's Shinjuku district. The restaurant's centerpiece is a series of tables made to look like a giant boat, surrounded by a moat full of fish. It looks, I can say without exaggeration, cool as fuck.
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From there, a waiter seats you and gives you the option of either ordering your meal from him or fishing for it. (It's cheaper if you catch your own meal rather than having an employee catch it for you, a price differential which Zauo's site explains thusly: "The price is reasonable because we would like all our customers to enjoy fishing.") I opted for catching my own lunch partly because of the price, but mainly because it seemed like a fun-as-hell thing to do.
My waiter baited live shrimp onto a rod that looked like a miniature fly-fishing pole and instructed me to set it in a section of the moat where a bunch of fish were gathered. Though I watched other people struggle to come up with something, a fish swam toward my bait pretty much immediately. I hooked him, and proceeded to drag him out of the water like the true angler I am not.
One thing they don't tell you about fish is that when you try to pull one out of the water, it's supremely pissed off. My catch began struggling with all of its paraphyletic might, flopping around and splashing the table next to me as I dragged him onto the deck/dining area. The diners next to me didn't seem to mind this, and actually clapped for me as the waiter put my fish in a net and escorted my girlfriend and I back to our table. We chose to have it grilled, though Zauo allows you to have your fish served sashimi, boiled, deep fried, or converted into sushi. In a blindingly short interval of time, the freshly dead fish was cooked and on the table, and soon thereafter in my stomach. It was, if you couldn't guess by the above photo, delicious.
The strange thing about Zauo isn't that it exists—Japan is known for its themed restaurants—it's that it's wildly popular. There are 14 branches of the restaurant in Japan, including four in Tokyo alone. In an email to VICE, Takuya Takahashi, a Vice President of Zauo, said the company is looking into opening locations in New York and San Francisco. Representatives of the company, he explained, are planning a trip to New York later this April with the purpose of "trying to find products and suppliers," as well as "investigating if we can procure live fish."
Takahashi credits the restaurant's success to the fact that cities in Japan, with their small spaces and busy pace, offer few opportunities for families to eat together. Zauo's large size—its locations generally hold about 200 people—and focus on "parent-child communication" through the shared activity of fishing make it something of an anomaly in the country. The company is very profitable, with an Earnings per Share point of 25 million yen (about $210,000 US).
It's easy to focus on the zaniness and novelty of Zauo. And don't get me wrong, there's plenty of that. A team of drummers appear to celebrate you when you make your catch, and the company's site boasts an interactive feature that lets you fish online. Still, there are advantages to catching and eating your own food. For one, there's the freshness aspect—you are not going to get a fresher meal than one you literally killed with your own hands like five minutes ago, and as a result, the meals are much tastier than those you'd get at, say, Bonefish Grill.
Another, more esoteric aspect of Zauo, is the philosophical implications of catching and eating your own food. It's an experience that, unless you're schlepping out to a lake, you're not liable to have. Even at a restaurant such as Red Lobster, which keeps an aquarium full of product at its front to remind you that yes, you are indeed about to eat some lobsters, it's rare to be given an opportunity to consider the value of life—taking it, and then consuming it for your nourishment. More than that, Zauo serves as an opportunity to show children where their food comes from by allowing them to catch it themselves. It's some real use-every-part-of-the-buffalo shit. "By preparing and eating fish that you have caught yourself," Takahashi explained, "you can be truly grateful for life."
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