Nobuyoshi Kuraoka, the first restaurateur to bring a sushi bar to New York City at Restaurant Nippon, died on January 13 at 86 years old. Kuraoka was also the first chef to legally serve poisonous blowfish in the United States, invented negimayaki, or grilled beef rolled around scallions, and pursued an obsession with soba — all pursuits that led to the Japanese government honoring him for “outstanding contributions to the promotion of Japanese culture through Japanese food.” Kuroaka’s assistant declined to confirm his cause of death, though said it happened “peacefully.”
Kuraoka opened Nippon in 1963 as the first restaurant in New York City to serve raw fish sushi at a counter in the United States. Celebrities flocked to the restaurant, including John F. Kennedy Jr. and his sister Caroline, whose husband attended a memorial for the restaurateur Wednesday night. Japan’s emperor and empress also dined at the restaurant.
During his life, Kuraoka became something of an ambassador for Japanese food, working directly with the Food and Drug Administration for five years for the right to import fugu, the toxic blowfish, from Japan. In 1989, he successfully became the country’s first chef to serve the fish raw, as it’s popularly eaten in Japan. NYC mayor David N. Dinkins praised him for that work two years later.
Through his obsession with serving authentic soba noodles at Nippon, Kuraoka opened a buckwheat farm in Canada to supply the wheat necessary to make the noodles through an incredibly involved process. That led to the opening of the now-closed Soba Nippon, which served 18 varieties of the noodles for nearly 20 years. Kuraoka also worked with Japan Airlines to serve sushi and his soba and founded the New York branch of the Organization to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad.
Nippon will live on under the management of Yasuhiro Makoshi, who was Kuraoka’s assistant for 40 years. He does not have any changes planned for the restaurant.