Jessica Furui never imagined her life as it is now, serving as Director of Sake for the highly successful Japanese restaurant Ozumo in San Francisco and Oakland. But that first sip of really good Daiginjo got her hooked.
Furui, known by many of her loyal customers as “SakeMama,” worked at restaurants, mainly Japanese ones, throughout college. “Growing up in Southern California, I really enjoyed studying other ideologies such as Buddhism and Taoism. I liked the philosophies and beliefs they bestowed. It really intrigued me,” Furui said. “Then, when I started working in Japanese restaurants, I saw that sushi chefs and their staff were honoring the honesty of the ingredients and I respected their unbelievable work ethic, a lot of which developed out of those ideologies.”
Her love of Japanese food and especially sake began to blossom and she immersed herself in the culture. “American culture has great food but a lot of times, it doesn’t really represent us as a whole, wherein the Japanese culture is a full embodiment of the food and sake produced in the country.”
So Furui learned and educated herself on all things sake. She went to events where she would meet brewers and talk to them about the process of making sake. “I was fortunate to be invited to Japan to go on brewery tours and was just blown away by the amount of dedication it takes to make sake.”
In 2008, she took over the sake program at Ozumo and under her direction, it has blossomed ever since. She took the John Gauntner Certified Sake Professional Course, passing the first and second level. Then in 2010, she was asked to be a judge at the U.S. National Sake Appraisal, where 10 judges from the U.S. and Japan are asked to judge over 300 sake entries for presentation at the annual Joy of Sake events in Honolulu and New York. “It was such a humbling experience for me,” she said.
While this may all seem like pretty serious work, Furui readily admits that she loves her job and tries to make the sake experience as fun as it can be for guests. A lot of her daily activities include hospitality in the restaurant, using her “SakeMama” presence to help customers choose the right sake for the evening. “I love to go around and talk to my guests about sake. A big part of my job is about educating people and teaching them not only the basics, but for those that might be a bit more experienced, to tell them the stories behind these wonderful, small artisan producers.”
That’s partly why she has launched her own newsletter, “Sake Undercover,” which focuses on information for beginners and veteran sake drinkers alike and features information on different sake events she is putting on at Ozumo each month, many of which include meeting up with sake producers and allowing guests to get a better sense of what they are drinking. “It is really such a beautiful beverage and pairs so well with food that I want people to enjoy sake as much as I do.”
Furui said she sees sake continuing to grow in the future as it is already a hit in major U.S. cities across the country. Sake is being made to be served on the rocks now and namazake (unpasteurized sake) is also becoming more of a hit, providing a bit more of a vibrant and juicy quality. So stop by Ozumo and share a kanpai with Jessica (but no sake bombs please!) and enjoy learning more about the wonderful world of sake.
Ozumo in San Francisco is located at 161 Steuart Street; Ozumo Oakland is located at 2251 Broadway Avenue.