Smokin’ hot: The American barbecue sizzling up Japan

Smokin’ hot: The American barbecue sizzling up Japan

Tokyo’s first traditional Texas smokehouse hits Azabu Juban
White Smoke
Craig White (center) with his White Smoke chefs, David Schlosser (left) and Jamie Williams (right).

Craig White, the owner and pit master of White Smoke, has a non-cooking resumé so impressive you wonder how he’s found time to become a barbecue supremo and open one of Tokyo’s most innovative new restaurants.

Before food took hold, most of his time was spent at college, getting an undergrad degree at the University of Texas and a dual graduate degree at Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government, then working for GM, Sony, Samsung, NTT and Corning.

He’s an engineer by trade but deep down, it's his love of cooking beef that gets this 37-year-old Texan going.

Texas FTW

Raised in San Antonio and Austin Texas, he’s a big fan of the barbecue cooked in central Texas -- he says it’s the best place for barbecue beef in the United States and maybe even the world.

“Texas barbecue is all about smoke, low and slow cooking of meat by smoke. I think most barbecue places focus on pork and that’s because it’s easy,” says White.

“Cooking barbecue beef, specifically brisket, is very hard to do well. I designed my own oven in Houston and brought it with me to Japan. It has 1.8 tons of pure smoking power and it was built to last over 100 years -- it will definitely outlast me.”

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White first arrived in Japan in 1994 to assistant teach at the Eagle Program (Engineering Alliance for Global Education) at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology.

“I’m a gear head, I loved working on cars -- I came to Japan to work in the automotive Industry. I was inspired by the 1986 movie 'Gung Ho' about the takeover of an American car plant by a Japanese corporation,” he says.

No fat on us

White SmokeWhite stokes his imported oven, the centerpiece of the restaurant.

After years of being transferred around Asia and the United States he started to think about what he could do to stay in Japan and work for himself. His love of food helped form a strategic plan to give birth to White Smoke.

“White Smoke’s food speaks to the Japanese customer -- they love soft and tender meat and they love the taste of beef. But Wagyu is riddled with fat. My customers will get the same desired taste and texture coupled with the rich flavor of beef without the high fat content.”

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White trained with pit masters at Louis Mueller’s Barbecue in Taylor, Texas -- an institution started in 1949. It was there he perfected his smoking technique – starting his workday at 4 a.m.

“We are a traditional Texan smokehouse but we are also a real American restaurant. I can’t think of anything more American than Texan barbecue, except maybe a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” he says.

“We aren’t just selling food, we’re selling American culture. Eating at our restaurant is an American experience. To date, our American food ambassadors in Japan have been McDonald's, Subway and Kentucky Fried Chicken -- all of which I love, but we can do better than Ronald McDonald.”

Exporting America

White SmokeThe interior of White Smoke aims to bring a piece of the States to downtown Tokyo.

Craig White is an American who has spent a good deal of his life abroad and wants to bring the idea of America, of what America represents, to Japan.

You can see it in the vintage lights, the walls tiled with pennies, the white oak furniture, the belt buckles on his waiters and, of course, in their killer smoker front and center in the restaurant.

“America is accessible to everyone -- as is our restaurant. I want people to feel relaxed and welcome and to eat food that means something to them. Smoking food is used in every country around the world -- it's a global method of cooking,” says White.

“My long-term vision is to bring an appreciation of smoke to the Japanese people and for the cooking process to find a home here – who knows, it might even become the new smoking capital of the world?”

White Smoke, 3-11-2 Moto Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo, +81 (0) 3 6434 0097. Website.

Open every day but Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.-11:30 p.m.