What I Do in a Day: Chizuko Niikawa-Helton, Sake Samurai
Chizuko Niikawa-Helton is a sake samurai (yep, that’s a real thing) who lives in New York City with her filmmaker husband, Jim, and their English Bulldog, Biscuit. She runs Sake Discoveries, where she works with restaurants, bars and distributors to promote sake in the United States and other countries.
My alarm goes off… at 8:00 a.m., but I'm often up earlier at 5:00 a.m. Sometimes that’s because I’m jet-lagged (I travel to Asia four times per year), but usually it’s because I have a call with one of my Japanese clients and they’re 13 hours ahead! If I’m really tired, I’ll crawl back into bed for a few hours after my call.
My morning… starts with feeding our English Bulldog and then taking him out for a walk. Then I’ll quickly shower, put on a casual dress (I’m a collector of embroidered vintage Mexican dresses in a variety of colors—I like how bright they are and probably have about 20 of them!) and have something for breakfast like pickled red cabbage with canned tuna and sesame oil. Then I’ll spend the morning working from home checking emails and planning. I often train restaurant and bar staff in how to sell the Japanese rice wine and also organize various events to promote sake. I work with 15 different sake, shochu and whiskey producers in Japan, as well as more than ten restaurants in the U.S. so it’s a lot to keep track of.
For lunch… I’ll often have a meeting with someone from the restaurant industry—chefs, managers, sommeliers and bartenders. We’ll usually drink a glass of sake at these meetings, but if I’m not seeing any clients, then I’ll typically skip lunch and continue working.
In the afternoon… It’s more emails and computer work. I was a fashion designer in Tokyo for many years, so I still work on various design elements like helping to create sake labels. I also look over restaurant menus, set up events and lectures and work with Japanese brewers to develop their brand and social media.
I finish work… late at night. That’s because I usually go out to dinner with my clients so I’m not home until 10 or 11 p.m. These days, so many non-Japanese restaurants (like oyster bars and fancy French bistros) carry sake, but 90 percent of the time, I’m eating out at Japanese places. I also have whisky and Shochu clients, so depending on what kind of alcohol producer they are, that determines what we drink. My clients are really friendly so even though we mostly talk business, it’s always fun. I’m rarely in bed before midnight—my husband jokes that I’m like a college kid! If I’m not eating out then I’m working with bartenders to come up with sake-based cocktails—I love creating new flavors.
I got the job… after returning home after many years. I come from a tiny town called Fujisato, Akita, in the Japanese countryside. Growing up, I hated it and couldn’t wait to move to the big city. But when my father became ill, I returned to Akita in my 30s and realized how breathtaking it was. The water, mountains, rice fields—everything was so clean and beautiful. And one of the most beautiful things was sake. I was tired of working in the fashion industry and needed to take care of my family, so I started learning about it and became a sake sommelier (called kiki-zake-shi in Japan). Then on a trip to see a friend in New York, I fell in love with the city and realized how few sake professionals there were here. By chance, I happened to meet the owner of Sakagura, a famous sake restaurant, and got a job working there. I loved it, but after four years, I felt like it was time for a new challenge—which is when I started my own sake consulting company. Then in 2012, I was awarded the prestigious title of Sake Samurai by the Japan Sake Brewers Association, an honor only five or six people receive each year in recognition for their expertise of the drink.
The best part of my job… is getting people excited about sake. Sake is all of Japan in a glass—the farmers, the water, nature and the people. The history of sake is over 4,000-years old and the fermentation process is like magic. The alcohol content is about 15 percent which is slightly higher than wine, but it tastes so clean and pure—if you don’t mix it with anything else then I swear you won’t get a hangover! I love teaching people how to pair it with food. Sake isn’t just for Japanese food, it’s great with all kinds of cuisine. One of my favorite pairings is sake with prosciutto and cheese—all the different umami elements work really well together.
The worst part of my job… is sometimes having to drink even when I don’t want to. If my clients are in town, then I’m drinking pretty much every day, five days a week.
My most memorable moment… was when my boss at Sakagura organized a surprise leaving party for me. All they told me was to put on a kimono, and when I arrived, there was a huge red carpet rolled out and I was surrounded by all my colleagues, friends and regular customers. I was very moved and it made me feel like I was embarking on an exciting journey.