Roll models: Rice farmer and sushi chef create unique partnership
May/June 2010 California Country magazine
Story by Barbara Arciero
Photos by Sarah Lee and Ching Lee
In Sacramento, sushi chef Billy Ngo gets his most important ingredient from Yuba County farmer Michael Bosworth.
America’s appetite for a centuries-old Japanese specialty is helping propel rice from side-dish status to the key ingredient of a fashionable food. But what most sushi fans don’t realize is that every piece of sushi made in the United States uses California rice. Yuba County farmer Michael Bosworth, left, supplies all the rice for sushi chef Billy Ngo’s Sacramento restaurant.
He figures he has everything he needs to do his job: an ideal climate, fertile clay soil, pure Sierra Nevada water and a trustworthy tractor. But there’s still one piece of equipment rice farmer Michael Bosworth has his eye on. And he laughs when he reveals what it is.
“A cedarwood bowl. I just bought a sushi mat and now I need the bowl,” the farmer said, drawing a grin from Billy Ngo as the sushi chef stirs rice in a well-worn bowl with a steady, staccato rhythm.
True, Bosworth is the farmer and Ngo is the chef, but through a resourceful partnership, the lines have blurred slightly as the two seek knowledge about the other’s area of expertise. Bosworth is learning how to make sushi—mostly for the fun of it—and Ngo is learning more about the rice that’s essential to his menu.
While sushi has been a treasured part of Japanese culture for centuries, the American-made version has a comparatively new, yet solid, California connection. Ngo has learned from Bosworth that every piece of sushi made in the United States uses California rice—and all of it is grown within a two-hour drive of Sacramento.
In their case, the drive is less than 40 minutes. Bosworth makes the trip from his Yuba County farm to Ngo’s hip Sacramento restaurant once a week, delivering 150 pounds of rice each time. The 28-year-old farmer takes a personal approach when it comes to marketing his product—from farm to bag to restaurant.
He does this, in large part, to help preserve his family heritage.
“I’m a fifth-generation farmer in California,” said Bosworth, whose family’s Rue & Forsman Ranch Inc. raises cattle and grows rice. “It’s something that we take a lot of pride in, and we’re really excited when we get a chance to continue that tradition and pass it on to the next generation. I think creative marketing and innovation is one way to do that.”
Bosworth turned his creativity and innovation into a business a couple of years ago when he developed a plan to sell his family’s organic rice directly to restaurant and retail customers, eliminating the middle man while helping reconnect consumers to the source of their food. Rice farmers typically sell their harvested grain to marketers, who then sell it to clientele around the world.
“I thought sushi would be a good way to sell quite a bit of rice without having to run all over town, because sushi requires so much rice,” Bosworth said. “It was tons of research on the Internet and calling pretty much every sushi restaurant I could find. I talked to the owners and the chefs, asking if they were interested in organic rice, and then taking them samples if they were. I probably talked to 50 sushi restaurants in Sacramento.”
Bosworth’s persistence paid off and today his rice provides the foundation for all the sushi at Kru restaurant, where Ngo serves as executive chef/owner.
“Mike kept asking and finally invited me to go to the farm and check it out during the harvest season. He gave me a tour of the whole place. I rode on the harvester and he showed me how the rice was grown,” said Ngo, who at 28 is one of Sacramento’s rising star chefs. “After seeing the process of growing organic rice and the labor and the love that went into it, that’s when I switched over.
“Some people might think that fresh fish is the key to great sushi, but that’s second in importance,” the chef added. “First you have to have great rice.”
Most rice grown in California are short and medium grain japonica varieties, which have the moist, sticky consistency that make them ideal for sushi and other Asian-inspired foods. The Sacramento Valley is where more than 95 percent of the state’s rice crop is grown.
“This rice is the perfect texture,” Ngo said. “You want it to be sticky, but you don’t want it to be mushy. You want to feel each grain in your mouth when you eat it.”
Sushi is farmer Michael Bosworth’s favorite food. While he often eats at Billy Ngo’s restaurant, Bosworth has also taken classes to learn how to make sushi at home.
Each chef has his own recipe for sushi rice, but it’s always steamed first and then tossed with a mixture of rice vinegar, salt and sugar while an assistant stands alongside fanning the rice. This quick cool-down—sometimes accomplished with an electric fan—helps ensure a perfect texture and glossy sheen.
“I use a wooden paddle to fold and slice the rice, so I don’t crush it. The wooden bowl absorbs the excess moisture,” Ngo said, adding that rice temperature is crucial to the finished product. “You want to serve sushi rice when it’s a little warmer than room temperature. If it gets cold, it gets too hard.”
Clearing up a popular misconception, Ngo points out that the word “sushi” doesn’t mean raw fish. Instead, it refers to the vinegared rice that is often—but not always—paired with the fish. And while there are probably as many varieties of sushi as there are sushi chefs, modern sushi bars most commonly serve maki and nigiri. Maki are bite-size rolls of rice and seafood or vegetables wrapped in seaweed, and nigiri consist of slivers of raw fish or other ingredients laid over bite-size “bricks” of rice.
Ngo said he can’t choose a favorite from his bold and artful menu—sushi specialties range from “Caterpillar” and “Rainbow” to “Tesla” and “Krazy Kali”—but instead points out that he revels in the creativity his job affords.
“It’s fun. I get to play with my food. It’s something I love doing,” he said. “I basically get to play and draw. Instead of a canvas, it’s a plate that I work with. There are so many different ingredients that I use, all of the great foods you get from California.”
Ngo sources locally whenever he can. Tomatoes, mushrooms, microgreens and asparagus are a few of the produce items grown on farms either in Sacramento or just a short drive away. He also purchases sea urchins and albacore from California fish purveyors when they’re in season.
But as the foundation of Ngo’s sushi success, the rice from Bosworth’s Rue & Forsman Ranch is the only ingredient identified by name on the menu.
“A lot of the restaurants, you’ll ask them, ‘What rice do you use?’ They can tell you a brand, but they have no idea where it’s coming from,” Ngo said.
Bosworth added, “In my experience, it’s unusual for a Japanese restaurant to work with a local farm.”
Strengthening this farm-to-fork connection is what continues to drive the entrepreneurial farmer. After Bosworth fine-tuned the details of marketing and distributing his family’s organic rice, he turned his attention to promoting foods grown by other family farms. Today, his aptly named Next Generation Foods represents locally produced specialties including almonds, horseradish, olive oil, pasta sauces, walnuts and vinegar.
“The main goal of the company is to allow family farmers to pass their farm and the farming traditions on to the next generation,” said Bosworth, whose agricultural heritage dates back to the 1870s.
When he’s not building his business or farming alongside his family, Bosworth can sometimes be found practicing his sushi-making skills in his farmhouse near Marysville.
“I think it’s fun just experimenting with different combinations of ingredients, and then everybody gets to enjoy it,” he said. “That’s the fun of cooking for people—it’s hearing all the feedback.
“But if I want to impress a customer or business prospect, we head for Billy’s. It’s always neat for us to be able to sit there and eat sushi made with rice that we grew on our farm. It’s kind of a win-win.”
Barbara Arciero is the managing editor for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.