It was 1989 and Lynn Hamrick was living alone in West Hollywood. She stopped at a little Japanese restaurant for a meal, but little did she know she found her staple in cuisine and in …
It was 1989 and Lynn Hamrick was living alone in West Hollywood. She stopped at a little Japanese restaurant for a meal, but little did she know she found her staple in cuisine and in documentary film.
Years in the making and an award later, Hamrick's documentary, "Hiro's Table," will be screened Thursday (Feb. 7), 6 p.m., at the Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux Street.
Hamrick discovered Hiroji Obayashi and his small restaurant Hirozen Gourmet, located within the Hollywood strip mall when it first opened. She would dine there regularly and witness the regulars, newcomers and what inspired her the most, Obayashi's gourmet craft.
"I became a regular, and then cut to years later, I moved to Taos, got married, and had my son. Then when I came back [to L.A.] because I was recruited to teach at the film school, I decided to make a documentary about this restaurant because the chef, the food, the ambiance, was so special that it should be documented," Hamrick said.
Over the next 16 years, she visited the restaurant to record the experiences of the Obayashis. "I covered this family in the restaurant over a period of 15 years. You see the evolution and the changes, what happens to try to run a restaurant like that, with that quality 24-7, what that takes," she said.
With no major funding, Hamrick filmed the Obayashis using resources from Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, where she taught. She had access to equipment and people she could work with there. Over many years she witnessed the joys, sorrows and refinement of this small family business.
Before the days of Yelp and Grubhub, all there was for promoting restaurants was word of mouth. During the late 1980s and '90s, Americans were just beginning to experience exotic foods. Japanese food, for the average person at the time, was merely teriyaki chicken. Obayashi and his wife, Yasuyo, were dedicating their days in the restaurant to quality and serving as cultural ambassadors of cuisine.
"He was starting to educate the palate. He introduced you slowly to these things and he'd do his own combos," said Hamrick of Obayashi. "That's what was so exciting - he was adventurous."
More than the story of a restaurant, "Hiro's Table" is a portrait of Japanese immigrants. The Obayashis persevered as business owners struggling to deliver their culinary vision. Not only did they serve the menu at an affordable price, but they would not compromise quality nor care of their guests. "I think it's an immigrant's story -- how much people from other countries and cultures give our society, how much they contribute," Hamrick said.
In the style of vérité, a genre of film that portrays candid realism, Hamrick filmed "Hiro's Table" with no staged scenes and with minimal studio-style lighting. All interviews were conducted in real settings. For her it was important to display the intimacy yet remain non-intrusive. She wanted elements similar to homemade films to illustrate the lasting impression the Obayashi's restaurant made on her and the nurturing character given to many of its regular diners.
"He had people that were coming to the restaurant every day or several times a week. He had a real community and I wanted to document that community as I was one of them," Hamrick said. "And his wife, too, just the way they made me feel, and I was living alone in West Hollywood and they made me feel like family."
With a small budget, Hamrick struggled to find a composer to capture the sound fitting of Obayashi's beautifully plated meals and chef artistry. In the end, she selected Yasuhiko Fukuoka, a talented composer and another Japanese immigrant in New York. Hamrick said she felt he successfully touched on the Obayashi's work.
Co-produced and -edited by Hamrick's close friend Gail Yasunaga, "Hiro's Table" was shown at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival in October last year and was awarded Best New Mexico Documentary for 2018. It was also shown at the Napa Valley Film Festival and the Portland Film Festival, where Hiroji and his family attended the screening. Hiroji is now retired and residing in Portland, Oregon, where he offers cooking lessons from his home. His family has long since sold the small, celebrated strip-mall restaurant.
" 'Hiro's Table' is about his philosophy and his way of life, watching how he treated his customers, how he operated. I wanted to emulate him - there was something about the way he, his wife and children were in life that I found to be something that I aspired to," Hamrick said. "That's something for people to come and see."
The film has been nominated for a TASTE award, one of the highest honors for lifestyle cinema. The future of "Hiro's Table" is lined with international film screenings.
Hamrick grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and she attended University of California-Los Angeles. She received her undergraduate degree in theater arts before pursuing filmmaking and receiving her master's in film directing. She started as a freelance editor and script supervisor before directing television series such as "Family Ties" and "The Babysitter's Club." She has since received a Directors Guild Award and been a recipient of over 25 awards and grants for independent screenwriting, producing and directing. She has lived in Taos irregularly for more than 30 years and has been involved in local Taos theater. Hamrick has appeared in plays as well as directed the Taos Onstage production of "The Other Place," written by Sharr White.
Following the screening of "Hiro's Table," there will be a question and answer session with Hamrick in attendance. Admission is $10; $8 for museum members. For more information, call (575) 758-9826 or visit harwoodmuseum.org. For more on Hamrick, visit lynnhamrick.com.
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