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Sebastopol entrepreneur turns his grandma's teriyaki sauce recipe into a family business

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Justin Gill of Sebastopol has been enjoying his Japanese-American grandmother’s teriyaki sauce all of his life, whether brushed over karaage chicken wings, salmon, vegetables or tofu.

In 2017, when he took a trip back to Japan with his Cambodian wife, Chanra, he couldn’t wait to try the real deal. The only problem was that no one in Japan had ever heard of teriyaki sauce.

“Then I found a guy making yakitori (grilled meat), and he had what I knew was teriyaki sauce,” Gill said. “I asked him what it was, and he said ‘barbecue’ sauce.”

So Gill, who launched his own teriyaki sauce back in 2013 under the name “Bachan’s (Japanese-American slang for grandma)”, decided to call the product “Japanese Barbecue Sauce.”

He launched the website for the sweet and salty sauce in 2013, at first making it himself in a commercial kitchen. This spring, he quit his day job as a landscape designer and jumped full-time into the start-up business, with help from a co-packer plus his mother, wife and three daughters.

“I love to cook,” he said. “That’s pretty much why I started this business.”

He launched the product from an old family recipe that has been passed down from kitchen to kitchen for generations.

“My bachan (pronounced BUH-chuhn) showed my mom and dad how to make the sauce, and she learned from her parents,” he said. “We would bottle it at Christmas to give as gifts ... the sauce is a local legend in Sebastopol, as we’ve been giving it out for 30 years. It’s really a family heirloom.”

Like many folks of Japanese descent living in the west county, Gill’s grandmother and grandfather were raised amid the apple and hops fields of Sebastopol where their parents, natives of the city of Hiroshima in southern Japan, had come to work.

During World War II, his grandparents and great-grandparents were relocated to the Amache internment camp in Granada, Colorado, leaving behind their homes, their jobs and their place of worship — the Enmanji Buddhist Temple of Sebastopol — behind.

“I was in the first grade ... we went to the railroad station and then we took the train,” said Gill’s bachan, Judy Yokoyama. “It was scary.”

After the war, his relatives returned to Sebastopol and lived on an apple ranch owned by Joe and Elizabeth Perry, eventually buying their own home and creating a family compound. The Japanese-American family has been rooted in Sebastopol ever since, with four generations now having attended Analy High School.

Although Gill initially followed his grandfather and father into landscape gardening, he has always been attracted to entrepreneurship.

At the age of 19, he launched a small, import car parts business. In 2007, he started a lifestyle clothing brand with a mixed martial arts theme. Along the way, he learned a lot about business and marketing.

“I was always an entrepreneurial kid,” he said. “I liked the idea of starting something from nothing.”

Family meals

The term “teriyaki” originally described a method of cooking — “teri” comes from “tare” and refers to the glossy sheen created by the mirin cooking wine in the sauce, while “yaki” refers to any cooking over direct heat — but today the word is used interchangeably for the sauce as well.

In Japan, teriyaki sauce was traditionally used to flavor fatty, grilled seafood — tuna, eel and yellowtail — but the West has adopted it as a favorite preparation for grilled salmon, beef and or chicken.

According to an article in Serious Eats, the Westernized version of teriyaki — with added garlic, ginger, toasted sesame oil and more sugar — probably came to the U.S. with Japanese immigrants who stopped off in Hawaii, where they sometimes added pineapple juice to tenderize the meat. Teriyaki is commonly used as a marinade, a baste and also a dipping sauce for potstickers.

At Gill’s home, family dishes that showcase his umami-filled sauce make regular appearances at the dinner table.

“I grew up eating a lot of salmon, vegetables and tofu,” he said. “One of my aunts would bring fresh tofu back from the markets in San Jose.” Grilled Ribeye, marinated and brushed with a teriyaki glaze on the grill, has also been a staple in his house since he was a kid.

Rice with “okasu” — a mixture of bean sprouts, tofu, onion, snow peas and zucchini, seasoned with teriyaki — pops up about once a week at the family’s dinner.

“It’s easy, and a good way to get your vegetables,” he said. “I remember eating okasu at every meal when we were kids.”

As a salad, Gill likes to prepare Namasu, a simple, pickled cucumber dish that is a staple at many Japanese restaurants. To give it a Sebastopol twist, he often adds fresh strawberries from Farmer Lao’s farmstand on Highway 12.

Another dish favored by the family for breakfast is Bacon Fried Rice, a concoction made with leftover rice from the night before. The bacon is fried, the onion is cooked in bacon fat, then the teriyaki sauce is added to flavor the rice. They often top it all off with a fried egg, for added protein.

“The key is to wash the rice until the water becomes clear and to use a rice cooker,” Gill said. “We make it all the time, and you can use any protein you have left over — chicken, steak or shrimp.”

The secret recipe

While developing his sauce, Gill noticed that most other teriyaki sauces on the market were watered down with filler oils, emulsifiers and preservatives. That didn’t set well with Gill, who grew up in Wine Country and has friends who are chefs and winemakers.

“Japanese food is about simple, fresh ingredients,” he said. “Our tagline on our sauce is ‘Ingredients do matter.’”

Most teriyaki sauces on the market do not include mirin, he said, probably because it is expensive.

“True teriyaki sauce is just soy, sugar and mirin,” he said. “We use real mirin — rice cooking wine — and authentic, traditionally brewed Japanese soy sauce.”

As a Westernized version of the sauce, Bachan’s also includes sesame oil, organic ginger, garlic and green onion. Like Gill himself, the secret recipe is a Japanese-American hybrid that reflects the best of both worlds.

“The only thing we changed from our family recipe was to add a bit of sea salt, to boost umami,” he said. “And rice vinegar to boost the acidity. That balances the sugar and salt.”

After working with a few different co-packers, Gill found one in Southern California that agreed to make his sauce in small batches, the way he wanted it, with no water or fillers added.

The sauce — packaged in a plastic squeeze bottle with a whimsical logo of an octopus wearing a Japanese headband — is available in Sonoma County markets such as Oliver’s, Pacific, Molsberry, Fircrest, Sonoma, Glen Ellen and Big John’s. It retails for $9.99.

A family affair

Gill does two demos a week at various grocery stores, often with help from his mom, Jill. His oldest daughter, Taylor, shoots and edits videos for social media while his middle daughter, Kailee, takes photographs. His wife manages the office and fills website orders, and his youngest daughter, Shiloh — the family comedian — stars in the videos.

Plans are in the works for two more flavored sauces: Black Truffle Japanese Barbecue Sauce and Habañero Japanese Barbecue Sauce. Also in the works is a line of Japanese barbecue seasonings based on everyday, Japanese condiments such as togarashi (made with chiles) and furikaki (seaweed, sesame seeds, dried fish).

His 83-year-old bachan, his personal advisor since he was a child, still inspires him every day.

“We use words of wisdom from her on our boxes, and we call them ‘bachanisms,’ he said. “It’s nice to pass that wisdom on to the next generation.”

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The following recipes are from Justin Gill of Bachan’s Japanese Barbecue Sauce. Japanese rice is available at Asian grocery stores and markets such as Whole Foods and Oliver’s. High quality varieties include Koshikikari, Shirakiku, Tamaki Gold, Tamanishiki Super Premium Short Grain Rice and Lundberg Family Farms Organic Sushi Rice. More affordable medium-grain or hybrid varieties grown in California include Botan Calrose, Nishiki and Kokuho Rose.

Bachan’s Okazu with Tofu and Seasonal Veggies

Makes 5 servings

3 cups Japanese short-grain rice

1 package firm tofu

1/4 pound mung bean sprouts

1/4 pound snow peas

1 small/medium zucchini

1 small yellow onion

1 bell pepper (any color)

2 tablespoons cooking oil of your choice

1/3 cup Bachan’s Japanese Barbecue Sauce

1 teaspoon sea salt

Wash rice multiple times until water becomes clear, and cook rice in a rice cooker or pot.

Drain the tofu on paper towels, then cut into 1-inch cubes. Pat tofu dry with paper towels and set aside.

Wash bean sprouts and set aside. Slice zucchini, bell pepper and chop yellow onion. Snap snow peas in half if they are large.

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a wok or large, nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add onion, zuccchini, bell pepper, snow peas and bean sprouts and cook in wok for 3 minutes over medium heat.

Add in the tofu and do not stir, but gently turn over with the rest of the ingredients, and sprinkle in salt. Add in the Bachan’s Japanese Barbecue Sauce and cook for another 10 minutes.

Serve over rice.

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Gill suggests serving the steak with rice and a summer salad. To make a simple salad dressing, whisk together 1/4 cup Bachan’s Japanese Barbecue Sauce with the juice of a half lemon and 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil and toss with salad greens of your choice.

Bachan’s Grilled Ribeye

Makes 2 to 4 servings

2 8- to 12-ounce usda prime ribeye steaks

— Salt and pepper

1 cup Bach’s Japanese Barbecue Sauce, for marinade

1/2 Bachan’s Japanese Barbecue Sauce, for finishing

Marinate the steaks for 2 to 24 hours in the refrigerator.

Thirty minutes before grilling, remove the steaks from the fridge and let come to room temperature.

Season steaks with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Season the grill with oil and heat up to 500 degrees. Grill steaks at 500 degrees until golden brown and slightly charred, 3 minutes per side, depending on thickness.

Brush both sides generously with fresh Bachan sauce (for finishing) and grill until sauce caramelizes, one minute more per side.

Transfer to a cutting board and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes. Slice, then drizzle with remaining Bachan finishing sauce.

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Bachan’s Namasu

Makes 4 to 6 servings

— For dressing:

1/2 rice vinegar

1/2 cup cane sugar

2 teaspoons sea salt

2 teaspoons Bachan’s Japanese Barbecue Sauce (optional)

For salad:

3 medium cucumbers

2 black and/or white sesame seeds

— Sliced strawberries (optional)

Mix dressing ingredients in a small saucepan, heat to medium and stir until sugar dissolves. Set aside and let cool, or put in the fridge to cool.

Peel cucumbers, but leave some streaks of skin on. Thinly slice with a mandolin or sharp knife, season with 1 teaspoon salt, adn let stnad in fridge for 5 minutes.

Take cucumbers from fridge and gently squeeze and drain off excess water.

Put cucumbers in a mixing bowl and pour in dressing, making sure the dressing is cold. Cover and chill in the fridge fof 10 to 15 minutes.

Sprinkle sesame seeds over the salad before serving, and add some sliced strawberries if you wish.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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