The culinary arts were on display Sunday morning at Napa’s showcase to food and wine. But so was the message of a documentary from the weekend’s Napa Valley Film Festival – a call to food lovers to look critically at the ingredients on their plates.

Above the theater kitchen inside CIA at Copia, a television showed a clip from Eric Heimbold’s film “Blind Sushi” – his account of the encounter between the sightless adventure writer Ryan Knighton and Bun Lai, creator of the first sushi restaurant fully devoted to sustainable seafoods.

Having seen one chef’s promise to help people eat their way out of an ecological problem, some 85 spectators witnessed another, local chef give that goal a tasty, savory shape during the demonstration “Sushi and a Blindfold.”

“There’s a lot of things in sushi that are very popular and very tasty, but that rate poorly” for responsibility, said Jake Rand, a former Eiko’s Restaurant chef in Napa. Either we can say, ‘Well, we have it, so let’s eat it now’ and take it out of circulation – like bluefin tuna, for instance – or we can find a solution.”

For the next hour, Rand’s kitchen counter became the workshop for what he puckishly titled “pho-nagi” – a sushi with the flavor of popular but heavily fished unagi (eel), but made instead from black cod. With the addition of steamed rice, sake, soy sauce and other ingredients, Rand – joined on the stage by Heimbold, formed squares of fish and balls of rice into morsels that audience members sampled, together with sips of Napa Valley rose.

It was an unexpectedly posh outcome for a type of fish long held in little esteem by sushi enthusiasts. That was exactly the point for filmmaker and chef, who called the use of lowly regarded or even invasive species as a key to lessening the strain of human appetites – and overfishing on the environment.

The hill toward changing the minds of sushi eaters is a tall one, Rand admitted, pointing to Japan’s heavy consumption of seafood. (For example, 80 percent of the world harvest of bluefin – which the International Union for Conservation of Nature placed on its “red list” in 2014 as a vulnerable fish – is consumed in that country, the Japan Times reported last year.)

“I’ll tell you who doesn’t care: Japanese sushi chefs, they really don’t,” said Rand, a culinary consultant helping to launch a new Japanese restaurant in Santa Rosa. “They consume fish the way Americans consume petroleum. They see it as their cultural norm.”

Not only Sunday’s recipe, but the thoughts behind it, left their mark on a North Carolina woman who was attending the Napa film festival for the first time.

“I love sushi, and it’s hard to find good sushi in Carolina,” Debora Good said after the class. “I will definitely try different versions of unagi now, and avoid anything on any endangered lists – and I think the black cod tastes just as good.”

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Heimbold, a photographer, originally traveled to New Haven, Connecticut in 2016, the home of Bun Lai’s sustainable-sushi eatery Miya’s, before using his cameras to shoot the video footage that became “Blind Sushi.” Having a chance to reinforce the film’s message with a live audience was an unexpected bonus, he said after Sunday’s program.

“The festival floated this idea and I was happy to agree,” said Heimbold. “I was surprised by the size of the turnout today – that shows me people want to be aware of what they’re eating, and want to know more about it.

“Deep inside of us, it’s hard to underestimate the power of the human appetite.”

Sunday’s sushi showcase was one of several cooking demonstrations the Culinary Institute of America helped organize to dovetail with films being shown in Napa County, according to Christopher Sawyer, the festival’s culinary master of ceremonies.

On Saturday, Copia played host to a class on the “snout-to-tail” use of animal parts linked to the movie “Wasted! The Story of Food Waste,” along with a caviar-and-vodka exhibition based on “Caviar Dreams.” Later Sunday, the First Street venue invited spectators to partake of cricket bao and cricket snacks at “Let’s Eat Some Bugs Everybody!”, an event connected to “Gateway Bugs” – the story of entrepreneurs pitching edible insects to American customers.


Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.