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Touring Tastemaker Wants D.C. in His Regular Rotation

While dazzling patrons with mind-blowingly fresh ingredients is certainly part of his master plan, dining impresario Michael Stember is currently most obsessed with making his traveling food show self-sustainable.  

The world-class athlete (a record-setting track and field star, Stember represented the United States at multiple Pan American Games and the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney) hasn’t given up running around since founding Upstream Foods . If anything, he’s more on the move than ever. Stember is back at Mess Hall (703 Edgewood St. NE) this Friday to host his second local Sushi Belly Tower dinner — a free-form feast he insists is out of this world.  

“I meet everybody and then I just start cutting up fish for three hours,” he said of the anticipated 15- to 20-course tasting extravaganza set to include all-you-can-eat morsels of miso-marinated Wagyu beef and assorted, dressed-to-kill (think: avocado oil, freshly squeezed citrus and house-made ponzu sauce) seafood offerings.  

Interested parties must RSVP to reservations@sushibellytower.com ; Stember said individual tickets will start at $200, but he expressed a willingness to negotiate discount rates for larger groups.  

Still wavering?  

The entry fee also includes unlimited cocktails poised to feature tipples heavy on mezcal, tequila, whiskey and flavored sakes.  

Surfcholo cocktail (mezcal, Bundaberg Ginger Beer, fresh lime, mint leaves, cucumber) being doctored with Bittermens Hellfire Habanero Shrub. (Max Theony/Upstream Foods LLC)

Surfcholo cocktail (mezcal, Bundaberg Ginger Beer, fresh lime, mint leaves, cucumber) being doctored with Bittermens Hellfire Habanero Shrub. (Max Theony/Upstream Foods LLC)

Join the Club Stember first brought his culinary carnival to Mess Hall's hub for aspiring hospitality professionals in early December. That sold-out appearance appears to have whet his appetite for weaving the District into his swirling expansion plans.  

The West Coast native credits his older brother, Jonathan — a 15-year veteran of the local dining scene this hired mouth had the pleasure of comparing notes with during the latest Washington Press Club Foundation dinner — with keeping him abreast of all the epicurean happenings in #ThisTown.  

“I’ve had an ear to the ground in D.C. for some time now,” Michael Stember said.  

He said he began experimenting with clean eating back when he still laced up his sneakers for a living. He soon discovered that others were only too happy to partake in “research” that revolved around indulging in catch-of-the-day beauties and field-ripened produce.  

Sliced Scottish salmon belly stacked atop a block of pureed soybeans with pistachio oil. (Max Theony/Upstream Foods LLC)

Sliced Scottish salmon belly stacked atop a block of pureed soybeans with pistachio oil. (Max Theony/Upstream Foods LLC)

“Basically, the diet that got me to the Olympic Games,” he said.  

His first foray into theatrical cooking resulted in 12 people staking out whatever open space they could find at his loft in Los Angeles. Entertainer Seth Rogen showed up shortly thereafter.  

“Suddenly it was 35 people Thursday, Friday and Saturday night,” Stember said of the cult following the informal gatherings quickly developed. He estimates he has served more than 10,000 people on multiple continents since founding SBT in June 2012.  

“There’s a little shock and awe to the experience that’s been really fun,” he said of the dinner club.  

Premium Scottish salmon awaiting further dissection. (Max Theony/Upstream Foods LLC)

Premium Scottish salmon awaiting further dissection. (Max Theony/Upstream Foods LLC)

Bringing new fans into the SBT fold — “The people really make the party for us,” Stember said — is what it’s all about. But, if he had it to do all over again, Stember is fairly certain he’d gift his growing fan base a better calling card.  

“The name is awful … but it was useful,” Stember said of a moniker spawned by putting his own spin on the initials of the building in Los Angeles (SB Tower), where the earliest members of his well-fed flock communed around the same table.  

(Courtesy Upstream Foods)

(Courtesy Upstream Foods)

“I figured I could just come up with name to take advantage of the ‘S’ and the ‘B,'” he said of the rush to judgment born from originally breaking bread in real estate mogul Barry Shy’s tony structure.  

Marketing stumbles aside, SBT has helped him make inroads around the country.  

Per Stember, parachuting into different areas remains thrilling, if not terribly profitable. “We’ve basically become a break-even food-art project,” he estimated.  

The most rewarding venture to date has been the three-week stretch (including at least one $1,000-per-person dinner party) he pieced together in New York City. Stember is looking forward to keeping the party rolling by sharing his talents with hungry mouths in Miami and Chicago.  

Assuming D.C. denizens embrace the SBT ethos, Stember would love to make Washington another home base. “I think we’ll do dozens of events, if possible,” he predicted.  

And he hopes, eventually, to graduate from pop-up wonder to main event.  

“I’m looking for people that control event budgets and political organizations,” he said of his desire to replicate the standing order for a blowout dinner he whips up for Paramount Studios every quarter. “That’s a classic example of the business we’d like to do.”  

Sushi Belly Tower dinner: 703 Edgewood St. NE; Feb. 27, 7 to 11(ish) p.m.; $200 per person for unlimited food and drink. RSVP (reservations@sushibellytower.com ) required.  

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Topics: drink eat