On Mondays, the peaceful space that houses Leon Johnson’s temple of food, art, and activism, Lodger, is quietly a-flurry behind curtained windows. Slipping in the door, you feel like you’ve entered a monastery or someone’s study. You’re on the inside of a well-kept secret: Yasuyo Hibino’s Japanese lunch pop-up, Hibino Day by Day.
Hibino can be seen through the pass-through window, busily scurrying around the kitchen. Regulars, who call her Fish,—a nickname she’s had since childhood —pop in to pick-up to-go orders, drop off gifts, and invite her to dinner.
From Fashion to Rice Balls
The pandemic provided a platform and the pressure for personal and professional pivots, and Hibino is no different. Pre-COVID, the Japanese emigre had lived in New York City for 30 years, producing photoshoots for Japanese fashion brands. Decades earlier, Hibino had seen her own mother quit Tokyo’s corporate world to open a restaurant with no prior training. Her own story isn’t that different.
When the pandemic hit, Hibino no longer felt safe in the city. “I wanted to be in nature. I wanted to leave the city,” she says. “During the pandemic, there were no jobs, no one was coming from Japan, there was no reason to go to the showroom.” So she ended up upstate at a friend’s farm, then bounced around before applying for housing at Wireworks in Newburgh. “I had no intention to move to Newburgh to begin with,” Hibino says. “I just went with the flow, wherever I could land.”
With no Japanese restaurants close by, Hibino started cooking for the friends that housed her upstate. “Since I left the city, I had been carrying my rice cooker and bag of rice and Japanese seaweed around, “ she says. “Wherever I stayed, I would cook for them to show my appreciation.” Friends introduced Hibino to Lodger’s founder Leon Johnson, and she pitched him on a food pop-up. They settled on Mondays, as few restaurants are open at the start of the week.
She launched Hibino Day by Day in 2021. Onigiri, or rice balls, are the heart of the menu. Though the medium is different, it’s easy to trace an aesthetic throughline to Hibino’s fashion background. Stuffed with sauteed shitake, hijiki seaweed, or kimchi-tuna mayonnaise and topped with delicacies like microgreens, sesame seeds, sprouts, and edible flowers, each onigiri is a tiny canvas of color and texture.
Aside from being a Japanese lunchbox mainstay, the focus on onigiri is the result of a long obsession for Hibino. “First of all, I love rice—white rice, brown rice, any kind of rice,” she says. “Rice gives you vitality, energy. You can try onigiri with many different ingredients inside. I like the functionality of it too. You can carry it, you can eat it as a snack, you can eat it as a main.” When she was doing production in New York City, Hibino scoured the five boroughs to find the best rice balls to serve to models, photographers, and visiting Japanese execs. She dreamed of opening her own onigiri shop one day.
Hibino approaches this dream with her popup, where she offers a mix of vegetarian and seafood-based onigiri options. Order one, three, six, or eight ($3.50-0$424). The miso soup ($4) is more than an afterthought—salty, tangy, with a hint of smoky flavor from the fish flakes, it warms your bones on a cold day. (Order ahead for a vegan version made with mushrooms.) Specials change weekly and might include a cold soba salad with tahini in warmer months or a hot curry made with root vegetables like potato and carrot in winter ($15).
A Feeling of Home
Hibino learned to cook as a child, where she helped her grandmother with prep tasks like washing the rice, pickling vegetables, and making dashi. “I learned those very basic things when I was in elementary school,” she says. “I always loved cooking, and baking too. When I was little, I used to bake cookies.”
Combing through recipe books, Japanese cooking websites, and YouTube, Hibino is constantly teaching herself and innovating to accommodate dietary restrictions and allergies. She’s also recently started reading about the principles of macrobiotic cooking, which seeks to balance yin and yang elements. “I’m not trying to be a macrobiotic business, but I like to take the basic philosophy and reflect it in my cooking,” she says. “I don't like to be strict; it should be fun, too. It’s all about the balance.”
Hibino hopes to infuse her pop-up with the nostalgia, comfort, and familiarity of home. “The feeling I want in the space is that you’ve come to your mom or grandma’s house, the kind of place where you feel cozy,” she says. Pre-ordering via Instagram DMs is the best way to guarantee your food. Plenty of people stop by to pick up their food to-go, though you’re also welcome to eat at the communal table in Lodger or, in warmer months, in the Secret Garden-esque patio out back.
Hibino is still working for a Japanese men’s clothing company as the US point of contact, but she is getting busier all the time with her food pop-up. In addition to her regular Mondays at Lodger, on December 1, Hibino Day by Day started a weekly pop-up on Thursdays at plant shop Grow Newburgh alongside florist Heart and Soil Flowers. (“I love plants and flowers—who doesn’t? So it’s a dream,” she says). Hibino has done events in Beacon and at the Falcon in Marlboro and she’s also catered for private functions.
“Now I am dreaming of having my own commissary kitchen as a base so that I can do pop-ups at different places,” she says. “It took me a year and half to get to where I am. There is a long way to go, but now is a good time. And I really appreciate chef Leon’s understanding and support.”