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 THE SUSHI CHEF WHO’S A CUT ABOVE THE REST
 

by Elizabeth Kye

He wasn’t always working in swanky restaurants. He wasn’t always a master at the sushi bar, nor does he consider himself one today, but Chef Kazuo Yoshida is the master of ceremonies at Geisha Restaurant of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He possesses a keen insight into the future of sushi, and is a bit of a contradiction- mixing the past with the present in his culinary creations. Kazuo’s signature style was featured at Jewel Bako, Brasserie 360, and he continues to “wow” his guests at Geisha. He has much to say about the business, doesn’t refrain from sharing his knowledge, and is pretty darn candid about his inspirations. With a smile on his face, we sat down to talk about his career as a sushi chef.

Elizabeth Kye: How have you evolved as a sushi chef?

Kazuo Yoshida: I’ve been here for 12 years now. I started as the #4 assistant to the sushi chef at Kameda. I stayed there 2 ½ years. Then I worked as an assistant at a restaurant called Hasaki for 3 ½ years. When you begin as an assistant, you are always doing side jobs. Cutting vegetables, cleaning fish, cooking rice- you do this for 2-3 years. Only the chef cuts the fish. I opened a restaurant called Shiki that was only opened for a year. After that I moved to Match in SoHo. It was the first place to combine sushi and American food. Then I worked at Jewel Bako for 1 ½ years where my recipes are still used. I moved from there to Brasserie 360, and now I’m here at Geisha.

EK: How would you describe your style?

KY: Jewel Bako follows my style. I made this style, but it’s their style now. Now I must evolve and create a new style. Someone said my food concept is sushi fusion, but I don’t feel like it’s fusion. My concept is traditional for 2050, so what I do now will be traditional in 40 or 50 years.

EK: Has New York City changed your style as a Sushi Chef?

KY: Traditionally, sushi is too expensive in Japan; people may eat it three times a year. In New York, there are people who eat it three times a week. Now Japan is following New York styles. I create my menu for American people. People in New York City don’t like the classics. They need something new, a different presentation or a new taste. I have an item on the menu, New Zealand King Salmon; I am the first person to use this fish for sushi. Whenever my purveyor gets some new fish in, he automatically sends it to me. All the sushi chefs are asking him what fish am I using. Even Mr. Morimoto of the Iron Chef is asking me to get him things. Traditional sushi restaurants are very 1980s, but sushi is changing. It used to be that the fish was caught and sent to the restaurant on the next day. Now in 2004, fish is caught and we receive the fish the very same day.

EK: What are some things that have inspired your creations?

KY: Fifty percent of my inspiration comes from my customers. They tell me what they like and what they don’t like. When I talk to my customers I get ideas. We’re friends and we joke with each other. Even some of my customers have named certain dishes for me like the Kazuotini (pureed cauliflower, diced tuna, fluke, salmon, salmon roe, uni, quail egg, soy sauce, and wasabi, served in a martini glass). In a traditional Japanese restaurant customers are not interacting as much with the sushi chef. I always ask my guests, “How’s my sushi tonight?” They may say, “Not so good tonight,” and I respond, “Come tomorrow, I save my best for tomorrow.” And then we both laugh.

The other 50% of my inspiration comes from my life. Wherever I go, the museum or the park, or playing with my daughter or fighting with my wife, there is a source of inspiration. One time I was fighting with my wife, and she went to throw a snack at me, I told her to stop, I want to use that for my sushi. It was a shrimp cracker.

EK: What is your favorite utensil?

KY: It’s technique and experience. You need this before anything else. A knife is an extension of your hand. Everyone who comes here asks me “Kazuo, what type of knife do you have?” More important is learning how to use a knife.

EK: Have you ever worked with Fugu (blowfish)?

KY: Yes. However the blowfish you get in the States isn’t poisonous. Basically it tastes the same as the blowfish in Japan, but the difference is the sensation. In Japan, the blowfish is poisonous. The sushi chef will cut it in a way that a little poison is released into the fish, and there is a slight mouth sensation when eaten.

EK: Do you have any trade secrets you would like to share with aspiring sushi chefs?

KY: I have no secrets. I give all my techniques and recipes to my assistants. Whatever I know, I teach to my assistants. In Japan there is a term for the beginning assistant, Minakai; it means watch and learn. You have to watch and learn as a new assistant. You have to start from the beginning. Whatever you do, you have to remember 100 things. You have to think about 100 things. You also have to understand why you are doing these things. When you understand why you are doing something, you don’t have to remember it, because you know it. You should always ask why you are doing something a certain way. Everything has a meaning. My assistant, Nguyen just opened his own restaurant called Rice, on 10th Street and Avenue C. He understands that the “why?” is important.

EK: What’s next for you?

KY: What I want to do next is write a book for future sushi chefs, starting from the basics, to the more advanced techniques- how to cut vegetables, how to cut and clean fish. Many times I wish there was a book I could give to my new assistants.

 
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