The way of Kurisaki
When I showed up to interview sushi master Kurisaki, he was in his kitchen arranging a tray of glistening white blobs. When I asked what it was, he explained that it was shirako, codfish sperm. I must have looked confused, because he said helpfully, “Like eggs, but from the males.” He gave me a nibble, and it had the texture of cream cheese and the flavor of an ocean breeze.
Almost everybody calls the owner of Kurisaki Sushi by his last name, which they often shorten to Kuri-san, which means Mr. Kuri. When I asked why, he replied, “My first name is Haruo, which is a name Americans have trouble with. People say, ‘Hello Haruo’ and it sounds funny, so I just am called Kuri-san. It’s something we Japanese do often because we have long last names: Yamada is Yama-san, Kurisaki is Kuri-san.”
The knife slides through the fish with tiny, practiced movements – flick, flick, flick, and what had been a large piece is reduced to neat slices of identical thickness. There is no flash or flair about it, nothing to call attention to the skill. The Japanese name for a sushi chef, itamae, means “person at a cutting board,” and some chefs show off as they work, deliberately slapping the knife against the wood and flourishing their creations to their admirers. Kuri-san is not one of them, and he is all business as he carves the hundreds of pieces of sushi that are all in a day’s work.
Though he was the son of schoolteachers, Kuri-san was an indifferent scholar. He remembers that as a teenager, the high point of his day was when he made his own lunch. He was influenced by television shows of that era called ”Sushi dramas” that showed the restaurant business as challenging and artistic. As he remembers, “I tried all sorts of things, cooking and thinking. I didn’t like studying, but I liked cooking, and maybe in the future I could be a chef.”
The traditional career path for chefs in Japan was to apprentice in a restaurant, but Kuri-san’s parents enrolled him in a cooking school when he was 19. He spent over a year learning basic skills, nutrition, and food safety, then started at a restaurant in Tokyo.
“I first worked at a Kaiseki restaurant, where we serve dishes in a strict order, appetizer, soup, sashimi, fish, and so on, each course a different preparation method,” he said. “That was where I learned sushi, which in Japan then was very different from California. It was very traditional with no foreign influences. That old style is still alive there, but some restaurants now serve modern sushi. They regard it as different cuisines, traditional restaurants and places that serve California rolls, and you don’t find it in the same place.”
The interactions with customers are brief and to the point: while regulars are welcomed, few conversations are about absent friends or anything other than sushi. The master remembers what people enjoyed on previous visits and makes recommendations accordingly based on what is fresh now. He speaks at normal tones but is easily heard in the low-key environment. During two visits that total at least five hours I don’t hear any shouts of “kampai,” the traditional toast when sake is shared. The toast is exchanged quietly at tables and at the bar, but this isn’t a boisterous place. Kuri-san is friendly but quiet and reserved, and his restaurant matches his personal style.
Kuri-san’s career took an unexpected change when Japan’s largest brewer and distiller invited him to work at a restaurant in Boston. It was a great career move, and he was able to excel in the U.S. despite that fact that he could remember very little of the English he learned in high school.
“The Suntory Company decided they wanted to start some restaurants for Japanese businessmen, not American customers, so it wasn’t really necessary for me to speak English immediately,” he said. “After a while in Boston, Suntory made me the head chef for their restaurant in Hawaii. I liked it there, but in 1992 the Japanese economy collapsed and there were fewer Japanese doing business abroad. The restaurant closed in 1995 and I moved to Las Vegas.”
The job in Las Vegas was at a new restaurant in the Mirage Hotel, and it made demands on his English but not his culinary skills.
“Las Vegas then was not like it is now, they didn’t need high technique. Eighty percent of the customers were not Japanese, and they wanted chicken teriyaki, California roll, the same things all the time. It was boring, so I was open to other things.”
Five knives are in a rack behind the counter that is designed in a way that is functional but also like a shrine. The one at the top is for large portions of sashimi, and Kuri-san sometimes cuts a thousand pieces in a day for large events. Below is a general knife, good for almost anything, and below that a blocky cleaver for chopping through the spines of eels. Next is one that is perfect for cutting fish from the skins, another specialized for freshwater eels, and at the bottom one for vegetables. Itamae who have not learned their skills to perfection often develop shoulder problems from the effort of so much repetitive motion in cutting sushi for hours every day.
In 1996 Kuri-san was looking for new challenges just as a genius was looking for staff. Nobu Matsuhisa emigrated from Japan to Peru in the early 1970s and when he couldn’t find Japanese ingredients he substituted what was available. Over time he created a new style of sushi that became hugely popular and was widely imitated. He opened his restaurant Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills in 1977 and it became a celebrity hangout. Matsuhisa was one of the hottest places in LA in the ‘90s, and a friend of Kuri-san’s let him know that a coveted position was just about to become available because one of Nobu’s chefs was leaving to start his own restaurant. Kuri-san applied, was accepted, and found himself in a different world.
“He was using all these things I had never seen on sushi before, jalapeno, cilantro, wow. There was something different every day,” he remembered. “At first I didn’t like some things, the flavor of cilantro, but it was very interesting and certainly I was learning. Japanese people and Americans both came in and I had to explain things to them. Americans didn’t want to try sea urchin and things Japanese people think is normal, Japanese didn’t want to try jalapenos.”
American customers see Kuri-san cutting fish and think that’s the most important part of his skill. It is at least as important that he procure the best quality seafood, and much of his day is spent doing exactly that. Some species he buys through specialty seafood companies that he has developed a relationship with, but others require a trip to the downtown LA fish market. He needs to see the large fish like tuna, to look at the eye to see how clear it is, a certain sign of freshness. At other times he deals with fish brokers face-to-face and interrogates them about exactly when and where their products were caught. There are many liars in the seafood industry who try to pass of inferior fish as wild, but Kuri-san is one of the few who knows the look and scent of the authentic fish and can detect the fakers.
Kuri-san had moved from Hollywood to North Redondo while working at Matsuhisa, and in 2015 he bought the former Naka Sushi and renamed it Kurisaki Sushi [see review]. It was a leap into independent ownership and a major change after the situation at Matsuhisa, where he had been part of an unusually large team.
“I worked at Matsuhisa and we had ten chefs… This restaurant seats 30 people,” he said. “I have an assistant who comes in on Thursday and Friday, but Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday it’s myself. I want to do things myself. It’s important for my customers to see me here, so except for Mondays that I take off, I am always here. I don’t take other days off. I worked at Matsuhisa for nineteen years and never missed a day, and I have been here every day we are open. I take care of myself, and maybe it is my good diet that helps.”
The South Bay clientele is loyal and willing to try new things; on the evening when the codfish sperm was offered the people next to me tried it as part of an omakase meal, the experience where customers invite the chef to choose. To order omakase is an expression of trust in the chef, but Kuri-san says that it is a rare thing in California.
“Here in California people often say they want omakase and then say, I don’t like this, I don’t like that, I want things I know I like. That’s not omakase, which is about being willing to try anything,” he said. “ If people tell me they can’t have one thing, maybe two, I can work around that, but don’t tell me how to do everything.”
There are differences between Japanese and American tastes that make Kuri-san decide what to recommend.
“Halibut, if you eat it just after it is caught, it is tough,” he said. “Japanese people like it that way, American customers do not. The rice is soft and if the fish is tough they don’t like it.”
That same dynamic is at work with the specialty at Kurisaki: seasonal fish that are caught in small numbers by artisan fishermen.
“Most wild fish is better not eaten right away, because the texture is hard and it is more tasty the next day. I wish Americans would try more of our seasonal and wild fish. It is a gamble when I put those on the menu, and sometimes it’s a big loss, some other nights I sell it all and people ask for more. People know yellowtail, albacore, but you can have those everywhere.”
The tiny baby conch are roasted and served in their shells over a bed of hot salt, and unlike French escargot there is no garlic butter to disguise their flavor. The texture is slightly rubbery but in a good way, the flavor a slightly smoky and funky concentrated shellfish. A little liquid remains in the shells and when I make a motion like shooting something from a shot glass, Kuri-san nods approvingly. It’s a tiny hit of concentrated seafood broth, and it’s delightful.
Since opening his restaurant Kuri-san has developed a following that is more than local. His knife skills were featured in a rice commercial on Japanese language television, and he has been lauded in both English and Japanese language media. It looks like a classic American success story, an immigrant making it in a new country, but Kuri-san says that it is all due to a philosophy that comes from Japanese warriors.
“All I want people to know is that I do my best every day. It is part of the tradition of the Japanese samurai. He doesn’t know when someone will kill him, so every day he just lives and doesn’t think until the next day. I don’t worry about anyone coming to kill me, but I live that way anyway. I will do my best tonight, and then I will do my best tomorrow. That is the Japanese ideal.“
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