Chef Chat, Part 1: Chris Nemoto of Zushi, on Training with a Sushi Master
Last month, I visited Zushi Japanese Cuisine for the first time, enjoying one of the best traditional sushi meals I've ever had in Houston. I didn't sit at the bar that afternoon, so I didn't get to chat with the chef, but the sushi I had was so good -- delicious fatty salmon, trout, and uni sushi, hamachi belly sashimi, scallop sashimi, and more -- that I was intrigued by the chef who'd made it.
Chris Nemoto has been executive chef at Zushi since it opened five years ago. About a mile away from the hustle and bustle of Washington Avenue, this unassuming restaurant sits quietly on the corner of Memorial and Westcott, just waiting to be discovered. We sat down for an afternoon chat with Nemoto to learn more about his sushi skills and what he's trying to do at Zushi.
EOW: I understand that you trained with a sushi master. Where and when?
CN: This was in Austin. It was '97, I guess, and I trained with him for two-and-a-half years. I got my foot in the door because I'm half Japanese, was raised in Japan, but on a military base, so I understand Japanese -- I don't speak it perfectly -- but I understand enough. It got my foot in the door, because I had no restaurant experience at all.
EOW: So, how old were at the time?
CN: Twenty-two or 23.
EOW: Where were you before coming to Austin?
CN: I was going to college. I finished high school in Japan, stayed with my mother in Ohio for a bit, and Ohio wasn't really doing it for me. I came down to Austin to visit friends for a spring break, and liked it so much, I convinced my parents to let me move there. I started out at ACC, working my way towards UT, and I was a computer science major.
EOW: (surprised) Okay...
CN: (laughs) Yeah, completely different spectrum. Dad kind of pushed me into it. Anyway, I just wanted a job where I could keep speaking Japanese, and my friend, who I grew up with, Mike Potowski (the current executive chef at Benjy's on Washington), said "Come to the restaurant and maybe they'll hire you."
EOW: So Mike Potowski was in Austin with you at the same restaurant? Which restaurant was this?
CN: Kyoto Japanese Restaurant (previously on Congress, now closed)
EOW: And who was the sushi master?
CN: Kasuga Teruo. Usually the last name, you say it first, so Kasuga was his last name and Teruo was his first name, but he went by "Ted-san" because it was easier. He was trained in Saitama, Japan, which is relatively close to where I grew up. So I got my foot in the door there because of Mike and the fact that I understood Japanese, so they were like, "Okay, if he gives you direction, you can automatically pick it up."
EOW: What's the training process like, because I think everyone who likes sushi has watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and it's obviously a rigorous process in the movie, so what's it like in real life?
CN: In real life, I can't tell you, because I was trained over here. Even though I trained with a Japanese chef, I think at that point in his career, he was looking to rely on people who would be there for him. I think he was trying to make sure he didn't have to shoulder all the burden himself. And it was hard because in Austin, there were a lot of students who came in just to make rolls, but didn't take it seriously. So my training -- a lot of it was his generosity in sharing information with me at a different level, and also me, my ambition to learn as much as I could with the respect to him.
EOW: So when you went in, you said that you didn't have any experience. Did you kind of know that this is what you wanted to do? Did you know it was going to be your career path?
Photo by Mai Pham The fatty salmon and trout nigiri were perfection. There's real artistry in the way that the fish was cut so that the fat striping was shown lengthwise.
CN: Not at all. To be honest with you, in talking with Mike -- Mike and I go back so far, we went to high school together in Japan, I call him my brother -- so Mike and I were talking, and he said, "It's good pay. If you work with Ted, you'll be lucky, because he'll teach you the right way." And that made it worth it for me to go try it. I'm a latchkey kid, so I cooked at home, but it was just ramen and rice, but I was never in the kitchen as a chef or a cook, so that was intimidating for me, but I went in there anyway, and they were easy on me at the very beginning.
EOW: Tell me what it was like when you first started.
CN: I remember one of the first times I was at the roll station. I just remember the pressure, because the servers were coming back to pick up the spider rolls, and they were like, "Uh, are we seriously going to serve this?" And stuff was falling apart, and I was like, "I don't know, I'm just doing what they're telling me to do!" (laughs)
EOW: What do you think made you decide to stay with sushi?
CN: I love art. I'm not an artist or someone who knows all the artists' names, but my dad used to be a great artist -- that was his career path before he joined the military -- and so I used to try to draw and paint just like him, all the time. So the aspect of the tradition and the art and just watching my teacher work... I used to just look at things that he'd make and say, "Man that is beautiful!" It came from his hands, it looked perfect. It was a nice process that I enjoyed being a part of.
EOW: So how do you absorb that? Is it a process of watching and practicing? How to graduate from rolls to cutting fish?
CN: I don't think there's a true guideline for everybody, because there's people that I interview that say, "I've been making sushi for five years," and I ask them about a few skill-set things to see what they're comfortable with, and they can't do it.
EOW: So I'm interviewing, what would you ask me to do?
CN: There's a way to cut vegetables, particularly cucumber and daikon, called katsura-muki. Katsura-muki, you are basically shaving around a cucumber with your knife, and you go around, and you peel it all around until you get to the core, then you get a sheet of cucumber, which later we usually cut into strips for the rolls or for sashimi. So, I just ask people to do that, and that's a pretty simple thing if you have experience or have been trained from the ground up. Unfortunately, I run into a lot of people who have only been making rolls for five years, and that's a shame, because that's not all of what sushi is. And then there are others who learn quite a bit in five years. There's no set rule for any one person. And so for my teacher, I wasn't trying to cheat, but I wanted to learn as much as I could as fast as I could.
EOW: Wait, what do you mean, you weren't trying to cheat?
CN: I wanted to learn. At the point that I realized I really appreciated what Ted-san was trying to do for me, as far as letting me take up responsibility for mackerel and this and that, that he handed to me as my duties -- I was hungry for that knowledge, I wanted that. When I say "cheat," I didn't want to squeeze it out of him if he didn't want me to learn. I wasn't creeping and looking at what he was doing and stealing those things. But at any opportunity I had, I would ask him questions.
I remember one of the most extreme things that I did -- it's kind of nerdy -- I had this thing about nigiri. Because to me, nigiri is almost like a pursuit of perfection. You want relatively the same size, the same pressure, and the rice is always something you do ahead of time. And as fast as Ted was, I was always impressed by how they were always exactly the same size. And here is the nerdy part -- on a slow day, I said "Ted-san, can you make two or three nigiri for me?" So he made them for me, and then I dissected them. I felt the pressure of the nigiri, and I was taking the rice apart to feel what it was, and the other one I ate so I could see how it'd come apart in my mouth. Those are the kind of things that I did. But he was such a nice guy. I hope that he appreciated that I was interested. Because inside, I always felt like he was giving me knowledge that, when people learn in Japan, it's a skill, it's trade, it's precious, and I didn't want it to go to waste.
Check back with us tomorrow as we hear more about Nemoto's work at Zushi.
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