Chef Chat, Part 2: Chris Kinjo of MF Sushi, on Working in More Than 30 Restaurants, the Problem with Fake Fish and Old-School Japanese Sushi
This is part 2 of a three-part Chef Chat series. You can read Part 1 here if you missed it. Look for Part 3 in this same space Friday.
Photos by Mai Pham Chef Chris Kinjo of MF Sushi, and his $1,000 everyday knife.
EOW: What was your first job as a sushi chef?
CK: My first was at Sushi Muto in Santa Ana, California -- it's not there anymore. The sushi master there was a certified fugu chef. His was kind of an omakase restaurant. I only worked for him for about two and a half years. After that, I was all over the place.
EOW: You said you've worked in about 30 places. Tell me about them.
CK: Oh my gosh. All along the West Coast. Up and down the West Coast. All over the place, from Benihana to just small mom-and-pop shops.
EOW: What would make you decide to move from one place to another?
CK: I just got bored. What really drove me was every restaurant I went to, every chef had a different skill, 'cause I was young, you know. If I saw the skill, if I was able to obtain their skill, I only took the best skills they had. So like, every restaurant I went to, I saw that each chef had one particular skill that impressed me. I would try to master that skill and then I'd get bored and leave.
EOW: Was it easy to get a job, moving from place to place like that?
CK: When you apply for a job, the way I did it when I was a young chef was, I would tell the owner or manager just to give me a shot. I never asked for money. I never asked for a big salary. I just said, "I can try to do what I can for you." So after I go in there and I execute and I bring their business up, then they value me, but then I get very bored. I was not happy with the way a lot of restaurants were treating chefs. For example -- holidays, they limit you with ingredients. A lot of sushi bars are about business, not passion. So that's another reason why I quit a lot of restaurants, because they just want to make profit off of fake fish. I like to call it "fake fish."
EOW: What's "fake fish?"
CK: Fake fish is a bunch of frozen fish.
EOW: What percentage of restaurants did this?
CK: I'm going to tell you right now that in America, there are about 75 percent of sushi restaurants that don't serve real sushi fish. A good 75 percent. It's all frozen fish. They might have tuna, salmon and yellowtail, but the rest is just all frozen. It's not real fish.
EOW: So, frozen fish -- they defrost it and then serve it to you?
CK: I've literally worked in restaurants where they serve frozen tilapia and they call it snapper, stuff like that. You know? There's so many. I can go with you, I can take you on a tour of every restaurant, look at their menu and look at their case, and tell you what is fresh and what is not, and what's frozen and where it came from, and everything. All they care about is put it in rolls and all these sauces and everything -- you can't taste anything but sauce.
EOW: Let's go back to the fish. I notice that you cut the fish so there's a bit of skin left on the fish.
Kinjo plates a sashimi appetizer -- note the sheen of skin on the edges of the fish.
CK: Yes. There are three reasons for that: One is that all the omega-fatty content is around the body. So I try to save as much as I can. Two is to show the skill of the chef. Three is to show the freshness.
EOW: So if a chef is not skilled, then they can't...?
CK: They can't do this. It's very difficult, very difficult.
EOW: Why is it so difficult?
CK: You wanna try? My point is, you take the knife and you take out the skin in one stroke. If you do it any other way, you're not gonna see all that gray (points to the sheen of skin left on the fish). Another important point is if the skin stays on, the fish goes bad the next day. It doesn't keep.
EOW: So you have to throw out your fish?
CK: I throw out everything all the time. I cook it for my employees. My way is very stubborn. I refuse to give you a bad piece of fish. It's that simple. I'm not about the business. I've been in this business too long. My standard -- my reputation is to give people the best quality of fish. Period.
EOW: So, what do you think your reputation is?
CK: I don't know. I don't care. I just want to give you the best quality.
EOW: Okay, so what would you want your reputation to be?
CK: My reputation is -- if you want real high quality in fish that's eaten in Japan -- that's what we do. It doesn't have to be omakase. Just, you come here, and whatever you eat, you can trust it. That's the end of the story. 'Cause my standard is I'm not going to give you anything bad, period.
EOW: Tell me about some of the specialty fishes you have. You fly a lot of your fish in from the Tsukiji fish market in Japan.
CK: It's what's in season, but what I have today is inada, which is baby yellowtail. I have kinmedai, golden eye snapper, which no one is going to buy. I have akamutsu. Akamutsu is like $85 a pound.
EOW: Why do you buy it?
CK: Because it's the most prized snapper, it's the rarest, it's the most prized snapper in Japan. Akamutsu is the most valuable snapper. Kinmedai is, too, but akamutsu is another level. I have aji, I have kanpachi, kawahagi -- I don't have it tonight, but I order it all the time. Kawahagi is like a trigger fish. I love to serve it because I use the liver to make the sauce. I serve it with its liver, which is one of my favorites. Kohada, shimi saba, anago. My anago is from Japan. I buy fresh anago from Japan.
EOW: Let's talk about your omakase. You're actually famous for your omakase. How do you decide what you're going to make for somebody?
CK: I decide when you sit down what I'm going to make. And then I decide based on the ingredients that I have, what I'm going to give you and what order I'm going to give it to you. I'm a different kind of chef. Most Japanese chefs, they write the menu. Me? It's all gut instinct on you and me. Like, the energy. I do everything based on energy.
EOW: I noticed you really watching your guests for their reactions.
CK: Yeah, that's what I do. Everything is about how you react.
EOW: What are you looking for?
CK: I'm not looking for anything. I've just been doing it long enough to know if you like it or don't. You cannot lie to me. Your eyes and your reaction cannot lie to me. So, my years of doing this, that's what I look for.
EOW: Tell me about this sauce that you baste over your sushi. What's it called?
Basting nikiri, a glaze of soy and mirin, over his freshly made nigiri sushi.
EOW: Isn't it very traditional Japanese?
CK: Do you know why I use this sauce? Because I don't want you to damage my sushi. It's just one bite. The rice is that sensitive. Imagine if you're going to try to dip that. There's no way to dip that without it falling apart. The rice is airy. That's why I do that, because I want you to taste the sushi like that, you know? The fish, the rice is balanced; there's not too much soy sauce. Nikiri is a basic sauce. It's just soy sauce and mirin to a boil, and a little reduction to get the glaze, that's it.
EOW: But why do you think people don't use it? Why are you using it?
CK: I'm only using it for omakase, because I want you to taste the food in my manner.
EOW: So, you use it so people don't use the soy sauce? Ahh...okay, I get it.
CK: Right. I don't want you to damage what I created. See, the rice is so sensitive that if I give it to you to dip, it's just going to fall apart, and you don't get the compact piece of sushi that I want you to taste. That's all it is. It's just -- I want you not to ruin what I create by not using proper etiquette of dipping. So, proper etiquette of dipping is, you grab it sideways with the chopsticks, and you dip it upside down as fast as you can, in one bite. How many people can do that? (demonstrates with motion of the hand)
EOW: (sheepishly) I never dip it upside down.
CK: You'll ruin the piece of sushi. If you don't dip it upside down, you'll ruin the piece of sushi, because you're not tasting anything but soy sauce. You should never let the rice touch the soy sauce, only the flesh of the fish. That's why with the nikiri, I'm controlling how much soy, how much wasabi, everything. If you want more wasabi, you can add on, but I try to put the right amount that I think is going to be balanced in that piece.
EOW: How would you describe your style?
CK: It's classic. Old school.
EOW: Why not fusion?
CK: I don't do fusion. I hate fusion. I'm not into all that fancy stuff. Listen -- sushi is high-quality fish, good rice, good seasonings, good preparation, good knife skills. Sushi is fish, rice, soy sauce, wasabi. That's it. No more.
EOW: Tell me your issue with cream cheese rolls.
CK: I'm trying to keep Japanese cuisine Japanese cuisine -- sushi sushi. I'm not trying to Americanize it. I want people to enjoy true Japanese sushi. I don't claim to be a chef of everything, but I claim to be a sushi chef, so everything about me is pure sushi. Pure, old-school sushi. I don't know how to make all this fancy stuff, and all these fancy sauces, and I don't want to. I want the traditional style to remain. Because if people eat it correctly, it's very special. Don't get me wrong. All these rolls and all this stuff, it's good, it's like candy, but it's taking away from what it should be. And I try to avoid that.
EOW: So what do you want Houstonians to know about you?
CK: That I make real sushi. If you want real sushi, you come see me. I want to give you classic, traditional-style sushi. That's it. Nothing fancy here.
Check back with us tomorrow as Kinjo takes us through one of his specialty omakase, or tasting menus.
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