How to Be a Sushi Chef: Interviews With Chef Kaz and Chef Edison
Learning how to be a sushi chef sounds like an intimidating process. After all, sushi was once a delicacy only found in high-end Japanese enclaves of big American cities if you could find it outside of Japan.
Now, you can buy it at any convenience store! Much like Chinese food, it has become something that people throw out casually when thinking of restaurant options: “I could go for sushi right now.”
Despite its ubiquity, sushi still isn’t something most people would list as among their go-to home-cooked meals. The techniques of how to be a sushi chef appear simple (cut the fish perfectly) but are nigh-impossible to master (cut the fish perfectly). To dispel the mystery, Cozymeal talked to esteemed sushi chefs, Chef Kaz and Chef Edison, about what everyone should know about how to make sushi, what inspires them and how often they almost got fired.
An Interview With Chef Kaz
What inspires your cooking?
There are mainly two things that inspire my cooking: People who are going to eat my food and ingredients.
There is no reason for me to cook unless there is someone who wants to eat my dishes, even if that person is me. So, it’s very important what that person wants and most importantly, why that person wants what he/she wants. As obvious as this may sound, I am cooking for someone else's pleasure, and that comes first, and then comes my pleasure of cooking and seeing their happy face.
The occasion of the meal is important, and the guests will have some influence on my dishes. For example, the type of sushi I will make for a birthday dinner will be different from an anniversary dinner. I may make temari sushi (ball-shaped sushi) for a birthday dinner and nigiri for an anniversary dinner, as each is served on different occasions in Japan.
Because I am the type of chef who gets inspiration from looking at ingredients. It's rather difficult for me to come up with a menu without looking at actual ingredients, though I do it all the time.
When I look at ingredients, it is as if they are speaking to me, telling me the best way to cut, prep, cook, season, combine with other ingredients and that is how I get inspiration for a dish. Even if it's the same ingredient I've used before, I may cook it differently because the inspiration I get may be different.
I get an email fish price list every morning from my fish supplier, and that is how I start my day. List of available fish changes every day, so it's a good way for me to get some inspiration. The list also contains information as to how and where fish was caught and since I only use sustainable fish, it's very important for me to get that information.
Do you have a favorite ingredient, recipe or dish?
My favorite dish to make is tom ka taley. (I know it's Thai Food, not sushi.) It's Thai seafood coconut soup. I learned to cook it at my first sushi restaurant as an employee meal. The owner said I could use anything (except sushi fish) in the restaurant to prepare for an employee meal. I always wanted to learn how to cook Thai food, so I borrowed a Thai cookbook from the local library.
For some Thai ingredients like fish sauce, lime leaves and galanga (Thai ginger) I went to a Thai supermarket. The restaurant was ordering a whole chicken, which they fillet for teriyaki chicken but then were throwing away the bones, so I used the bones to make chicken broth and added other ingredients to make tom ka taley. It turned out to be one of the best soups I ever made (so some of my coworkers and friends told me).
As for sushi/fish related recipe, it’s seafood ceviche.
And people say my sake mojito is fantastic!
My recent favorite ingredient is local/San Francisco swordfish sashimi and nigiri. I never had "raw" swordfish until recently, and it is just wonderful — similar and a good substitute to toro/tuna belly, not too fatty with a fresh flavor of the ocean.
What’s one trick that cooks at home should know that’s made your culinary life easier?
Have a clipboard, paper and a pen before you start cooking.
In other words, write down everything you need — all the ingredients and the amount, all the tools (including plates and serving utensils), all the cooking steps and timeline. Planning is everything.
I've seen so many people forget to get one ingredient and have to go shopping at the grocery store right in the middle of cooking. (This happened a lot during dinner parties and Thanksgiving dinners.)
All they had to do was to make a list of what ingredients to buy and systematically, check off what they get from the list when they go shopping. The human brain is designed to remember everything, yet each information is stored in different parts of our brain. So when we focus on one thing, we may forget to access other information, thus becoming unable to remember important information, like “buy soy sauce."
By writing down, there is no need for us to try to "remember" what we have to get and instead, we can focus on the actual process of cooking.
When did you start partnering with Cozymeal and why?
I wanted to reach more people who are looking for my service — sushi classes and private sushi dinners. I met many people who were surprised to see a private sushi chef offering private sushi classes and dinners, so I suppose it's a new thing to have a sushi chef coming to your home.
I know there are a lot of people out there who love sushi and want to have me come to their homes and I'd love to meet them, teach them how to make sushi and make sushi for them to see their happy faces. I thought Cozymeal would help me to do that. (I am terrible at marketing myself, so I decided to rely on Cozymeal to do that part!)
If you could open a restaurant, what would it be like?
I’ve decided I would never open my own restaurant, so it would not ever exist, though I would be happy to help others open a restaurant as a consultant or giving ideas and advice.
What did you do before you were a chef?
I was an art director in Los Angeles, designing Hollywood movie posters such as True Lies and Frankenstein. I also worked as a producer for an international film festival in Japan and I was an ordained Zen priest teaching workshops and Zen cooking classes.
Have you experienced any spectacular successes as a chef? Failures?
My company started in 2012 and has received 16 perfect five-star Yelp reviews, so I am pretty happy with that. Many reputable large corporations as Google, Oracle, CitiBank, Prudential and VISA have become our clients and I am humbled. I also have many private clients who are CEOs of well-known companies. I get to work at beautifully designed kitchens in beautiful homes, some of which have spectacular views.
My monthly sushi classes in San Francisco and San Mateo have been sold out a month in advance, so things are looking quite nice for me.
However, the most rewarding part of what I do, which I find to be a spectacular success, is when I see people making their very first California roll and get so excited about it, or tasting fresh wasabi from the grater and be amazed by the aroma and sweetness of real wasabi instead of the powdered horseradish they are used to eating thinking it was wasabi when it was not.
As for a failure, for one dinner event, I arrived late for a load-in time, which made the client unhappy. Since then, I promised myself always to arrive at least half an hour early to any event.
Tell me a story (good or bad) of something that happened while you were cooking. It can be at any time, in any place, about a success or failure.
Because the first sushi restaurant I started working was on Sunset Strip in Hollywood, I got to see and serve many celebrities, movie stars and Hollywood actors. I got so dazzled when Mick Jagger walked into the restaurant (I was a big Rolling Stones fan) and called all my friends to tell them about it. When I asked him if it was OK to take a picture with him, he said OK and put his hand over my shoulder, which was really nice.
One time, Bobby Brown (singer) walked into the restaurant and saw me eat Thai noodles I cooked as an employee meal. He asked me what it was and said, "I want that!" I told him no because it was not on the menu, which I thought was funny.
After seeing and interacting with many celebrities, I realized that, in true essence, they are no different from you and I, and they do appreciate when we treat them in the same way as we do others.
More About Chef Kaz
You can find Chef Kaz’s experiences on Cozymeal for more guidance in learning how to be a sushi chef.
An Interview With Chef Edison
What inspires your cooking? Do you have a favorite part of Japanese food? Favorite ingredient or favorite dish?
I love to put different ingredients inside sushi. Sushi rolls, sushi nigiri. I take a long time to search for different ingredients and mix them together. Then I taste them by myself, and if I think the dish is good, I bring it to my master or my friends. If they think it’s good, I present it to the restaurant, and it becomes the menu. I hope my customers and students think it’s good.
So if you were to start a restaurant, you would start a Japanese restaurant?
Yes. I have lots of experience with Japanese food. My mom also has lots of experience with Japanese food. She knows lots about Japanese food as well.
Is she a chef as well?
She’s a chef, but she’s a kitchen chef. I’m a sushi bar chef, but she’s a kitchen chef. She works in the kitchen at a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco.
How did you come to be in San Francisco?
I came here when I was 19 years old for education. My whole family moved here because they wanted me to pursue higher education. I worked part time as a sushi helper when I first came here. I was in school and learning English as well. When I first came here, I didn’t know how to speak English, write English, anything.
What did you study in school here?
Finance. I started studying accounting, but I found that it was very difficult to take accounting classes. So I changed my major to finance, and I graduated.
So are you an accountant now?
Financial service professional.
So do you work as a financial service professional full time? How do you split your time between partnering on Cozymeal and your other job?
I work at the bank Monday to Friday and partner with Cozymeal on the weekends. I used to partner with Cozymeal Monday to Friday and all day on the weekends. Right now my job is really busy, so I only host cooking classes on the weekends. If I don’t have much work, I will take more bookings.
Every time I meet my students, the customers, and they learn something, I feel very happy inside my heart. Every time we get together, we are talking, drinking, making sushi like a family. Everybody acts like a family when they come to my classes: I ask them to introduce themselves so they make friends first, then we start the sushi class. That’s a competition class. So every block of two splits into a pair to make the sushi together. They’re building a relationship together. Because this is a competition class, there is more cooperation. They talk a lot.
Would you rather be teaching cooking classes than working in a restaurant because you get to work with students?
I like teaching people much more now. I would prefer to have my own restaurant where I could teach cooking classes and cook for everyone.
So you mentioned earlier that you knew this master chef and that you started as a sushi helper. What is a sushi helper?
A sushi helper doesn’t know anything. There’s a chef who asks you to prep the vegetables, cook the rice and you help the master chef to prepare the ingredients that he needs for sushi. The most important job for the helper is helping the master chef with everything: Vegetables, sauce, rice, everything that he needs.
If the restaurant is out of the ingredient, I would prepare it for them. After that, you can move to the sushi bar to make simple rolls. Then more rolls. Then you learn how to make the nigiri. But mastering the rolls takes a long time. The nigiri is then much harder than making the rolls because you have a different kind of fish and a different way of cutting it. If you don’t know how to cut it, then you don’t know how to make the nigiri because the fish is broken.
You have all kinds of fish, and every piece is unique. Every time you cut a piece of nigiri, it should be like a small fish with the head and the tail. Every single cut has a head and a tail. That’s the perfect nigiri. After you learn how to cut the fish, then you can start making nigiri. When you first learn, it’s very hard because you don’t have any skills, not even how much rice to take.
The more you practice, the more you feel adept at cutting the fish, grabbing the rice, handling the fish and you’re getting more familiar with the rice, the fish, everything and you can make good nigiri.
After the sushi bar, what’s the next step?
After the nigiri, the most important thing is the sashimi and how to cut it. How to cut sashimi, how to make beautiful decorations, everything. Everything in sushi is about art. Making the rolls is the first step, but how to decorate the rolls and nigiri and sashimi is the hardest part.
How it looks on the plate? That’s the hardest part?
First, you have to choose the right plate, then you have to choose the right elements so it looks great. For nigiri, there are four elements: The mountain, the river, hike (pronounced hee-kee) and water. Hike is a small trough. Without these four elements, the sashimi plates are missing something. They’ll never be perfect. That’s the very traditional Japanese culture of making the sashimi plates for the decorations. It’s just like a natural environment like a forest.
So you’re creating an ecosystem.
Yes. In an ecosystem, there always must be a balance. Something high, something low, something flowing through. You should be able to look at it from 360 degrees and see something beautiful.
I’ve never heard that before. So that’s the highest level of being a sushi chef?
Yes. That’s the secret of my master chef. He never taught anybody these secrets.
How did you get involved with this master chef?
I’m lucky. I worked all around the Bay Area, and I finally worked for a master chef in Sacramento. He showed me there is a lot of patience involved in making sushi. Much more patience than most people have. He taught me everything: how to make the rice, prepping the ingredients, how to cut the fish, everything.
You just asked him? How did you find him?
He worked in a famous restaurant before I met him, but I knew where he worked then. So I applied for my job, and they hired me. I started work with him. In the beginning, he taught me nothing. But because I have a lot of patience and desire to learn how to make sushi, he came to me and tried to teach me something. He saw it. As he taught me, I started to ask more and more questions, and I learned more. I learned everything from him.
Why did you start partnering with Cozymeal after that experience?
I had my resume when I graduated, and I threw my resume anywhere on the internet. Two or three months later, Cozymeal sent me an email. They saw something on my resume, probably “sushi chef.” At that time, they didn’t have any sushi chefs. They asked me to meet, so I talked to Sam, and they asked me if I was interested in making sushi, and so I started.
The first time, they asked me to make a presentation. They rented a place for me, and they asked me to show them. I prepared everything: Fish, rolls, nigiri, sashimi, everything. Then they asked me to partner with Cozymeal. The first few months, I only had one or two parties, maybe once a month. At that time, Cozymeal had just started up. Then more came.
It seems like you’re doing very well.
I do my best. Every time I teach, I do my best to teach from my heart. I prepare well, I buy the good quality fish, and I use my heart to teach them. When they go back and can’t remember the recipe, I will email it to them with more details.
Speaking of your students, what’s one part of your cooking process that has made your cooking a lot easier? One trick that cooks at home should know.
Prepare well. To prepare your stuff well before you go to the party. Think before you walk out the door. For example, you know how many tables, how many chairs are there, the layout of the place, where the kitchen is and all that. You write it all down, then you start to think about how to set up the table, set up the chair, how to prepare everything, think everything through.
You prepare everything at home first, then you go there and can put everything on the table and set up the chairs. It’s much easier. In the beginning, I didn’t know anything. I would spend two hours on setup. Now it’s just a half an hour with much more experience.
Well, that’s all the questions I have except the open-ended one: Will you tell me a story about a time you were cooking?
When I first started, I worked for Japanese restaurants. I love cooking, love creating new things when I learn something. I used my heart to learn. I worked all over the Bay Area and learned little by little from different chefs. I put it all together.
After I learn anything, I write everything down and I start creating my own things — my own style, my own food, my menu, my dishes, my knife skills, my fish-handling skills. Everything. Everything is heart to heart. That’s a little bit about me.
That’s great. Thank you.
For the story, what kind of story do you mean?
A story that sticks out in your mind about your cooking and your time as a chef, whether it was a huge success or a huge failure. You talk a lot about learning in relation to your cooking, so it could be a time when you learned a lot from either your master chef or even one of your students.
Yeah, when I was learning about sushi there were a lot of obstacles.
As a helper, it was very stressful because when you work slow or you don’t prepare something well or you don’t prepare enough ingredients for the chef, they will just yell at you. Very often. Just scream at you. Maybe talk to the boss and say, “I don’t want this helper. Just fire him.”
Did you ever get fired?
No, but I got yelled at a lot when I was first learning. I made bad sushi. But I have a lot of patience, and I learned, and moved up in the restaurants, and my skills got better, and the chef yelled at me less often. I kept learning and learning, and went to a different restaurant. I got more creative with skills from a different chef, and as l kept learning, as long as I kept working, and kept making use of my own skills, I grew up to be a chef. Nobody was yelling at me. I felt very happy.
Different kinds of chefs have different skills, and I collected and created my own. I created my own menu, my own dishes. How to cook the rice, how to select the best fish, basically how to operate the whole restaurant. I learned everything. After that, I think I can start my own business. Knowing that, I feel very happy even though I haven’t started my own business yet.
Because I collected skills and created my own, I feel successful in the area of sushi. During all this working time, unhappy things happened on my way from sushi helper or as a second chef or a third chef because if something happens like you’re cutting the fish the wrong way, you’re going to get yelled at. If the boss calls you out or threatens to fire you, you will feel bad all day. There are lots of obstacles during the learning process. When they yell at you, you want to quit, but you think about the fact that you can’t learn this kind of stuff if you quit the job and that you won’t get to do things like this anywhere else.
I think about that, and I stay in the restaurant, and I keep learning, keep learning. The same thing keeps happening. They keep yelling, but I keep learning, knowing that I will become a chef. I apply what I learned to my goal of becoming a master chef.
So you want to be a master chef?
I spent 10 years learning different skills from so many chefs, and I created my own skills. Finally, one of the restaurants in Sacramento hired me as a master chef. They respect me, my menu and my skills. I helped them get a lot of customers, and I created the product for them. Before I went there, the chefs didn’t know how to talk to the customers. They just kept their heads down, made sushi and nothing else.
After they hired me, we had good communication with the customers and I enforced good service. I created my own food that was different from my teachers’ food, and I respected the customers. I asked them if they wanted to try something new, and, if they liked it, I put it on the menu. Everybody came to the restaurant: Family, friends, everybody.
When was this?
It was called Frozen Yaki. I think it closed a long time ago.
When were you working with them?
Six years ago. After that, I moved back to San Francisco to start going to school, and I worked for sushi restaurants as another job. I graduated in 2013. Then in 2014, Cozymeal found me and asked me to do their presentations, and they found that I am good at interacting with sushi and the customers, and they invited me to have a partnership. Then they started doing the marketing for me, and they started me with the small party, then they expanded to the residential and corporate events.
Because people are rating me very high right now, the most important thing is that I teach with my heart. Second — that I do really good customer service. Third — that I ask my students for feedback, and I improve after they give me feedback. I keep improving, keep improving.
Fortunately, I prepare everything well, find good quality ingredients for them and get everybody together talking and drinking just like a family. That’s nice. Then we have all the elements of a job well done, a successful teacher with the students.
Great. Is there anything else you want to say?
Right now, because I love teaching, I’m meeting people from many different countries. As Cozymeal grows up, my dream of partnering with Cozymeal is that I can meet more and more people from different countries. I want to teach people from many different countries and learn about many cultures. I want to learn about different cities, governments, everything.
I can’t travel all over the world, but I want to meet people from all over the world. I want to communicate with them and teach them, and I want them to teach me. I really want to travel the world, but I cannot. But lots of different types of people come to the United States, and meeting them gives me a chance to learn from them, to open my mind. I always ask them to give me some suggestions about sushi. I can always put their culture into my sushi. Mexican, Italian, French — all these different food cultures can influence me.
I want to learn about all the different food cultures of the world and integrate them into my sushi dishes. That’s what I want to work towards. That’s why I’m partnering with Cozymeal. That’s the most important part of my partnership. I want to give my creations to the whole world and learn from them. Right now, Cozymeal is growing up very quickly. I think they’re doing a great job, and they’ll expand to different cities and states, where I can talk to new people.
More About Chef Edison
Find Chef Edison’s experiences on Cozymeal for expert guidance on how to be a sushi chef.