I started my career as a sushi chef at Kyoto restaurant here in 1993-94. I learned from a few Japanese sushi chefs, and one who was incredibly talented named Kiyohisa Hara. Kiyo introduced me to the beginnings of everything in Japanese cuisine and sushi. Flavors, techniques, ingredients, and methods all of which were a whole new world to me. I fell in love with the food first, then the people…and it wasn’t till later when i got my chance that i embraced everything that had to do with sushi and its preparation.
Kiyo taught me well for a year or two, but was soon gone and i was left to work on my own for the most part…until i started at Kyoto’s new location where i worked under the man who originally built Kyoto named Ted Kasuga. He was amazing and took me under his wing and showed me everything there was about fish, sushi, rice, and the pride that goes with becoming a fully fledged sushi chef. He made sure my knives were sharp every day. He made me read the paper before work to keep up on current event to discuss with customers. He challenged me to be dexterious in my garnishes and compositions. After years of working in Vegas, he was super fast as well. I never got as fast as Ted-san when i worked with him. His work was always superior. His pride in what he was as a sushi master was something to look up to….and from there i was sold! Becoming a sushi chef; that was what i wanted.
The next and most important step in my career was one night when i went to eat at place in Austin called “Musashino”. There were 4 Japanese sushi chefs behind the counter. Foreboding. They all looked like seriously incredible chefs, but it was obvious that the head chef at the end of the line was the best by far. His name is Takehiko “Smokey” Fuse, and little did i know that he would become my sensei for the next 6 years.
Watching Smokey that first night was beyond words. His knife skill was something out of a graphic novel. His focus and creativity were unthinkable. Wooden cutting boards? Large pieces of super fresh fish resting in the sushi cases for everyone to see? A system where the head chef cut every single piece of fish to be served all night long? This was amazing! I knew then that my only chance to get where i wanted and learn from the best was to get a job making sushi at Musashino.
I got up the guts a week later and went in to eat again. After the meal i walked around the bar and tried to talk to Smokey to see if i could get a job there or if they were ever hiring. “Do you think i could get a job here learning from you?”, i said quivering. ” Can you read or write Japanese?”, he said. “No”, i said. “Then you could never work here. ” , he replied. I was CRUSHED. I thought that was it and i might as well give up on this charade of trying to become a full fledged sushi chef in America. What was i thinking? I went home, went to sleep, and woke up the next day deflated.
Then, after a couple weeks while i was still working at Kyoto, i was sleeping at my house on Koenig lane one night after work and someone started banging on my bedroom window at 3am! I had no idea who it was and looked out to see this crazy looking Japanese guy holding a bucket with ice and pointing to my front door. I went around to the door in my underwear and opened it. It was Smokey and one of his sushi guys named Nishimura Ikutoshi. They had a 12 pack of Budweiser in cans on ice in a bucket…and from there i sat on my couch in my underwear drinking beer and Smokey and Iku offered me a job while speaking to each other in Japanese to come work at Musashino the following week. It was one of only a few turning points in my life, and i was in my underwear, on my couch, drinking a bud in the middle of the night, with 2 Japanese strangers. ;0)
I went on to a whole new world of sushi and what it could become and learned every possible thing i could from Smoke-san from there forward until i went out on my own to open Uchi in 2003. He is still to this day the most talented chef i have ever known, and i am indebted to him with what i have learned and become… if for nothing else other than taking the chance on me and letting me try to see what i could do. It was the shot i needed, and the stepping stone to give me the tools i would later need to become a success.
The photo is a technique i learned from Smokey-san on how to scale a fish with your knife instead of a scaler so you don’t damage the flesh and it holds its resiliency once you fillet it and slice for sashimi or sushi. One of many lessons that go into Uchi food every day.