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Sushi Chef Didn't Want to Smell Like Fish

Kakui Sushi and Taki Sushi chef Kaz Sasaki, who loves playing music, was reluctant to go into the family business, but you wouldn't know it from his hamachi nigiri.

Name: Kaz Sasaki

Age: 49

Occupation: Sushi chef at in Montclair and Taki Sushi in El Cerrito; guitar and bass player

How long have you been a sushi chef? Well, you know [in El Cerrito]? That was my dad's (Yuzo Sasaki). He had that place for something like 25 years. Prior to that he had a bunch of different restaurants. I kind of grew up in a restaurant, and I helped him out when I was 15 to 18 years old. Then I got out and came back to help him open up this place for a couple of years. Then I totally escaped the restaurant business, and I was playing music full time.

What do you play? Mainly guitar and bass. I still play music all the time, but I don't play live anywhere because with this job the schedules are kind of contradictory timewise—night, of course. I plan on doing it later-later maybe. It's something I want to do.

So you didn't start out wanting to be a sushi chef? Making sushi is just something that happened to me. About 15 years ago, when my dad got older, he asked me to help out again. Other times I'd be like, “Uh, nah.” But this time I felt kind of guilty because he was older, you know. So I went and helped him in the kitchen and one thing led to another, and people quit, so he was left by himself making sushi behind the bar. It was stuff I totally said I'd never do—be a sushi chef—because when I was kid, my dad, you know, smelled like fish all the time, and I just didn't like the whole thing. Some people want to become sushi chefs, but for me it was kind of like gravity.

I ended up working up front, and still I didn't really want to be a sushi chef. My dad was getting older though and having health problems, so the guy that owned Taki kept all of my dad's recipes. Although the person that bought kept the same name, the real Yusan Sushi, my dad's place, is here.

How do you feel about this job now? For a long time when my dad was alive and I was helping him out, I was always kind of fighting it. I only wanted to go so far with it. He wanted me to take over, but I didn't want to do that, so I didn't fully grasp all of the skills of a sushi chef. I did a lot of the other, more personal stuff to keep the customers, and I still have a loyal customer base. ...

After my dad died I started getting—not serious-serious, but although my dad and I didn't have the greatest relationship, I still felt like I had to honor him and not be a hack. So I had to raise my game up a bit in the last couple of years. It was only after I realized something and I stopped fighting it after all those years.

So what did "raising your game" involve? It's just about learning the stuff that I should've learned a long time ago, like a way to cut sashimi properly, or just the nigiri aspect.

What is the nigiri aspect? Nigiri is the sushi with rice under the fish. Sashimi is without. "Nigiri" means "squeeze," and there are many levels to that. First, you want to make it look good. Then the rice has got to be a certain texture—not too hard, not too soft. If it's too soft it falls apart, and if it's too hard then it's chewy so you don't taste the fish—you're just chewing on the rice. You have to balance it and it takes time. Sometimes you squeeze, squeeze, squeeze and the inside of the rice gets hard, but if you squeeze really fast then the outside gets hard and the inside stays soft. You learn, and then you learn that you need to learn more. With this there are a lot of different levels, but I don't think of myself as a master sushi chef by any means.

Was your dad from Japan? Oh yes. I was born in Japan.

How old were you when you came here? I was 4, but I still speak Japanese.

Is sushi, the way we know it, regularly eaten in Japan? There are a lot of sushi bars and restaurants and the fusion thing is going on there too. Starting with the Korean invasion when the Japanese sushi chefs for some reason sold their restaurants to Korean owners and they put their bent on it. And now [it seems] something like 90 percent of sushi restaurant owners are Chinese and Taiwanese, and they put their stamp on it. They've got all these different rolls that come standard, but that's just what happens. ...

Some people aren't too sensitive to that. I know a lot of Japanese people are, though. There's a lot of reverence to making rice. In Japan you could spend a lot of time just making rice. Over here, they'll let anybody make it—the busboys or the dishwasher—like, it's just rice, right? My dad would always make his own.

One detail I've noticed at Taki Sushi is the fresh-cut wasabi. Why don't other places have it? Oh, because you can't make money off of it. Yeah, you can't find it anywhere. It's a whole different taste though. Much more up front.

What's your favorite thing to make? I like to make sashimi because there's an art to it. There's an ideal size and how you cut and lay out the fish to make it ready for sashimi. Two fingers high, three fingers across. [Kaz demonstrates with his hands and on the table]. Then when you cut it, there is maybe one finger or less. Then when you lay it, it goes this way. Unless it's a circular plate. It's at about a 45-degree angle this way, down from the left.

Some places don't think about that stuff, they just plunk it on. Japanese tradition asks for it to be a certain way. If it's too big, it's too chewy. Though sometimes it has to be big if it's too short the other way. Sometimes a little taller than two fingers. It all about balancing it.

Rolls are just rolls, any way you can make 'em. If there are four ingredients and you add another one, you just call it something else. But you know, it's valid. People like it.

What do you like to eat? I'm not a big sushi guy, you know, but I like certain middle-ground fish. In a typical sushi case you'll get the middle ground with hamachi (yellowtail), white tuna, red tuna, salmon, that kinda thing. Typically on the sides of the case, you'll get uni (sea urchin), horseneck clam things that are more challenging for, let's say, an American palate. And for me too, I don't like horseneck clam.

An article about Kaz Sasaki's dad, Yuzo Sasaki, appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle several years ago.

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