A fine arts background is evident in Chef Nobu Yamazaki’s modern Japanese cuisine, a relief to DC, where until recently, Japanese cuisine was a fairly quotidian display of standard sushi. Eventually Yamazaki would take the role of chef at his parent’s restaurant, Sushi Taro. But Yamazaki wasn’t always bound to DC dining. Over the years he staged and worked at Ozushi in the Tokyo prefecture of Japan.
Frustrated by the lack of interest by non-Japanese diners in authentic Japanese food, he temporarily closed the family restaurant for several weeks, hoping a drastic makeover would mean a change in direction for Japanese food, besides the sleeker decor. The facelift worked.
Behind the wooden counter in the context of his brand new modern dining room, Yamazaki works his magic, grating fresh wasabi and lovingly preparing and plating the food in front of the diner on pottery spun by a small producer in Pennsylvania. Seasonal rarities like fresh bamboo drastically distinguish the chef’s cuisine from formulaic and hackneyed American impostors. Yamazaki is slowly proving that the balanced, delicate flavors at the heart of Japanese cuisine can have a captive audience.
When he’s not busy winning over diners to authentic Japanese cookery, Yamazaki is a member the Sushi Society of Washington, DC, and has won numerous sushi contests, including the first US Sushi Skill Grand Championship, and the Silver Award at the All Japan Sushi Competition. And in what spare time remains, this generous, talented chef is a member of an informal young chefs club in Washington, DC. He also makes a killer turtle broth.
Interview with Chef Nobu Yamazaki of Sushi Taro – Washington, DC
Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Nobu Yamazaki: Being in my parents’ restaurant. I started to help my parents, then went to art school. You never get a decent job right away, so I thought it would be nice to have the skill. Once you have a certain skill you can live anywhere in the world, you can make a living in sushi or Japanese cuisine; I thought it was a good idea.
AB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
NY: Not necessarily. It helps, I think, but it doesn't matter to me.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
NY: Customers come to certain restaurants with certain expectations. They are trying to have a good time so we are here to help. They’re trying to enjoy the food and atmosphere so it is our job to provide what they expect. Sometimes it’s nice to exceed their expectation.
AB: Where did the concept for the Sushi Taro menu come from?
NY: We just renovated this place a year ago. A lot of customers were frustrated to have to go to New York or to Japan to find traditional Japanese. We had nothing in DC. Sushi Ko is a good place to go, also Perry's. But those places are different, not good or bad, but not traditional. Most of the other Japanese places have a non-Japanese owner, and they all have the same menu. Before that renovation, we were just another one. A very popular neighborhood spot, we would sell things like spicy tuna and California rolls. I thought it was about time we focused on more traditional Japanese cooking. That's what I like to see happen in DC. We wanted to be one of the first ones to do it. Hopefully we now are one of the destinations in this area. Despite the bad economy we upgraded the restaurant. It was so tough just to survive because we find a lot of customers looking for this place but at same time have certain expectation of the mind of Japanese food. They are not adventurous and they will be disappointed by no teriyaki. We have a tasting menu, introducing them to new things. We do that at the counter every day but not at the table.
AB: What goes into creating a dish?
NY: I just start with the ingredient. In Japanese cuisine and cooking we heavily depend on the season. Like the bamboo shoot you had today: it’s not available in a month from now. So whatever comes in season we just try to understand the flavor of that ingredient and hold the real flavor of that ingredient. Not so much adding other flavors to it, but trying to get the true flavor.
AB: How involved are you in your local culinary community?
NY: Well there is a sushi association of Washington, DC with only five Japanese restaurants as members. We don't have meetings as often now, but we used to have meetings every month. Not just owners, but also chefs, to talk about cooking, business, management. We don't do this now, but five or six years ago, every month we would have iron chef with each restaurant. We had 15 people who wanted to do something, we would start at midnight then we would present. Everybody made three dishes with the same ingredients and then we would talk about it. Now we stopped doing that. You've got to have those young people who want to. Now in the DC Japanese community less of those young ones really want to. It was a lot of fun, and we learned a lot. Sometimes we had the guy from minibar because he’s Mandarin with Japanese people working there. A lot of people now are interested in Japanese food, but at that time it was only Japanese people.
AB: Which person in history would you most like to cook for?
NY: I always enjoy cooking for my family, I’m not an ambitious person. We live together; three generations in one house in Virginia about 15 to 20 minutes from here. It is great for my three children. They’re seven, four, and one.
AB: If you could have any chef cook for you, who would it be and why?
NY: The are many restaurants I would love to go to. I would like to go to French Laundry, Joël Robuchon, and all other famous places.
AB: What ingredient do you feel is under-appreciated?
NY: I love intestines, stomachs of pork, beef, fish—each one's different. We usually serve a small amount of those things at the counter. I explain exactly what fish milk is to the customers who ask what it is. I say it's fish sperm.
AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
NY: Cooking itself, I never thought was difficult. Managing the restaurant is the tough part, employees mostly.
AB: What is your proudest accomplishment?
NY: I don't have it yet.