2015 New York Rising Star Chef John Daley of New York Sushi Ko

2015 New York Rising Star Chef John Daley of New York Sushi Ko
February 2015

John Daley has two tattoos (well, eight, technically) that literally spell out his career: “rice” and “fish,” both words written out, finger by finger, on the sushi chef’s knuckles. Fists clenched, it’s as if Daley could basically punch his way into the future of his chosen, beloved cuisine.

Daley isn't a pugilist. He’s just obsessed with sushi. He got his start cooking in a Chinese restaurant at 15, and when the Time Warner Center welcomed a host of high-end restaurants, Daley went resume-dropping. Let down at Per Se, Daley moved on to Bar Masa, where a great interview turned into a great, if unexpected, career path.

Tattooed and aproned (and Caucasian), Daley doesn’t come across as the traditional sushi master. But his output is built on a foundation of serious tradition and a rigorous work ethic gleaned from the mentorship of StarChefs.com 2007 Rising Star Chef Masato Shimizu at 15 East. Tradition grew even deeper roots when Daley moved to Tokyo, working under Shimizu’s mentor Rikio Kugo at the renowned Sukeroku. And while he probably would have liked to stay in Tokyo longer, Daley brought one important thing back with him: connections with the Japanese fishing community, which serve him (and the lucky diners who claim Sushi Ko’s eleven seats) very well indeed. 

Interview with New York Rising Star Chef John Daley of New York Sushi Ko

Antoinette Bruno: How did you get into sushi?
John Daley:
I just decided at one point. I mean, I had just turned 35 and I didn’t want to be 35 and pulling 350 degree trays of shoulders out of ovens and damage my wrists etc. So there were health longevity reasons, because of which I got into sushi as well.  Besides, I love Japanese food—I could prepare it all day and still want to eat it after work.

AB: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?
Actually, not letting the racism of not being Japanese get to me on an emotional, human level. While overcoming the diversity, language, and cultural barriers, when I was in Japan, I almost broke down a couple of times. I mean I understand a fair amount of the language, but I do not speak as much as I understand. So that was definitely hard—when you’re living somewhere where you’re either doubted or put on a different tier. Coming back from Japan, I had a lot more respect for some of the illegal employees in New York City kitchens. But then, also, after a week of being in Japan, they turned to me and said, “okay, no more English” and they gave me a little Japanese dictionary. I’m sure I’d be sued or crucified if I did that to someone in my kitchen! If I said, no more Spanish, here’s a dictionary. It’s the truth—they were really nice and accommodating for a week or so and then slowly just, well, you want to be here, you have to learn Japanese. It’s a beautiful challenge.

AB: What’s your proudest accomplishment?
Just having been able to have a restaurant in New York City that’s been open a year and not lose my mind.

AB: How do you blend into your local culinary community?
I blend in because of my experience, my background, where I’ve worked, and also my dedication. I’m lucky enough to have been taught such a system of Japanese food, and I recognize it as an honor—the fact that I consider it like a rite of passage through the community. For many years I would arrive at 15 East, and I would get in at 8:00 a.m. and stay until midnight. That was my life. So, I’m trying to make up for lost time. I mean, this town’s small, the fine dining Japanese community is small, it’s like people know me or whatever and people have seen me coming up and being yelled at by Masa and John Morrison and people see me receiving orders at 15 East for many hours a week. 

AB: Describe for me your philosophy on food.
That’s a loaded question. I mean, literally, my life is food. So, it’s like, tell me about your life. My main philosophy is “Eat it, don’t tweet it.” I enjoy making food for people who like to eat food. I mean, I love food, food’s amazing, so as far as cooking is concerned, I try to produce the highest quality food in the cleanest possible environment.