Japan’s sushi ‘maniac’ finds new inspiration in Hawaii

February 20, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC
At Sushi Sho, chef Keiji Nakazawa is training the next generation of Edomae masters.
Courtesy of Sushi Sho

It is Golden Week, Japan’s longest annual stretch of holidays, and chef Keiji Nakazawa’s Sushi Sho restaurant in Waikiki has been booked up for months with vacationers from his homeland eager for the opportunity to sit in front of one of the country’s culinary legends. The wait-list of people hoping for a last-minute cancellation this week at his 16-seat restaurant runs 200 deep.

Three decades into a career that has seen Nakazawa, 56, reach the pinnacle of his profession, showered with superlatives and awards, he was eager for a new challenge and moved to the Aloha State, where his first restaurant outside Japan sits in one of the two glittering towers of  the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki. Today, as food lovers line up for one of his $300, 30-course omakase meals, it is hard to imagine there was a time when he wondered how he would pay the bills.

Sushi Sho master chef Keiji Nakazawa
Courtesy of Sushi Sho

In 1978, when the sushi master embarked on his culinary training at the age of 15, he envisioned himself much like the heroes from his beloved comic books and anime films in Japan.

“I did not like to study. At the time when I was growing up, either you were going to be a really good student and become a teacher or doctor, or you’re going to be a master craftsman, like a carpenter or chef,” Nakazawa says through a Japanese translator. “I thought about it like a superhero who has to go around and train in different places to get all the skills you need to defeat the big boss.”

Over the next 11 years, he apprenticed at 20 different restaurants from Aomori in the north to Fukuoka in the south. But like Luke Skywalker and his truncated time with Yoda, sometimes personal circumstances mean training gets cut short. Nakazawa said his parents were scammed and subsequently lost their home. It tore the family apart. So he opened his first restaurant just outside Tokyo at 26, with the goal of buying back his childhood home. He was eager, but his hubris had led him into a precarious position.

“When I first opened, people only went to sushi restaurants with a reputation, that had been around a long time,” he says. “I was a young kid, and no one was coming. Some days I’d only get maybe one customer for lunch and one for dinner. There were times when I couldn’t pay my employees.”

Nakazawa knew he had to do something to attract diners. At a time when most Tokyo chefs were obsessed with modern innovations, he studied pre-refrigeration methods: “the relics of sushi history,” he remarks.

“One of the chefs I worked under had done the Edomae style of sushi, which was going out of style and fading away,” Nakazawa says. “So I decided to study those methods and bring it back.”

One of Japan’s renowned sushi masters has moved to Honolulu, where he’s opened a 16-seat, 30-course, $300 per person omakase restaurant that is booked months in advance.
Courtesy of Sushi Sho

Calling on techniques developed in the 1800s to better preserve fish and rice, Nakazawa ages and treats each item for a precise amount of time to coax out maximum flavor. Pristinely prepared fish, such as fatty tuna belly aged for five days or one-week–aged wild yellowtail, are wrapped in banana leaves, pickled in rice bran, or cured in sushi rice, then coupled with a specifically chosen rice, vegetable, or other accompaniment. The rice is often seasoned with aged vinegar and served at a range of temperatures depending on the seafood pairing.

In his third year, a magazine delivered a positive review, and Nakazawa’s restaurant started to take off. Eventually, Sushi Sho in Tokyo became a pilgrimage spot for sushi connoisseurs. He never had the chance to purchase his parents’ original home, but he did buy them a different one and brought his family back together.

By the time Nakazawa was ready to move abroad, his cuisine had been crowned “the pinnacle of Edomae sushi” by the Japanese press and chronicled in a documentary, Japan’s Top Sushi Maniac, from the Fuji Television Network. His many disciples honor him by including a nod to his restaurant, Sushi Sho, in the names of their own. Around Tokyo there is Sushi Sho Masa, Sushi Sho Shingo, and Sushi Sho Saito.

Nakazawa was listless without a challenge to conquer, and after reaching acclaim in Tokyo he knew it was time to tackle new turf. “The top restaurants and chefs get whatever they want, first pick,” Nakazawa says, referring to Japan’s famous, bustling fish markets, where the best seafood is sold off in a predawn cacophony. “So you have to build your reputation, and eventually the fish suppliers give you the best stuff. By the end, I could get whatever I wanted. But it also got to the point where the eye of the craftsman lost its meaning. The product was so good, someone with 10 years experience could make something just as good as the chef with 40 years.”

His move to Hawaii reinvigorated his creativity as he experiments with Molokai prawns, Kona abalone, and U.S. mainland products like Washington State geoduck clams.

“The exciting thing about Hawaii is always finding new ingredients that I can implement in my sushi. What I get worried about is the quality of ingredients goes up and down. In Japan you get what you want, but in Hawaii it’s more about protecting the environment and avoiding scarcity,” Nakazawa explains. “That’s part of Hawaiian culture. Like, poke is not made from the best fish, but the preparation makes it taste good. In Japan, if people will pay money, they will sell it. Here, it’s more about protecting the aina,” he continues, using the Hawaiian word for “land.”

His take on the Hawaiian dish lau lau uses the cheek of the opah—typically a bycatch fish—and king salmon wrapped in luau leaf, topped with bonito-flavored rice vinegar gelée. He serves moi, known as the fish of Hawaiian royalty, after marinating it for three weeks in red rice vinegar. Steamed monkfish liver is served on a pillow of red-vinegar rice and matched with three-year pickled baby watermelon.

Lau lau is a Native Hawaiian dish, traditionally composed of pork wrapped in taro leaves.
Courtesy of Sushi Sho

Backed by iceboxes (he says modern refrigerators dry out the fish) with a custom-carved wooden facade depicting Hanaya Yohei, the father of sushi, fishing in Hawaii for moi, Nakazawa stands in the center of a semicircle counter where he finely tunes each dish in front of diners and deploys one of his most recognized talents, reading people. During one of his 20 apprenticeships, Nakazawa was put in charge of the bar, where he learned how to observe and manage customers.

“A lot of people can master the technique, but what makes a chef different is how he communicates with and handles the customers,” says Yasushi Zenda, who followed Nakazawa from one of his Tokyo restaurants to serve as his third chef and apprentice in Waikiki. “He sees everything and anticipates their needs. He will adjust the pace of service and the portion size depending on the individual.” For instance, when a diner asks for a sake from Sushi Sho’s extensive collection, Nakazawa, a trained sommelier, chooses the appropriate one based on the upcoming courses.

After three decades at the helm of his own restaurant, Nakazawa’s move to Hawaii is about more than just experimenting with new ingredients. Nakazawa also wants to impart his wisdom and prepare the next generation. Zenda, 32, originally thought he would eventually return to Japan to open his own place, but now sees an opportunity to further the spread of the Edomae style by launching a U.S. restaurant someday.

“So many chefs see the pinnacle as the end point, the goal, but a lot of them die at the peak,” Nakazawa says. “But coming down the mountain alive is just as important as reaching the summit. I have the experience, and now I’m sharing that with my apprentices.”

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