New York Sushi Ko’s John Daley doesn’t exactly fit the expected mold of Sushi Chef. His bare arms are covered by a riot of tattoos, with the words “FISH” and “RICE” emblazoned across his knuckles. He plays reggae music over the restaurant’s sound system, and is known for muttering expletives (sometimes playfully, sometimes not) at his sous chefs. Oh, and he’s caucasian.
“When I was growing up I always wanted to be a sushi chef, but was told on many occasion that could never happen due to my racial handicap,” Daley admits with a grin. “I just know that if you keep focused, your obstacles will remain behind you.”
It’s a zen outlook well befitting a chef who trained at some of the city’s best sushi spots, including Masa and 15 East, not to mention the three years spent in Tokyo under Sukeroku’s sushi master Rikio Kugo. And, with the exception of a few modern fusions and foams, Daley’s food at New York Sushi Ko — a slim, spare room with 11 metal seats set along a blond wood counter — is a whole lot more traditional than his rock & roll persona would reflect.
Guests choose from a 3, 5 or 7-course Omakase (chef’s choice) dinner, where plates might include Toro Tartare with blowtorched Tuna Skin “chicharrons,” silky pots of Jackfish Chawanmushi (a steamed egg custard), a tasting of three different kinds of Uni, or a progression of pristine Nigiri, topped with Horse Mackerel, Spotted Sardine, Sea Scallop, Octopus Leg, or Red Snapper that’s been seared on one side and kissed with lemon juice and sea salt.
We also spoke with the tatted-up chef about why slicing fish takes such a long time to perfect, getting fired from Del Posto (before it even opened!), and why making the octopus at 15 East drove him crazy.
For the time being, I am committed to my sushi bar.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I had always loved cooking and my first job was at age 15 as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant. In my down time, I made wontons and egg rolls.
When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career as a chef?
I began to pursue being a chef when I saw that it wasn’t so much a job as it was a way of thinking, a lifestyle, the ‘poor man’s guide to living good.’ I realized after cooking for a few years that being a chef was my way to communicate and interact with the world.
And what specifically set you on the path to becoming a sushi chef?
When the Time Warner center opened with restaurants from Thomas Keller, Grey Kunz, Masayoshi Takayama, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, I knew I had to be a part of the food that was soon to be created. I went resume dropping in the building, on the fourth floor to be exact, and after a failed attempt to enter Per Se through their faux blue door, I found myself in Bar Masa promptly engaged in the most candid, life changing job interview. In other words: Foot in the sushi door!
Have you felt an even greater pressure to prove yourself?
I’ve had to prove myself many times, in many instances to maintain my position as even just an apprentice. Whether it was based on my race, my inability to speak fluent Japanese, or just one more in the string of physical and mental tests thrown at a sushi chef-in-training, every instance was just one more time I had to meet a challenge. Thinking about why is just a distraction.
You eventually went to Tokyo to train under Rikio Kugo. How many years did you spend with him?
Not enough. I wish I could move my family to Tokyo so I can continue living and eating in Japan.
What exactly is it about the art of sushi that requires such a rigorous and extensive training process?
As my master Masato Shimizu (from 15 East) says, “because you have to!” which to me, translates as: Sushi is a time honored tradition. Anyone can attach fish to rice, put it on a plate an call it sushi. But some people practice sushi. Some people treat sushi like it is their breath, their Chi, their soul. I practice sushi out of respect for those who created sushi, to remember those who taught those who taught me how to make sushi. We train because we have to.
Was there one particular dish, or technique, that you remember having the most difficulty mastering?
It’s all super tough if you want to get it right, but making the octopus at 15 east drove me crazy for a little while. Now it’s everything!
When in training with a sushi master, how and when is it determined that you’re ready to ‘graduate’ or move on?
When you apprentice with a sushi master, there is no discernible deciding point or marker in the training that determines when one moves on, but a general awareness left to the master’s discretion when new tasks and responsibilities are ready to be assigned to the apprentice.
What was the single greatest lesson you’ve ever learned from a colleague or mentor?
Always push yourself in every aspect of your work as a chef. You can always do it better, from cutting vegetables to plating dishes. It is a pursuit to find the point where repeated execution and perfection align.
There are many respected sushi restaurants in New York. What would you say sets New York Sushi Ko apart?
What I think sets us apart is our approach to Japanese flavors and ingredients. Traditional Japanese sauces might take the form of foam, similarly, vegetables might take the form of a gelée. It is a unique and fun way to simultaneously explore taste, texture and presentation.
You spend the entire night working in front of, and interacting with, your patrons. Do you ever get stage fright?
The only agonizing moment I face behind the sushi bar would be if I were to cut myself.
During the course of your career, what has been your biggest kitchen blunder or misshap?
That might have to be when I was fired from Del Posto… before it had even opened.
Sushi is all about the selection and preparation of pristine fish and shellfish. What are some of your favorites?
What I most enjoy using at the restaurant is Wild Tuna and Mackerel fishes of all kinds, because they are just such a great canvas with their salt and vinegar properties. I also love most Clams (Atlantic or Pacific). What I wish was available in New York would be Red Clam (aka-gai), Japanese Horse Clam (hon-mirugai) and torigai (Japanese Cockle).
Where are some of your other favorite places to eat sushi in the city, besides your own, of course?
My favorite sushi place is my master’s restaurant, 15 East. I also quite enjoy Sushi Azabu.
Who would the ultimate dinner guest at your restaurant be (they could be living or dead)?
You’re on your deathbed; sex or dinner? And no, you can’t say both!
It depends on who’s cooking 🙂