When sushi chef Toshio Suzuki opened up Manhattan’s SushiZen in 1984, he was up against a lot of skepticism. The very notion of eating raw fish was still a novel concept to New York. Iron Chef Morimoto learned his craft from chef Suzuki.
Back then, Suzuki was a radical, daring customers to order “trust his omakase” and brave his live fish preparations. Befoer that, hetrained in Tokyo under Master Chef Nakanori. To think, Suzuki first set out to become a Buddhist monk. These days, the kitchen is his temple where he creates dishes like eel chirashi sushi- a combination of steamed eel, shrimp, salmon roe, chestnuts, ginko nuts and lotus root, over a bed of rice.
Married with 2 sons.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
A Buddhist monk.
What was your first job in food?
My first job in food was to become a sushi chef. I studied the basic techniques in preparation of Japanese culinary food as well as the history behind preparing sushi & Japanese cuisine.
Your former student, Morimoto, is now a world – class sushi chef. How do you feel about that?
In most cases a chef would study the basics from a master chef and directly apply the skills, similar to being educated by an instructor in class. However there are some chefs have a different approach in their studies. Chef Morimoto implements the knowledge gained from what he learned and applies his unique creativity and techniques to create his expression on Japanese culinary; therefore in the essence of skills he was already a pro. I do not think of him as a student, but rather a chef who shares the same philosophy and concept in being a chef. A chef who I can exchange each other’s knowledge.
What were the challenges of being a 19 year old and training under Master Chef Nakanori in Tokyo?
Being 19 with no background in culinary, there were no challenges. Every task given to me was the first so I was positively motivated and eager to learn. I was doing my best in absorbing everything necessary in food production. However after a few years working under him, he has taught me the spirituality of humanity, the responsibilities of managing the people in an establishment, the responsibilities in preparing dishes that are sanitary, the responsibilities of preparing dishes that are appealing to the mind, eyes & taste and putting smiles on the customers’ faces.
What was the state of sushi dining when you opened Sushi Zen in 1984? How has it changed?
It was very difficult for the customers to embrace sushi at that time. There were many customers who would ask us to cook the fish. The portion sizes were considered small, and the concept of eating raw fish was not common; for some customers – it was a challenge. Japanese foods at that time were known for teriyaki, sukiyaki, tempura and the Benihana style steak houses. The early 80’s song Sukiyaki by Taste of Honey was on the radio frequently. Beginning in the early 90’s the health conscious trend boomed the Japanese cuisine as its dishes contained many aspects of natural ingredients and many people began accepting sushi and Japanese cuisine into their diets. Due to the attention it has received, today we see sushi and sushi rolls served everywhere in New York City. However this trend has blinded the awareness of the importance in sanitation as well as its true roots in preparing traditional Japanese cuisine and sushi. Some people, consumers and restaurants are unaware that fresh fish does not necessarily mean it can be consumed as sushi. Every fish must be prepared differently in order to have it ready to eat as sushi.
Which fish do you especially like working with?
I enjoy working with live fish, as well as receiving the day’s top quality fish. It gives me an extra boost to imagine our guests taking the first bite and smiling.
Originally, you set out to be a Buddhist monk, so how do you incorporate your spirituality into your work?
Spirituality is everything! The reason why I wanted to become a Buddhist monk is to find myself in the spirit of Zen. The reason why I chose to become a Japanese Culinary chef is because chefs and Monks share common roots in philosophy. I hold in my oath of being a Japanese Culinary chef to peruse the philosophy applied by Monk Dougen. Buddhism has extended its path from India, China and into Japan, as well as the concept of vegetarian. Buddhist monks themselves would serve food to the other monks. When monks pray they would become hungry, the tasks of being a chef were cycled by the monks who lived in the temple. The dishes must be balanced nutritionally in order for everyone to sta
y healthy, as well as the attention to portion size. The dishes must not be filling, other wise they would become sleepy nor small so they wouldn’t become hungry quickly. The chefs must also constantly observe the other monks state of health and age and prepare dishes accordingly. In the year 1223 Monk Dougen has applied a series of disciplines tenzoukyoukun in creating a well balanced dish.
– 5 colors goshoku
Red, Green. Yellow, Black, White
– 5 styles of preparation gohou
Grille, Boil, Sautee, Steam, Raw
– 6 tastes roku-mi
Sweet, Salty, Sour, Hot, Bitter, tanmi: the use of enhancing the natural flavors.
Monk Dougen also states that all chefs must love and feel happiness towards preparing and producing the dishes, while keeping awareness of the other’s state of health and age, to produce a tailored made course.
Chefs must also be motivated in continuing to innovate and create the cuisine. The reason why I have chosen the name SushiZen is because the word “Zen” means healthy or good for your body. Zen also means dish of plates, as well as the spiritual Zen.
Tell us about a little about the ikezukuri preparation of live fish…
Ikezukuri is a process of preparing the fish as quickly as possible while keeping its vital organs and veins intact and undamaged. Because the fish is live it requires skills as well as knowledge of the anatomy of the fish.
What is your favorite dish on the menu at Sushi Zen?
What is your least favorite (and yes, you must pick one)?
American Roll. Although I am the pioneer in creating the roll, I have made this during the beginning of SushiZen; where the sushi concept was difficult for many to understand. I’ve decided to pick this as my least favorite because sushi rolls has evolved into a standard.
What culinary trends do you embrace?
Health conscious dishes. To indulge the senses and appreciate each individual entity of the dish. The concept of Ajiwai relish its Umami.
What culinary trends do you wish would just die already?
Foods that contain high fat, high sugar, where the food is dependant on the sauce and other condiments. Foods that are aimed to fill the stomach rather than to relish each aspect of the dishes made.
What’s your ideal sushi restaurant look like?
A sushi restaurant near fish port towns, where the local fish are served. My ideal sushi restaurant would be a small place where I can oversee every guest.
Any new projects on the horizon? Do tell…
We have just released a Sushi Kaiseki menu.
Address: 108 W 44th St. (btwn. 6th Ave & Broadway)
Phone: (212) 302-0707