Just off the seventh-floor lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, Waikiki Beach, Keiji Nakazawa stands behind the polished blond cypress counter of Sushi Sho. “Ten days aging, wild yellowtail,” he says, placing a morsel of nigiri sushi in front of a customer. It’s the extent of his English.
What he wants to say, what he told a Japanese customer in Tokyo during a moment caught on a TV documentary, is why he ages wild yellowtail, or buri. “The buri comes out of the sea. At this point it has virtually no flavor. If you rest it under ice for three or four days, now it can be eaten as sashimi. Rest it a few more days and it’s time to eat it as sushi. The san, the acidity, starts to appear. Pair the buri with vinegared rice and the san and san together become sushi. Another two or three days and you can eat it lightly seared. A little longer and it’s time for a simmer. With seafood there is a right time to eat.”
Nakazawa presides over a sushi counter unique in Hawai‘i. Nothing is served fresh off the boat. Seafood on his thirty-course omakase menu is smoked in banana leaves, pickled in rice bran, cured in sushi rice sprinkled with koji spores. The rice in his nigiri is often tinged vermilion with rich aged vinegar. The flavors he coaxes from a single bite can be intense and full-bodied. Nakazawa’s realm is Edomae sushi, an esoteric style born on the streets of nineteenth-century Tokyo, when sushi mongers conjured up techniques to extend for a longer time the palatability of raw seafood. In this realm, Nakazawa rules. Reservations at his original Sushi Sho in Tokyo book up months in advance. Apprentices flock to train under him; of the twenty now running their own restaurants, three hold Michelin stars. “The pinnacle of Edomae sushi,” a Japanese magazine calls him. The documentary mentioned above, aired in two parts on the Fuji Television Network in February, was titled Japan’s Top Sushi Maniac.
That’s all an ocean away. At 53, Nakazawa has abdicated cultlike status in Japan to start over—in a place of poke bowls and California rolls, where few have heard of Edomae sushi and even fewer understand it. It’s a daunting challenge, an improbable mission. And it’s the story of a sushi master’s rebirth. “Ten days aging, wild yellowtail,” he says, and waits. The customer eyes the rose-tinted fish atop its blood-red rice. She pops the sushi in her mouth, closes her eyes and smiles.
When he opened his first sushi counter at age 26 in Tokyo’s Nibancho, out by Haneda Airport, no one came. Brash and impatient, Nakazawa had bypassed the traditional apprenticeship required of high-end sushi chefs. Instead of a decade of intensive training under an oyakata, a master, and the lifetime of mentorship and shared networks that would follow, he crisscrossed the country working at sushi counters, Japanese restaurants and bars—twenty jobs in eleven years. The type of counter to which he aspired itself broke with tradition. Where most sushi counters are cloaked in the hushed, self-conscious tones of reverential dining, Nakazawa’s would be relaxed and cheerful, a place of elegant sushi interspersed with delicately cooked bites. So he moved quickly, picking and choosing lessons. How to cook sushi rice. How to steam chawanmushi custard. How to banter with customers.
In sushi there is kaisen—the style of pristine raw seafood atop pristine white- vinegar rice known widely around the planet—and there is Edomae. It takes skill, a keen palate and finesse to master kaisen sushi; it takes all this plus alchemy to succeed in Edomae. From the beginning Nakazawa chose the latter. He liked the challenge of it, that the very premise of the genre was the challenge. So when the hubris of his masterless training came back to bite him—when no one came to his sushi counter—he accepted the empty hours as a challenge. Ankimo, the steamed liver of monkfish, is customarily served with grated daikon and a splash of citrusy ponzu. For Nakazawa the rich, velvety delicacy held infinitely more potential. He experimented with brined melons for texture and tang. Then he buried baby watermelons in sake lees, the rice solids left after sake has been pressed, and let them cure. That led to a eureka moment. To this day the deeply unctuous, sweet-tart nigiri of ankimo and pickled watermelon on red-vinegar rice is Nakazawa’s signature sushi.
Nakazawa experimented with every piece of seafood in this way. He aged akami of maguro, the lean flesh of bluefin tuna, ten days for intense flavor and san. He lightly marinated baby red snapper in vinegar and powdered egg yolk. His garnishes grew bolder: flecks of golden, salty takuan on one piece, a tiny mince of raw onion on another. For all its historical references, Nakazawa’s sushi was innovative and, at times, almost sacrilegiously fun. Customers started coming, fishmongers sold him better fish, and when he moved to tonier Yotsuya and opened Sushi Sho four years later, he had established the style that would make him ascendant. His reputation was growing, too. Once, competing on Iron Chef Japan against Masaharu Morimoto, the former Nobu Matsuhisa protégé who is now America’s best-known maverick sushi chef, Nakazawa stuck to his Edomae style. He served every piece of nigiri with the same ruby red-vinegar rice used in nineteenth-century Edomae sushi—and he lost. Years later, after the elegiac documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi riveted the outside world’s attention with near-maniacal exclusivity on Jiro Ono, Nakazawa’s few mentions in the United States came from bloggers intrigued by the rumor that he’d rebuffed a Michelin reviewer. The rumor was true: Nakazawa had told the reviewer that he didn’t understand Nakazawa’s style of sushi, and the chef paid the price. He has never been awarded a Michelin star.
This was where Chris Kajioka found him five years ago. An American who trained in Michelin-starred kitchens, the chef and part owner of Honolulu’s Senia restaurant was eating his way through the Japanese capital. Kajioka’s first sushi omakase was at Ono’s three-Michelin-star Sukiyabashi Jiro. His second was at three-star Sushi Saito. At both places people were talking about Sushi Sho. Kajioka ate there next. The bite that made him a fan was of buri, winter yellowtail. “It was aged for like two weeks, something crazy,” Kajioka says. “It was really discolored. I remember being super sketched out because it smelled, but I put it in my mouth and the flavors kept on going and going and going. And that’s when I understood. This guy is next level. You’re not supposed to have fish that long, right? That’s what they teach us. But if Nakazawa-san told me to eat a piece of tuna that he left in the sun for six months, I would.
“I may sound like a fanboy, but to pack up shop and leave when basically he was the king in Japan, to move to Hawai‘i and try to use local fish—that’s ballsy. That’s really ballsy.”
Nakazawa’s announcement that he was leaving Japan registered as a seismic event in the sushi world. While it wasn’t unheard of for protégés to head overseas to establish themselves—like Daisuke Nakazawa (no relation), the former Jiro apprentice who opened Sushi Nakazawa in Manhattan—it was unheard of for sushi’s top masters. But after a quarter-century, Nakazawa was in a funk. The best of everything was now his: premium seafood, gifted apprentices, appreciative customers. Reservations at Sushi Sho, where the omakase cost $200 to $250, were always booked. He’d run out of challenges. “A shokunin, a craftsman, in good times he’s sabotaged. In difficult times he brings out his true spirit,” he says. “Moving to a new place with a new challenge—I’d never done that. I wanted to make new sushi, new cuisine. And I wanted to be happier. Because if I wasn’t happy, those who work with me would not have their own dreams.”
From his perch above Waikīkī, Nakazawa can see the ocean in the distance beyond Fort DeRussy’s coconut palms. On Friday nights, just before the second seating at Sushi Sho, the weekly fireworks show punches the sky with sparkles. The drama inside is nearly equal: An arched ceiling of dark wood rises above the halfmoon counter, framing it the way an oyster might showcase its pearl. All the lights shine down on this stage, trained on Nakazawa and his protégés. The pace as they work is quick but unhurried.
“Laulau,” Nakazawa says, proffering a bite-size morsel on a tiny plate. The Hawaiian staple is normally the size of a softball, with chunks of salty pork steamed in layers of melting taro leaves. Nakazawa pairs salmon with the gelatinous cheeks of opah—moonfish—wraps them together in a single leaf, then steams and tops them with tart, umami-rich tosazu gelée. It appears fairly early in the sequence of nigiri sushi and cooked dishes, a vibrant, playful welcome.
The mix of customers tonight is even: half from Japan, half from the Islands. They watch enthralled as Nakazawa squeezes finger limes onto pats of opah belly, their surfaces rendered glossy by the heat of a flame. The juicy white beads catch the light as they spill onto the flesh. American chefs would fillet the moonfish and grill or sear it. Nakazawa has homed in on the belly, which he rests in salt to draw out excess moisture, then cures in miso and sake lees before grilling. On the palate the citrusy beads pop into the warm, fatty flesh.
Opah was the first Hawai‘i seafood that caught Nakazawa’s eye when he arrived last year. For a chef from Japan, the tropical fish was an oddity, a giant polka-dotted medallion erupting with crazy pink fins. Opah was a reminder that Nakazawa was a novice again; he knew nothing, and everything was a challenge. “Each fish has a shun, its most delicious moment. Maguro in winter off the coast of Aomori, swimming fast in rough seas to hunt squid and Pacific saury—this is its shun,” he says. “Hawai‘i doesn’t have many different seasons, but the fish have their shun. I want to study this—what’s delicious in spring, summer, autumn and winter.” In September and October, he found, curing the top portion of opah belly in briny kelp, then boiling it quickly before bathing it in dashi and sweet nikiri soy, makes delectable sushi. The rest of the year, he grills the belly meat with fresh finger lime.
“Moloka‘i shrimp,” says Nakazawa. Plump and shiny, the butterflied prawn draped over sushi rice is cause for exhilaration. After proclaiming the entire spectrum of Hawai‘i seafood unusable straight from the ocean—including the prized ‘ahi (bigeye tuna) in demand at top sushi bars across the Islands, the Mainland and as far away as Europe—Nakazawa found a single fisherman who could bring him the meaty prawns still alive. “Spectacular,” he proclaims. “As delicious as Japanese prawns. I find one thing like this and I’m extremely happy. We put it under ice for a day, give it a light sear, sprinkle some Moloka‘i salt ground with the fried shrimp shells and serve it with calamansi—Hawaiian seafood with Hawaiian salt and Hawaiian calamansi. You can’t find this anywhere else.”
This is what brought him here: the quest to create a new style of Edomae sushi on par with the best in Japan but unique on the planet. Seafood on Sushi Sho’s $300 omakase skews heavily toward Hawai‘i and the Mainland; ingredients like Hawai‘i Island heart of palm, Moloka‘i-grown edamame and O‘ahu’s Aloha Tofu and Sumida watercress abound. Nakazawa’s original aim was to serve nothing but Hawaiian and Mainland seafood, but two things stopped him. While Japanese and Mainland customers were enthralled by his laulau and other local presentations, Island residents were asking for more Japanese seafood. And then, again, hubris: Nakazawa had underestimated his own challenge. It had taken him years to develop the signature pieces that anchored his omakase in Tokyo. And there, already intimate with the seasonal bounty of Japanese seas, he had the home-court advantage. Which is why nothing makes him happier than a bite like his Moloka‘i shrimp nigiri, no matter how seemingly simple. It’s the taste of success.
“Moi.” A sliver of silver-skinned Pacific threadfin rests atop red-vinegar rice. To locals this was the fish of the ali‘i, its succulent flesh so prized in old times that it was reserved for kings and chiefs. To Nakazawa it is the pinnacle. Long before he moved to Hawai‘i, as he sat in Tokyo’s concrete sprawl sketching the outlines of his new counter, he was captivated by moi. He would commission two carved panels —one showing a lone nineteenth-century Japanese fisherman casting his line in rough seas, the other a moi taking the bait in the warm Hawai‘i ocean. Every night behind his counter in Waikīkī, these panels frame Nakazawa as he works.
Still, the perfect bite of moi eludes him. He uses salt to draw out excess moisture and vinegar to cut the fattiness, and then, reaching back in time to a method that predates Edomae, he ages the fish in red-vinegar rice mixed with koji. The bite is soft to the teeth, rich and fragrant and pickled. It gives him mixed feelings to set it in front of a customer. Moi has proved to be his hardest challenge. “Mada mada,” he smiles. There’s still a long way to go. HH