David Bouhadana is the 23-year-old executive chef of Sushi Uo, a new sushi restaurant on the Lower East Side. Earlier today, we showed you a few of Bouhadana’s dishes. Here, we talk with him about how he’s gotten where he is at such a young age, the state of sushi in New York, what it means to be a sushi master, and why sushi may be dying.
In about two weeks, Bouhadana plans to start a weekly event called Tuesday Night Live, when he’ll serve live crustaceans, shellfish, and octopus for the adventurous.
How did you become a sushi chef at age 23?
It’s a really long story, and I’m writing a book, but basically I didn’t find sushi, sushi found me. I started at 18 under my first master in Florida. I got the job by accident, I was supposed to be a waiter but they needed help in the kitchen my first night. Well, the first night didn’t go very well and the chef said not to come back for a couple weeks. But I came back after two days, and I had memorized the entire menu. It got a hold of me.
How so? What about it got a hold of you?
It was because someone gave me responsibility, someone trusted me. And someone was disappointed–not angry, but disappointed–in me when I didn’t do well. I didn’t realize that until a few years ago.
I studied under my first master for a year and a half, and then over the course of time I worked at six other restaurants in Florida, and then I went to LA to work under my second master.
What does it mean when you say ‘master,’ is that a title that’s awarded to a sushi chef?
No, the way it works is that, if he’s my master and I’m his student, than I’m his reflection, I’m his protege, I carry his name on. Once you have a master, your world changes. You are devoted to that person. I’ll have to study another 20 years to be as good as he is.
So anyway, I then went to Japan for a six week internship, came back to San Francisco, and eventually went back to Japan to work under my current master for a year.
So even though you’ve been doing this for five years, you’ve really had a lot of experience in a lot of different places.
Yeah, the way I look at it is that five years isn’t a lot of time, unless you’re doing it every single day for 15 to 20 hours, studying at the meccas of sushi.
You worked at Morimoto, right?
Yeah, but I don’t brag about that because I was only there for five months. In Japan, I worked at Masunomi and Magsuya, which are both in a small town an hour away from Kobe.
What was it like to be an American sushi chef studying in Japan?
The food culture there is mind-blowing. I was honored.
Were they dubious of you because you’re so young, and an American?
No, they saw the level I was at, and they respected that I had come to learn, and that I had come by myself, with no family, not speaking Japanese. They saw that I had a good heart, I guess.
So how did you teach yourself Japanese?
I studied everyday.
Your last name sounds a bit Japanese, is it?
It’s funny, because you can make it sound Japanese, as a joke [he says his name in a convincing Japanese accent]. But no, it’s a Moroccan name. My father is from Morocco, and my mom was born in France.
Sorry, I’m eating. It’s the only time I get to eat.
What are you eating? Sushi?
[Laughs] A bagel from a bodega that cost 50 cents.
What does the “uo” in Sushi Uo mean? How do you pronounce it?
“Oooooh-OH.” It means “fish” in Japanese
So you’ve been open for about 6 weeks now, what has the reaction been like?
I guess there’s been some surprise. Because I’m so young, people test me. But I just hold my ground, and have my knowledge. But I get mainly positive responses. There are a couple other white sushi chefs in New York, but being so young is another thing. One customer said it was “ballsy,” that I was so young.
That’s kind of an odd thing to say.
Yeah, I don’t know about ballsy, I’m just a sushi chef. I’m making food for thirty people. That’s what I do.
What makes your sushi distinctive to you? When you set about making an omakase meal for someone, what do you draw on?
Well, I can’t always do omakase because it gets too busy. But if I do one, I can tell by the person what I should make for them. I should know, it’s my job. I go by their energy.
So you’re going by the person you’re serving rather than what you might feel like making?
Yes, I mean, I know my 25 fish, my spices, my sauces. But I’ll look at a person, and a clam will just jump into my mind. I just know they’ll love this. I can tell. I go off energy, if you sit there boring and quiet, my omakase will be quiet. If you’re bright and fun, my omakase will reflect that. The plate is a canvas, my knives are paintbrushes, the ingredients are the paint, and you’re my inspiration. I’m painting a picture of you. If you’re happy, there will be lots of colors. If your boyfriend is about to break up with you, who knows what it’s going to look like? But I don’t get many sad plates. Although a few nights ago, we did get a couple breaking up.
A sushi bar seems like a terrible place to break up.
It has to happen somewhere, you might as well get a nice meal out of it.
Is there a basic sushi etiquette everyone should know?
You know what, proper Japanese etiquette only applies in Japan. So few people in America do traditional sushi, the way it’s supposed to be eaten and made. If you go a master sushi chef you eat it out of his hand. If you go to Sushi Go Go, you eat it with 10 pounds of eel sauce. If you come to me, you ask: “Dave what should I do?” Because maybe I’ve already brushed a piece with soy sauce, so you don’t need to do it. Everyone has their own rules, there’s no set way. That gets on my nerves, this notion of how it’s supposed to be. Some Japanese restaurants are just giving you a ride for your money.
What’s the state of sushi in New York?
There are different levels of sushi, and most sushi restaurants in New York, unfortunately, are serving uneducated sushi–frozen fish, uncaring chefs, pre-cut vegetables. Then there’s a place like 15 East: He does everything fresh. I highly respect him. Japanese chefs–and I consider myself a Japanese chef–we do everything. We make our own stocks, order our own fish, do everything ourselves. There’s no frozen this and pre-cut that. We do things simply, but it’s hard. It’s all done with the knives, there’s no prep team. We make our own soy, our own ponzu. We don’t brag about it because we’re not taught to do that. We just do it. We don’t have to say anything because if we’re good, they’ll come back. Sushi is an educated food, the more you know, the more you enjoy it. Sushi Yasuda is also great.
What if someone comes in and just orders a bunch of rolls?
I will give anyone a spicy mayo roll. If that’s what makes you happy, then I’m happy you came to see me for that. I don’t ever judge anybody, because when I leave here, I eat junk, too. But then I take it upon myself to give you a free piece [of sushi], because my job as an American sushi chef is to teach Americans. Someone might say: I don’t like mackerel. Well, there are like eight different kinds of mackerel, so try this one. And then they say: Oh, it’s so good. Because I’m younger, and American, some people tend to trust me more, to relate to me.
How do you deal with issues around sustainability of fish?
I order seasonal fish. I don’t go for one single fish all the time. I try to do a variety. But the ocean is running out, and sushi is a dying art. It won’t last long.
You really think so? You don’t think it can be turned around?
Oh yeah, no one has any idea. If you saw the markets in Japan…It’s like saying, is there any way to stop making plastic? Or gasoline, we’re just going to use it till it runs out. It’s the same for fish. We’re selfish human beings, and we’re not going to stop until its gone.
What are you planning to do next?
I won’t be here for much longer, I’m going to continue to travel the world. I’m going back to Japan to continue studying with my master. There’s no date on that yet, though. I haven’t decided.
When you sit down at a sushi bar, what should you say to the sushi chef to let him know that you’re adventurous, that you like the good stuff?
Well, that depends on where you are, and if the sushi chef has time to take care of you. A couple nice words and some patience, and you’ll get good treatment. Ask the chef if he’s busy, if he has time, and then ask, “May I close my menu?” If yes, then he’ll feed you.
What’s the last book you read?
This is kind of embarrassing. I’ve actually never read a book.
What’s in your fridge?
Baking soda and water.