For 11 years, Daisuke Nakazawa learned by observing his mentor, Tokyo’s acclaimed Jiro of the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. But earlier this year, the 35-year old stepped out from the shadow of his master, heading his own namesake sushi temple: Sushi Nakazawa (23 Commerce Street, 212-924-2212), a 10-seat sushi bar and adjoining dining room on a quiet block in the West Village. Fanfare surrounding the restaurant is anything but quiet — seats at the bar are booked solid until December, and squeals of reverential approval come from just about everyone who’s managed to land a reservation.
But Nakazawa’s journey was not self-conceived.
Co-owner Alessandro Borgognone, who once managed his father’s trattoria Patricia’s in his native Queens, toyed with the idea of enticing the sushi master here after he watched Jiro’s documentary. Mesmerized, he spent the next day at the office figuring out how to contact Nakazawa. He found him on Facebook.”I wrote him an email stating what I did, what my intentions were, what the concept was, and what I’d like to do,” Borgognone recalls.
Two weeks after that Facebook message, Nakazawa gave Borgognone a call. In the face of a language barrier, the pair exchanged emails deciphered via unwieldy Google translations, and they finally arranged to meet. Borgognone arranged Nakazawa’s flight, and their partnership solidified.
Nakazawa’s decision to drop his duties for New York wasn’t difficult, and he never looked back. Faced with the destruction of Japan’s catastrophic earthquake as well as a declining market, Nakazawa left to find greater opportunities abroad with a wife and four kids in tow. A former Jiro apprentice, Shiro Kashiba, offered him a slice of the American Dream at his own sushi restaurant in Seattle. But Nakazawa longed for something more. “I wanted to have my own restaurant,” Nakazawa says. “I wanted to be in New York.”
Creating the vision for the restaurant was almost effortless. Borgognone decided that Nakazawa would have full liberty in what went on behind the sushi counter, and he would take care of everything else. “We have a great understanding in our relationship,” the New Yorker says. “I never ever question what [Nakazawa] is doing behind the bar.”
Borgognone presided over the décor, a stark contrast to what Nakazawa had worked with in the sparse shop in Japan: black leather swivel chairs, white marble-counter tops, and modern lighting.”The environment we were in, we wanted it to be sleek and contemporary,” Borgognone explains. “The white marble we picked — that’s a canvas. Then everything we put on is basically the art.”
Borgognone also set the tone for service, envisioning an exceptional, Western-style service that is found nowhere else in any of New York’s sushi restaurants. “We don’t want you to feel intimidated; we want you to feel very comfortable,” Borgognone says. “One of the first things you’ll see when you walk into the restaurant is Mr. Nakazawa with a big smile.”
As for Nakazawa’s contribution, while the sushi echoes the beauty of Jiro’s edomae, it is slightly different. “Nakazawa had to take 11 years of what he learned at Jiro and make it to this audience,” Borgognone says.
Nakazawa learned what his customers liked based on their feedback from his $150 20-course omakase. He could then use his own style to tailor the experience. “I learned Jiro’s way, Shiro’s way, and then there’s my way,” Nakazawa adds. “I call it New York Mae!”
Case in point: Certain types of popular fish, like salmon, were never served in Jiro’s restaurant, or most of Japan for that matter. Yet Nakazawa regularly serves it in his omakase since New Yorkers loved it.
There were other techniques honed from Jiro that did not make it here to the States: Nakazawa doesn’t cook rice in an ancient contraption that dates back 200 years; instead, he uses an electric rice cooker. Nor did Nakazawa think he needed to follow the regimen of his former master and stay away from garlic and alcohol because it affects the judgment of his palate — and the scent of his hands.
But Nakazawa does stay true to Jiro’s vision of quality of ingredients. The seaweed the former apprentice uses is exactly the same as the variety that Jiro uses, flown in directly from Tokyo Bay; each single sheet costs more than that of a standard American value pack. Nakazawa concentrates on sourcing the best possible fish from the most trusted purveyors all over the United States. Sea scallop, now in season, is sourced from Maine. Sea urchin is regularly flown in from Santa Maria bay in Santa Barbara, wild-caught from a boutique fisherman who delivers on “the sweetest, most buttery sea urchin you have ever tasted,” Borgognone explains. A box of it can fetch up to $600. And for Nakazawa’s prized, often-referenced tamagoyaki — it took Nakazawa over 200 practice tries to perfect this at Jiro — the eggs used are no more than a day old.
Then there’s the rice: The sushi master explains that rice amounts to nearly half of the sushi, so sourcing the perfect variety was paramount: It took him and Borgognone six months to find the perfect match. It wasn’t a hybrid Japanese grain from California, like most sushi restaurants use, but an heirloom variety from Japan that costs four times that of the California grain, about $22 per pound.
Most importantly, Nakazawa channels Jiro’s pristine technique, honed from his 11 years of tutelage. His master taught him that fish is not necessarily the most important component of sushi; rather, the focus should be on sushi balance and temperature. Nakazawa explains that he regulates up to five different temperatures of fish — hot, warm, room-temperature, cool, and so forth — to bring out the seafood’s inherent sweetness. According to Nakazawa, blue shrimp from New Caledonia, for example, should never be cooled — it should stay at a warm temperature because flavor would be lost otherwise. And the rice? Though it isn’t cooked in an ancient steamer, Nakazawa has learned to produce the lightest, fluffiest rice. And in context, he toned down the acid and salt for his New York audience.
His restaurant now open, Nakazawa says he firmly believes in learning from mistakes, for it was perfecting those errors that allowed him to excel in the first place. He refers to the tamago episode — a memorable scene from the movie — as one fond, albeit frustrating example. “Tamago is not difficult even though I made it 200 times before Jiro said, ‘Ok,'” Nakazawa says. “I made so many mistakes, [but] this way I learn from the mistakes and can teach other people.”
He also learns by reference. Back in Tokyo, Jiro would take him and other sous-chefs out to try different cuisines like Chinese, Italian, and French. Once, Jiro treated Nakazawa to dinner at Joel Robuchon’s restaurant in Tokyo.
In New York, Nakazawa has yet to build that same rapport with the other sushi masters. “the sushi community here is very sacred,” Borgognone says; however, he implies, too, that Nakazawa’s already earned respect from the city’s most discerning chefs.
The only seal of approval left in the equation: Jiro’s. Though Nakazawa’s departure was amicable, he longs to hear back from Jiro. Nakazawa knows not to call the 85-year-old chef — Jiro’s hearing has declined, and his pacemaker further complicates any form of electronic communication — and so he religiously sends him letters, knowing full well that Jiro will never write back. “He never responds!” Nakazawa says. “But I know that he is proud of me. I wish he is.”
And to the extent that he is reinventing himself — doling out his own originals — Nakazawa insists that he will forever be under Jiro’s tutelage. “I loved Mr. Jiro like father,” Nakazawa says. “And I am still following him … forever.”