Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar was the first sustainable sushi restaurant in the United States. When it opened in February 2008, however, it was to deafening silence from the culinary scene. Little money was available to spend on advertising and fanfare; chef/owners Kin Lui and Raymond Ho had already put themselves deep in debt merely through attending to the bare necessities that came with opening a restaurant. Although I was lucky enough to be involved in concept and development, I certainly wasn’t able to bring any money to the table.
The vision behind the restaurant was simple – to prove that sushi and ocean conservation did not necessarily run at odds in one another, and that in fact one could do honor to the art form and hold true to the pursuit of excellence that is part and parcel of the cuisine, while at the same time respecting and nurturing the bounty of our oceans.
Sounds simple enough, right?
There were some major challenges right out of the gate. The five most popular sushi items in the United States – open-containment farmed salmon, farmed shrimp, longlined yellowfin tuna, farmed Japanese amberjack, and ranched freshwater eel were all unequivocally unsustainable choices. They all had to go, as did the biggest moneymaker of them all: bluefin tuna.
An even bigger challenge has been the lack of a full kitchen. Tataki has had to cope with this since day one. Frankly, though, it has only served to show how much more a hypothetical sustainable sushi chef could do with a full suite of tools.
The Tataki menu has evolved over time, but not a single one of the aforementioned products has ever blemished its pages. This has been a struggle in some ways, but in others, it’s actually proven surprisingly easy. An example? Replacing farmed salmon.
Since farmed salmon was never an option for us, Tataki has always offered arctic char in its place. We expected some degree of resistance from our customers, but it has never materialized. The char was instantly popular among our diners and to this day remains one of the restaurant’s best sellers. We bring in wild Alaskan salmon as well, but as this is a seasonal product, it is a delicacy that we are not able to offer on a daily basis.
Eel was replaced with faux-nagi, Chef Kin Lui’s brainchild. This sablefish-based dish delivers the deep, dusky sweetness and fatty texture of unagi, but doesn’t rely on an overfished product.
The chefs eschew bluefin toro in favor of the sweet, supple belly flesh of local pole-and-line albacore. Hamachi was never an option either, due to the state of stocks and the rapacity of the industry. Instead, Tataki’s offers farmed Hawaiian kanpachi (as well as wild amberjack, depending on the season.)
Tataki also boasts a thorough vegetarian selection. It seemed to us that vegetarians had been severely marginalized when it came to sushi — how many cucumber rolls can you eat before the experience becomes unbearably mundane? Moreover, vegetarians are, by definition, sustainable seafood supporters insofar as they would never order bluefin, eel, farmed salmon, or other dangerous options. Kin and Raymond put a tremendous amount of thought into designing a menu that offers both vegetarians and vegans alike a plethora of animal-free delights.
The vast majority of Tataki’s customers are thrilled about the options. Sure, we have the odd one or two patrons that lament our lack of unagi or toro, but we’ve found that the gains vastly outweigh the losses.
While the restaurant’s popularity has continued to grow, nothing could have prepared us for a recent event that both flattered and humbled us to no end. In its October 5th issue, Time Magazine declared Raymond, Kin and myself “Environmental Heroes of the Year” in honor of our work with sustainable sushi.
As ecstatic as we are about this award, it is actually our hope that our little operation will soon be forgotten amidst the dozens, even hundreds, of other restaurants and grocery stores that make the switch to a more responsible method of selling sushi. A niche restaurant may command a distinct market share, but it will not change the world; it cannot save the oceans. A vanguard restaurant, however, defines itself by the slow demise of its individuality. We at Tataki will know that we’ve succeeded in our mission when, from an environmental perspective, there is nothing to distinguish us from any other sushi bar.
The concept of sustainability is ballooning within the public consciousness, and with each passing day, the ideals of a sustainable lifestyle penetrate further into our daily existence. For all of us in the Tataki family, it has been and continues to be a true honor to play a role in the development of sustainable sushi.