It is a frightening concept to mess with success. The old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is alive and well in our modern economy, and the seafood industry is no exception. Many seafood purveyors, when confronted with pressure to change their ways, can be resistant – especially if they see success and growth in their businesses. Why change, if the status quo seems just fine?
The fact is, however, that all is not well. There are a plethora of rocks and growlers lurking in the murky waters of the seafood industry: overfishing, habitat destruction, IUU fleets, and more. Still, it’s not common that a business owner is able to see all of these obstacles clearly… especially if ones perspective is obscured by the constant back-and-forth of a ringing cash drawer.
Chef Hajime Sato, however, is different.
A tiny revolution
Mashiko restaurant has been operating in Seattle for fifteen years, and it is by no means an unsuccessful operation. Chef Sato has a line out the door nearly every night, and unless you arrive just as the restaurant opens, it’s almost certain that you’ll be waiting for a table. By all standards and appearances, this is a prospering business. And frankly, Chef Sato had all this to lose when, in August of 2009, he took his entire business model and turned it upside-down.
Mashiko is the first sushi restaurant in the world that has transitioned from a conventional operation to a sustainable one. With only minimal help from myself and the other players in the movement, Sato turned his restaurant into a sustainable operation. He bid good riddance to his bluefin, hamachi, eel, monkfish, and other unsustainable items. These days, he directs his efforts towards innovation, education, and the identification of local and sustainable options.
Moreover, Chef Sato is the first traditionally-trained Japanese sushi chef to embrace the sustainable sushi movement. In his words, however, he is simply returning to the basic principles that gave rise to sushi over a hundred years ago: utilization of local and seasonal products, reverence for life, and interpretation of the bounty of the oceans in a respectful and reverent manner.
In the last few months, Mashiko has achieved a much greater degree of exposure than ever before. Interviews with Chef Sato have run on any number of popular food blogs; he received a glowing review of his operation from the Seattle Times and has appeared on the Food Network’s Extreme Cuisine with Jeff Corwin, where he discussed innovation in sushi, local seafood sourcing, and the amazing bounty of Puget Sound.
Through his bravery in challenging the conventional model, his determination to hold ethics and ocean conservation over the maximization of profit, and his contribution to the nascent sustainable sushi movement as well as the overall awareness of the consumer public in the Pacific Northwest, Chef Hajime Sato has brought a new spark to the sustainable sushi movement.
Good to have you on board, buddy.
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?
Not in our house
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.
I can't believe it's not eel!
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.)
Welcome back, vegans
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.
Our little corner of the industry
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.
It's a long hard road
As sustainable sushi begins to gain a foothold in the United States, it makes sense to do a quick recap of how far we’ve come.
When you look at the headlines, it is easy to feel disheartened. Traditionalists and high-end restaurants are seeing Industry staples like bluefin tuna under threat of extinction. On the other end of the spectrum, unsustainable aquaculture and overfishing are compounded as sushi continues to backslide into the realm of quick-fix fast food.
For example, take the ubiquitous Genki Sushi, which wraps its tentacles around the globe like Kraken attacking a Norse longship. The robotic sushi giant has long dominated Japan and Hawaii, but new installations have recently popped up in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Thailand. The company has even managed to establish a presence on contiguous American soil, with restaurants opening their doors in New York and, most recently, Seattle. Genki is not aimed at delivering a white-tablecloth sushi experience, but rather a quick in-and-out power lunch revolving around a gimmicky network of robots and converyor belts.
Greed on the high seas
This kind of mass-produced sushi tends to draw from mechanized fishing, as it demands large amounts of cheap fish that can be sold in massive quantities for acceptable prices. Factory trawling operations take advantage of economies of scale by ripping staggering amounts of fish and shellfish biomass out of our oceans in single swoops. This keeps their operation costs down and allows them to undercut other fishermen in the marketplace. Fast food sushi relies on these marine rapists – otherwise, how are they going to sell two pieces of nigiri for $2.25 and make a profit?
(I should mention that a Genki has recently announced a plan to begin incorporating seasonal and loval seafood and vegetables into their restaurant menus. This is theoretically fabulous news, but I’m going to hold off on the fireworks until I have more information. More on this in the next few weeks – hopefully Genki will respond to my interview request.)
It's a start
Parenthetical caveats aside, the point of this somber introduction is not to reiterate this depressing state of affairs, but rather to highlight those few pioneers who have lit beacons in the darkness. Indeed, there’s no time like the present for an examination of the resounding successes that the sustainable sushi movement has enjoyed in the face of this creeping malaise.
This serial piece will examine the current status of the three known sustainable sushi restaurants that are currently operating in North America: Bamboo Sushi, Mashiko, and Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar. I will certainly include other restaurants if appropriate.
Perhaps the best thing I can do to foster the growth of this list is to expound a bit on the triumphs and setbacks of these restaurants. Each of them has adopted a different business model and interpreted sustainability in a different way, and thus they have engendered their own opportunities and challenges.
It is my hope that these articles will encourage other sushi chefs and entrepreneurs to entertain the idea of moving towards sustainability themselves. Many thanks to Sushihound for providing me with the idea for this piece.