Chatting With David Bouhadana on Being a Young Sushi Chef, The State of NYC Sushi, and Why Sushi May Disappear

Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times
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.

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