Behind the Scenes at Sushi Nakazawa (INTERVIEW)
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.
Jon Cheng Daisuke Nakazawa and Alessandro Borgognone
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.