By Chris Mohney
Kaze Chan is a master chef of sushi and Japanese cuisine, having opened leading restaurants throughout Chicago over the past two decades. Most recently he opened The Omakase Room, a small chef’s counter above Sushi-san restaurant serving an 18-course tasting menu.
One thing that I find when I travel and eat, what I’m seeing in a lot of omakase rooms, even in Japan—you just sit there and you eat like you’re eating in a temple. It’s really quiet. Customers cannot talk loud, and they cannot ask the chef any questions because it makes them a little bit nervous.
Even in the U.S., if they’re hiring Japanese chefs, sometimes their English is not that good, and they have no confidence to have conversations with customers. That’s why when you go to Japan and you’re speaking English, they walk away from you. They have no confidence. They feel embarrassed. That’s another reason why omakase rooms are always so quiet.
So when I came back here, I was like, “You know what? When we build the Omakase Room, I really want the customers to interact with the chef and ask questions and enjoy the room.” In the dining area, like the sushi bar, I have to step down. So when I step down, my eye level is the same as the customers’. We can talk to each other. We can have fun. We can educate the customer. Because at a lot of places, they just tell you, “Oh, this is tuna.” I want the customer to have the freedom to ask what the tuna looks like. I also have the plastic tuna so I can explain where we cut from, all those things.
One good thing about Sushi-san is that we do volume buying. The fish distributor is one of my best friends. We have known each other for 30 years. He has all the connections from here to Japan. He can get a lot of different line-caught fish. He deals with a lot of really great fishermen over there. So every week, they reserve for us whatever they catch. They call and say, “Hey, I have two pieces of this. It’s a really amazing and in season right now.”
I don’t need to worry about the price that I get from those fishermen because I have the larger downstairs Sushi-san dining room. We’re only open three days a week at Omakase Room. Let’s say I only use one pound a week for 60 customers. Then I can send everything else downstairs and just move it like that. It’s very amazing. For example, let’s say one piece of golden eye snapper costs us $70 for a pound. So we really don’t make that much money if we only have the Omakase Room. But downstairs, we run through 400 pounds of bluefin tuna every four to five days, which is a lot.
As a chef you learn forever. You learn from the day that you start learning to the day you die. One of my chefs that is next to me, he is my master and my friend, too. He’s from Japan, and his knowledge is amazing. So we work together, and if I forget about this I can ask him, and if he forgets about that, he can ask me. We work together very well.
I’ve opened a lot of restaurants. I opened Mirai on Division. That’s the first one I opened. I opened Heat, I opened Momotaro, I opened Kaze Sushi, I opened Macku. When I opened those small restaurants or big restaurants, all my focus is how we are going to get the thing out. Everything is volume, volume, volume. But I never had time to write a menu, and serve the best that I can do, and enjoy the customers and interact. For those busy restaurants, you never have time to interact and talk to people personally. But up at Omakase Room, it’s amazing. Everybody has fun. That’s what I like.
We do a counter at other restaurants too, but usually you have a counter and you have tables. So all your focus and worry is like, “Get this table out. Get that table out. Get the counter set up.” That’s a different direction. But for a long time I’m sitting back and I was like, “I think it’s about time for me to move on and really do what I like, because everything’s already settled at Sushi-san. I can pass down and teach other people to run that.” I’d love to teach more when I’m old, too.
Right now in Chicago, it’s really hard to find a chef. But if I can find one that’s really good, and I can have confidence in them, then I can pass this down and go on to the next one. I have to find somebody that can replace me before I move on. That’s the most difficult thing. A lot of chefs in Chicago, they’ve never been taught the basics. Everywhere they open, they just throw someone in and say, “Go go, go, go, go, go.”
Back in the day, in the 80s and 90s, you had to wash dishes and cook rice for years. Now they skip all those steps. They just go directly into cooking. Restaurants keep opening more and more and more, and they have no time for teaching. That’s why when I opened upstairs, I always made sure that the person downstairs has been well trained. I can pass it on and have confidence in them.
Close conversation with customers is very amazing for me. When I drop a piece of sushi and I look at their face when they enjoy it, my whole heart is so happy. I don’t care how many hours I work. When I see that, everything is worth it. I see that, and I know that I’m doing something right.