Traditional sushi-counter service gives way to DIY sushi rolls suitable for both outdoor service and takeout.
By Sho Boo as told to Chris Mohney
Sho Boo is sushi chef at Maki Kosaka, the more casual offshoot of the Michelin-awarded Kosaka in New York. With decades of sushi experience in New York and elsewhere, Boo found a new challenge in opening a new sushi restaurant in a pandemic that prevents most of the interactions expected in omakase style.
I had a restaurant named Bugs in Japan, and had been trying to open a restaurant with the same name in the United States. I had been working for that dream since I came to the U.S. in 2001. I started off working at different sushi restaurants, including Yasuda. During this time I met chef Yoshihiko Kousaka, who works at Kosaka now.
It took me 10 years, but in 2012 I was able to make my dream come true and open Bugs in Alphabet City. But three years later, I closed Bugs because my mother passed away. That experience changed my view of life. I traveled around the world volunteering in different countries. After that, I was kind of tired of New York, so I went to Hawaii. That’s when the team at Kosaka called me up to ask me if I wanted to join them. And that’s why I came back to New York, in 2017.
The owners already had a vision for Maki Kosaka when they opened Kosaka in 2016. One of their goals was that once Kosaka got a Michelin star, they would be ready for the next venture. This was planned way before the pandemic, for sure. Things got delayed a little bit, but it was always in the plans. They already registered the name Maki Kosaka in 2016.
Having to-go service was part of the plan that we wanted to introduce eventually. But it happened the opposite way—we had to start with to-go. We also had to change the service on the menu to accommodate people sitting outside, instead of right across the counter from the chef. That was the biggest change. We were forced to serve outside because we’re not allowed to serve people inside the restaurant.
When lockdown hit, my mindset was, “Okay, how do we move forward? How do we not just stop and wait for something to happen?” Kosaka unfortunately can’t do outdoor seating because there’s a bike stand right in front of the restaurant. Luckily, the construction for Maki Kosaka was already done. The restaurant was ready. We could use the kitchen. And we were like, “What are we waiting for? Let’s do it. Let’s go.” Maki Kosaka’s omakase counter was supposed to be a special counter to do more fun things. We wanted to do something different, not wait and just keep thinking about what else we can do under the circumstances during this pandemic.
Chef Yoshi from Kosaka is actually working right now at Maki Kosaka. We have slowly seen the original team come back one by one. We needed Maki Kosaka to bring the team together and have everybody come back to work.
In terms of supply, the pandemic didn’t have much effect. We’ve been able to source whatever we needed thanks to all the distributors. But in terms of the menu, the biggest change was that Maki Kosaka was supposed to be more of a temaki-focused restaurant, where the chef would make the hand roll, and hand it to the customer sitting at the counter in front of them. That was the focus of the main dining room, which was impossible to do outside because they can’t go outside and hand the roll over in person.
So we expanded part of the original menu called the “grab hand roll.” The customers grab the sushi with their toasted seaweed nori and make their own hand rolls. Now that’s almost the main focus of the outdoor dining menu. The chef packages the seaweed in a small plastic envelope, so the customers can grab their sushi piece by piece with fresh and crispy nori.
The takeout menu was originally supposed to be the regular cut rolls that you see in other sushi restaurants. Having grab rolls to-go wasn’t part of the plan. But now that we came up with the idea to wrap the nori seaweed in separate envelopes to keep them dry, we can do grab sushi to-go.
Every time I want to give up, I think of my mom. I want to be like her—very positive and very strong and very energetic. I never say, “No, I won’t do it.” That’s just an excuse. “No” is not an answer. At least you have to try. Maybe you won’t see the result in one year or two years, but maybe you’ll see it in 10 years.
Interview translated from Japanese by Ayako Kaneyoshi.