Interview With A Sushi God: Chef Seki On Etiquette, Soy Sauce Usage

Each day this week during Around The World In 5 Editors, one of the editors breaks in with a lineup of stories, recipes, interviews and personal essays dedicated to their respective country. Here is why today is dedicated to the food of Japan.

No discussion of New York City's best sushi restaurants is complete without mention of Sushi Seki. Zhong Zhen Shi – aka Chef Seki – opened Sushi Seki 12 years ago on the Upper East Side, after working for several years at city mainstay Sushi of Gari. While at Gari, the chef helped pioneer a more modern and innovative style of sushi – most notably topping nigiri with somewhat unorthodox ingredients. The chef employs a similar style at Sushi Seki, which recently opened a second location in Chelsea and is known as a regular haunt for top chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Gordon Ramsay and Eric Ripert. Chef Seki sat down with us to talk sushi etiquette, differences between American and Japanese preferences and 3 a.m. fish munchies.

What are some common mistakes people make while eating sushi?

Over-seasoning with soy sauce! Also, waiting too long to eat each piece. Each piece of nigiri sushi, and each hand roll, needs to be enjoyed as soon as it's served so the texture doesn't get disrupted by the change in temperatures. Here at Sushi Seki, I hand guests their hand roll instead of serving it to them on a wooden plate, which would make the nori lose its crispness due to the moisture of the wood. You would lose the whole textural experience of eating that dish.

Can you give us a few basic pointers about eating sushi properly?

Pickled ginger is meant to be served as a palate cleanser in between sushi and nigiri pieces, but the common misunderstanding is to dip pickled ginger into the soy sauce or to put the pickled ginger on top of nigiri sushi – whose flavor is already complete and balanced – and eat it all together. The pickled ginger should be enjoyed between pieces of sushi. And in terms of wasabi, using too much of it overpowers the gently seasoned flavor of the sushi rice and fish, so don't overdo it!

Is the American palate different from the Japanese? How so?

American sushi diners are much more sophisticated these days than 20 years ago when I started working in New York. They trust sushi chefs more and are more educated overall – they actually don't over-dip sushi in soy sauce often, as least not as much as diners two decades ago!

What are some American favorites that you will never see in Japan?

There are several dishes at Sushi Seki that you just wouldn't see in Japan, namely our ode to New York-style bagel and lox: We top fresh salmon sushi with charred tomato that is seasoned with minced white onion toast. Also, you wouldn't see our toro tartare mixed with pickled daikon. And Americans love our chopped barbecued eel with tempura crunch and avocado, but you'd be hard-pressed to find that sort of thing in Japan. However, sushi chefs in Japan have been using avocado lately because they have been influenced by American sushi culture.

How do you decide what goes into your omakase offering each night?

My first priority is to have a totally thoughtful progression from the first to the last piece of sushi. I usually serve about 12 pieces all together but will take extra requests, of course. I want the omakase to progress from sushi served at a chilled temperature to a warmer temperature; from refreshing, light and citrusy to rich. And I like to progress to a crispy texture. Also, the omakase is tailored to the preference of each individual guest. Everyone gets something a bit different.

Why did you start adding toppings to your fish?

There are two main reasons: to control the seasoning and to vary the flavors. For instance, when we dine on Italian, French and other Western cuisines, even when having tasting menus it can be difficult to eat more than eight or so courses. But when it comes to Seki-style sushi, you can enjoy as many as 20 different courses in the form of pieces of nigiri sushi and hand rolls, so toppings help give diners a diversity of flavors.

The toppings also allow the chef to control the seasoning and encourage diners to eat the sushi as it is presented instead of over-dipping in soy sauce. Of course, you don't want to go too overboard on toppings. You still want to be able to taste the best, clean flavor of each fish.

What is the most important ingredient in a piece of sushi?

The rice, without a doubt. And it should be seasoned vinegar rice. The reason that the rice is the most important is because even though we all use seasoned vinegar rice, the style is totally unique to each sushi chef. Each sushi chef has his recipe based on the temperature he or she uses to cook and serve the rice, the seasoning and the aroma they create based on the amount of vinegar.

And why is Sushi Seki's UES location open until 3 a.m.? Not going to argue with that.

When I opened that location 12 years ago I was actually replacing Sushi Hatsu, which had been owned by a master chef for 18 years. That place was classic and he served sushi until 3 a.m. I wanted to continue this legacy out of respect. Also, in Japan, many sushi places stay open that late because after they close up, the sushi chefs can go straight to the fish market to get the freshest product. And in a sense, that's what I still do. After I close up Sushi Seki's Upper East Side location (our Chelsea location closes at 1 a.m.) I start calling the ports and my fish supplier to make my orders.

Read more about sushi on Food Republic:

  • Meet The 8 Sushi Masters Of Los Angeles
  • Throw Your Own Home Sushi Party (Safely): An Interview With An Expert
  • I Ate Poisonous Blowfish Sashimi And Survived To Address 3 Myths