Chef Suyma cutting salmon | The Hand That Feeds

Kellen Burden. Contributed photo

I leaned up against the sushi bar at Koharu, watching Chef Suyma’s hands move with professional deftness across cuts of fish like a veteran poker dealer. There was public access Japanese programming on the television, but he wasn’t watching it, and neither did I because his hands flew with that knife and his eyes were as sharp and serious as the blade he held, slipping through a piece of salmon with a fluidity that was almost mechanical. Icebergs of orange run through with fat laid out in front of him, lined up in clean orderly piles — just like the tuna behind the glass, the bamboo mats on his workspace and the rows of knives behind his counter.

When I opened my mouth to speak there was a hesitance to do so that I can only attribute to the feeling of prickly magic that has permeated the ritual that he performed. That knife danced on the cutting board and the fish, just parting ways beneath it, fell into piles like a delicious Fantasia. I found my voice.

“What’s your favorite?” I asked.

I asked a 21-year-old sushi chef at a different restaurant the same question a week before. The kid was throwing fish around on his cluttered counter top, eyeing the clock behind him. The kid said, “Uh, I don’t know … I make sashimi salads and stuff,” which seemed like a good enough answer at the time. I fancy a sashimi salad myself. He and I nodded at each other. I ate a California roll.

Suyma stopped cutting, those sharp eyes roaming the glass case in front of him, inspecting the cuts of fish with the same deliberation that he devotes to cutting them. His gaze softened.

“It’s all my favorite,” he said.

There was a reverential pause and then the knife was moving again. Under different circumstances, I might have been disappointed by an answer like that. But, five minutes ago, I was sitting in front of a Jirashi bowl full of that fish he loves so indiscriminately and if you’d asked me which cut was making me make the face I was making, I don’t think I could have put a finger on it. I’ve always had a vague respect for pickled ginger as a pallet cleanser, but Koharu is the first restaurant that’s ever made me truly understand it. Mashing together the flavors of the fish in that bowl is like playing symphonies overtop of one another. Each bite is something to be respected and explored.

Suyma portioned salmon eggs into individual containers as I asked, “What’s the most important part about making sushi?”

I asked the same 21-year-old the same question a week before. There was a soccer game on the television behind the bar and he peeled himself off of it reluctantly and said, “The rice is a big part of it… prep is pretty important too. Getting all the stuff ready so you don’t have to do it later.”

He and I nodded at one another and he went back to the soccer game.

Chef Suyma stopped his portioning and looked up at me over the countertop with his brow furrowed.

I tried to clarify, “I talked to a different chef last week who said that it was all about the rice and the preparation.”

His brows didn’t unfurrow.

“It is all important,” he said, gravity pulling the word “all” down an octave. He leaned away from his salmon eggs, turned his attention on me.

“The preparation and the fish and the rice and the vinegars – they’re all important,” he said. “The big companies buy all of their sauces from other places.”

Suyma waved a hand dismissively. “You have to make it.”

I am floored.

“You make yours here?” I asked.

“Everything,” he said. “All the vinegars and sauces are made here.”

He hooked a thumb at the kitchen, shaking his head at the look of wonder on my face.

“Sushi is changing,” he said sadly.

If this is the way it used to be, he is most certainly correct. The 21-year-old spent a lot of time with the cream cheese under his counter. There was a never ending sprinkling of panko and a lot of words like “firecracker” on the menu. Brand name everything bought in bulk because it’s faster and less expensive and easier.

Not here, though. The words he breathed with deference only moments before have seeped into the bedrock of this place, flowing through its bloodstream like a dogmatic Adderall, forcing everyone to focus.

Suyma dropped back down into his salmon eggs, delicately maneuvering them into their individual containers so that later, when he’s plating them, every customer will get the same portion as the person next to him or her. The same portion that they got the time before. It makes for a more consistent dining experience, which means you’re never disappointed, because in the sushi bar at Koharu, sushi isn’t something you can do well if you just get a couple of key points correct. In here, every individual salmon egg gets attention because you don’t phone anything in.

In here, it’s all important.

Chef Sho Suyma has been making sushi since 1968. He’s been at Koharu on Pacific Highway for almost 19 years. Get in there.

Kellen Burden is a local novelist and lunch enthusiast. More of his work can be found at www.goatfederation.com.

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