This is Part 1 of a three-part Chef Chat series. Check back with us for Parts 2 and 3, which will run in this same space Thursday and Friday.
Just outside the Galleria on Westheimer near Fountainview, in a strip mall overshadowed by the prominent signage of Nazar's Fine Jewelry, you'll find a few black awnings quietly signaling the presence of MF Sushi, chef Chris Kinjo's new sushi restaurant in Houston. If its presence seems surprisingly humble for someone with Kinjo's prominent past -- his restaurant was named Bon Appétit's 6th best sushi restaurant in America in 2009 (see Katharine Shilcutt's writeup on MF Sushi's opening here) -- Kinjo says it's purposefully so.
"My culinary team came with me from Atlanta, and we're all professionals. We're ready to go," he told me. "But we needed time to get the front-of-the-house ready, because I don't know anyone yet in Houston."
Even so, just six short weeks after it quietly opened, its reputation is spreading rapidly. In fact, on the eve I was there, the patron sitting next to me had eschewed all the sushi restaurants near his home in West University, preferring to drive out to MF Sushi because -- according to him -- "they have the best sushi in Houston, hands down."
We had planned on sitting down for a quiet chat, but in the end we conducted our interview with Kinjo that very same night, right over the sushi bar. He deftly conducted two simultaneous chef tastings, or omakases, while we chatted.
EOW: What does MF stand for?
CK: I got the nickname 15 years ago when I was in San Francisco. It was "Magic Fingers."
EOW: Magic Fingers. Okay, who gave you the nickname?
CK: (smiles ruefully) It's a good story, actually. Back in those days, it was my young days, so I used to party hard.
EOW: How young was young?
CK: It was about 15 years ago. And I'm 41 now.
EOW: So you were about 26.
CK: Yes. So my friends would come into the sushi bar, and they would call me "Crazy motherf--ker." And my customers would look at me and say, "What did they just say?" So I told my friends, "You can't be calling me that; don't call me that when you come here." They started to call me MF instead, and when my customers asked me what does MF stand for, they would say, "Well, it's Magic Fingers." And it stuck every since. Because you would never see it until I'm extremely busy. I move to the pace of the orders coming in. If we're extremely busy, then you'll see me move. If I don't have to move, then I want to take my time to make everything perfect.
EOW: How long do you think it takes to hone the skill to make a perfect piece of sushi?
CK: Personally, for me, I think it takes a minimum of about 15 years.
EOW: But you were already being called "Magic Fingers" in your twenties.
CK: Exactly. But that was just me going crazy. I'm a very fast guy. But the more mature and the older I get, and the more I've been in this business, I always thought I was really good, but now I look back, I feel like I didn't know shit, to be honest with you. The older you get, the more you do it, the more you understand each grain of rice and each cut of fish. And in order to make the perfect piece of sushi, you just have to try your best. Most people do this (slaps hands together back and forth in sushi-making motion). No, no, no -- it's literally understanding temperature, understanding every grain and where it's supposed to connect. When I make it, I'm trying to put every grain to just touch, so the airflow is in between. And right now, I'm trying to make hollow rice.
EOW: Which means what?
CK: Which means there's a ball of rice, but inside there's air. That's what I'm trying to master right now. It's personal for me.
EOW: So you think it takes 15 years to make.
CK: I think for an average sushi chef it takes 15 years to make good sushi, good nigiri.
EOW: For you, then, what do you think was your "A-ha!" moment? The moment when you thought, "I really know how to make sushi now."
CK: I still don't think I do. I'm still trying to perfect it, every day. I'm still trying to make it better, on a daily basis.
EOW: What can you do to improve, then?
CK: Just...timing. The rice has got to be perfect -- perfect timing, perfect temperature. The fish has got to be -- perfect. How can you make a perfect piece of sushi when you didn't catch the fish and you didn't grow the rice? For me, if I was to make the perfect sushi, I would have to catch the fish and grow the rice and cook the rice.
EOW: So you're never going to make perfect sushi?
CK: Exactly. I'm going to try one day. But based on the ingredients, I can only do my best. For me, a perfect piece of sushi is catching the fish, aging it correctly, timing it correctly, controlling the temperature. Rice -- where you get it from, preparing it, everything. Preparation is key.
EOW: What is your favorite family of fish and why?
CK: Mackerel. That's just the soul of sushi. When you eat saba and kohada, it's a very distinct flavor, it's that fishy flavor, it's that pungent flavor; that's the true taste. It's a variety, but it originated like that. Sushi was fermented; it was pickled. Some sushi chefs like that, some do not, but I always felt like I have a duty to keep that tradition alive, so I push it.
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Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat with Chris Kinjo.