Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Chris Nemoto of Zushi

Chris Nemoto Zushi Japanese Cuisine 5900 Memorial Drive 713-861-5588

This is the second part of a three-part chef chat series. Part 1 ran yesterday, and Part 3 will run tomorrow in this same space.

Yesterday, Chef Chris Nemoto told us what it's like to train under a sushi master and how difficult it is to master the art of making nigiri sushi. Nemoto worked as head sushi chef at Rickshaw Bambu in River Oaks before moving on to open Zushi Japanese Cuisine near Memorial Park, which is the focus of our chat today.

EOW: So you've been here for five years. Tell me about Zushi.

CN: We're coming up on five years. I helped open it with the original owners. About a year and a half ago, there was a change in ownership.

EOW: Did it change anything?

CN: Not too much. There was a lot of strategy with marketing, and things of that nature that did change. At the very beginning there were attempts to tweak things business-wise and concept-wise, because given the location -- our interior is nice, and the quality of our food; I'm proud of our food -- we're not packed every day.

EOW: I know! I was here a few weeks ago and I was blown away by your nigiri. This place should be packed.

CN: (modestly) Thank you.

EOW: So tell me about the menu here. Why do people want to come and see Chris?

CN: The reason I know that people come back and see me is because I love to make things for people, meaning special items. So a lot of the time, my regular customers will come in and say, "Just make me whatever."

EOW: That's the best!

CN: (smiles) I always try to change it or present it in a different way, or find something new or fun that I can work with. In that way, it's not so monotonous for them.

EOW: Do you make things on the fly, or is it something you've made before that you already have composed in your head?

CN: It depends, if I know there's an event, or if one of my customers contacts me ahead of time or sends me a text, if I have time, I may prep things ahead of time so I can cut that step out. But I do things on the fly all the time.

EOW: You said you love making sashimi appetizers. What are your most popular ones?

CN: Our salmon and albacore carpaccio are really popular. For the salmon, I use a white soy vinaigrette for a little bit of flavor and salt, then I've got garlic chips, feta cheese, dill springs and capers. On the albacore, we use pickled fennel, a little bit of guerito yellow pepper, ponzu sauce and grape seed oil. The most recent one is going to be our konbu-jimae salmon. And that one, I take the salmon belly and I sear it. Then I marinate it, and the flavor of the marinade is this old-school Japanese flavor, but it's very dynamic, and it's got some rice pearls which give it a bit of crunch, and some blue seaweed dust, and pickled red onion, with pickled vegetables on the side. It's just a play on sashimi.

EOW: What's the number one fish? What do people order the most?

CN: Salmon is probably our number one. It's probably driven by the press a bit, and the fact that it's a fish that people are more comfortable with, but people love salmon.

EOW: Do you do the omakase here?

CN: We do omakase. It's on the menu. There are three price ranges, and if they want more, we can always do whatever. It's pretty intense, and people don't really understand. The omakase is supposed to be a special item, a special meal. But a lot of people are like, "I want a spicy tuna, and I want this," and we try to accommodate that, but it's supposed to be where the chef picks what's most fresh, or most special, or what he came up with during the day, and not everybody understands that.

EOW: Is there a favorite fish that you work with that's particularly versatile in terms of flavor or texture?

CN: I love the hamachi family of fish. In general, it's just a very buttery fish. And if you're using the belly part, it's almost like a poor man's toro; it has the essence of toro, but it's not as heavily fatty as toro. Then the shoulder part of the hamachi is also good; it's not as buttery, it's a little softer and tender, but that fish is one of my favorites.

EOW: So how would you describe your style?

CN: My style of sushi? I think it's traditionally based, but a little on the fusion side of things.

EOW: So are there flavors that you like? Like you're doing pickled fennel, do you like more salty? What's your thing?

CN: I have a sweet tooth. And I constantly fight myself all day to stay away from sweets, and I'm aware of that, so whenever I taste something, I try to make sure I'm not overbearing on those things. It's always fun though, when you start with a base of something, say for example pickled red onion -- there are nuances to that food, so you're building on that flavor.

EOW: So I noticed you've been teaching this sushi class at Central Market?

CN: Yes, with the Central Market Cooking School. I've been doing it since I was at Rickshaw. It's the first Wednesday of every month, 6:30 to 9 p.m. I teach how to make the rice. The menu changes every month, and I incorporate a little bit of everything. I think overall, people are so intimidated by raw food, especially fish, they have no clue, and purchasing it is a big deal. Also, cutting it -- how do you cut it? How do you make those slices or make the rolls? So, we just break it down so people can actually get their hands on there and make rolls or nigiri, or cut the fish for sashimi. I like to do sashimi appetizers. I give them the tools on how to cut the sashimi, and if they want to make traditional sashimi, they can, but I usually have a sashimi appetizer so they can get an idea of how to use sashimi aside from just wasabi and soy.

EOW: So, on to things about you. What's your favorite pastime?

CN: I love golf. I don't have an official handicap. I shoot around 92, and some days I shoot like 102. I usually go with Mike.

EOW: How often do you go back to Japan?

CN: It used to be that I'd go back every two years, but now it's hard, maybe every three or four years. My dad is there -- he remarried and retired there -- and my cousins are there.

EOW: So when you go back home, what do you do?

CN: Eat a lot. Sing karaoke. Karaoke is a big part of Japanese culture. We'll go out, and I'll try to sing a song, and my friends will say, "That song is 10 years old! You need to learn new ones."

EOW: What do you crave?

CN: I love Japanese food. I LOVE ramen. I love Japanese-style ramen.

EOW: So last question: If you were to have a last meal, who would make it, what would it be, and where? If you were going to die tomorrow, what would make you happy?

CN: I haven't really been out there to try all the different foods, but I would love to actually have food directly from Morimoto or someone like that. Just as creative as he is, and his presentations are really great. I'm sure his flavors are on, too. I think I would really enjoy that. Like out of his book, presentation-wise, his toro tartare, that image he has is almost like a picture frame sitting in a glass with ice, with all these condiments with it. I love that concept, because it's kind of like what I was saying about not just having sashimi, but having it with accents of flavor. And some of the stuff he did on the old Iron Chefs. I think if a chef looked at his food, especially in sushi, and didn't appreciate what he was doing, then I think they were missing something, because he does more than the standard.

Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Nemoto's food.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham