Round two with Sushi Sasa's Wayne Conwell
2401 Fifteenth Street
This is part two of my interview with Wayne Conwell, executive chef/owner of Sushi Sasa. In part one of that interview with Conwell, he dishes on working for Iron Chef Morimoto, the genius of Jeff Osaka and sushi "edibles."
Best recent food find: If you cook rice regularly at home, try haiga-mai, a half-milled rice. I've recently grown extremely fond of it, mainly because it tastes awesome, and it's healthier than white rice. The bran layer has been removed, but the germ -- haiga -- is left intact. Pacific Mercantile carries a couple of good brands, and when you try it, I'll bet you'll jump on the bandwagon, too. The only downside is that it's a little bit more expensive.
Favorite ingredient: Dashi -- bonito and konbu stock -- is a major component of many Japanese dishes and indispensable at Sushi Sasa. I feel a sense of meditation and daily reaffirmation when I make it -- even if I am constantly making small adjustments, chasing the unattainable perfect batch.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Verde Farms for its microgreens, especially the mizuna and amaranth. Josh Halder, who created Verde Farms, must be making a killing. Does Pinkberry yogurt count as a local ingredient? Anyway...I also love to use Pinkberry's original yogurt in my sparkling sake float.
Favorite spice: I love to use different salts in my dishes. Some salts add infused flavors, others give interesting textures, and some even lend subtle colors. I've learned much about salt from trial and error. When I dine out, my biggest complaint is when dishes are overly salty, and while I think I prefer a less-is-more approach as I get older, I still think that salt is extremely important as a finishing touch. I use Alderwood smoked sea salt on my monkfish liver plate, and it really amplifies all the subtle flavors, plus it gives it a level of sophistication. And, yes, I do realize that salt, by itself, really isn't a sp
Most underrated ingredient: Tomatoes are underrated, right? I love them, and you'll find them used one way or another in most of my dishes. I especially love to use raw tomatoes on our more modern sashimi creations.
Most overrated ingredient: Yuzu isn't exactly overrated, but it's definitely overused. Like the chefs caught in the trap of pumping truffle oil or truffles into every creation under the sun, the same is true for yuzu. At one point, it was only overused in Japanese cuisine, but now you find it everywhere. Why? Because it creates aroma and flavor, and its expense adds to the grandeur of fine dining. The biggest drawback is that the palate grows tired of it and then everything begins to taste the same. There was a time at Sasa when I had to have a chef meeting to address the subject, because most of our newer sauces and dressings had yuzu juice or peel as an ingredient, and I was getting flat-out burned out on it. Everyone realized what I was talking about -- and we were all in agreement -- so we started to wean a lot of our recipes off of the yuzu.
One food you detest: I detest food that loses its natural identity. Test-tube creations are fun, and I love to draw inspiration just as much as the next guy from the envelope-pushing innovations of others, but can't we all agree that preserving some natural essence of the foods we prepare is important for the soul? I guess that I like food to look and taste like food, and I think molecular gastronomy, at least in most cases, should be limited to accenting the main ingredient.
One food you can't live without: Rice, but not just any rice. It needs to he high-quality and well-prepared Japanese rice. We even take rice and a small rice cooker with us when we go on vacation.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Keep the heart of our food grounded and Japanese; if nothing else, respect the food and take it seriously; communicate clearly and speak with a purpose, especially when we're busy; pretend you hear "please" and "thank you" even when you don't -- and say them whenever you can; bring a sense of humor, but leave the candy at home; and don't second-guess Wayne, because he has a plan, even if you don't yet understand what it is.
Biggest kitchen disaster: One Friday night, one of my chefs, whose name I won't mention -- it's Eiji Otsuki -- punctured a lit propane torch with the tip of his knife during service. The flames and fire alarm, which followed, cleared the entire restaurant -- with the exception of one calm woman sitting at the sushi bar, who was left behind by her date, because he was so overwhelmed by his "flight instinct." The man fled the restaurant, but not before falling out of his seat and transforming into a backward-walking, spiderlike creature. He eventually disappeared out the front door screaming, "The place is going to blow!" After we managed to get the situation under control and the smoke cleared, many of the patrons returned, including the gentleman who fled -- and there was his lady friend seated at the bar calmly sipping her sake. I couldn't help being embarrassed by the fire and the whole situation. It was a scary disaster, but we were lucky, because it could have been so much worse. I often wonder what happened to the couple....
What's never in your kitchen? Crybabies.
What's always in your kitchen? Nimono, which are stewed Japanese vegetables, along with other traditional sides, which I add to my dishes to promote traditional Japanese cuisine. I like to expose people to these items in small doses, although when patrons ask for larger appetizer-size portions of our sides, it's heartwarming to know that they get it. I feel good about introducing traditional items in this manner because it challenges the palate, but it's less likely to push people out of their comfort zone.
Favorite music to cook by: The '80s hits are the best, because love them or hate them, everyone knows the lyrics, and that gives everyone the opportunity to alter the words and act silly. I like how lighthearted the whole restaurant becomes when we play that music, and it makes prep and setup less of a chore. Of course, this comes to an end when we open at 11:30, but a little '80s music a couple mornings a week is good fun.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Pasta de mare. Sometimes I like to wrap it in parchment paper and take it on a hike, or for a picnic with the family.
Favorite dish on your menu: Right now, it has to be the French onion play on my traditional black cod soup. The rice crouton and Gruyère complement it really well, and the balance is amazing. All I ask is that you please don't stir it too much when you eat it.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? My play on a beet salad, combined with a Japanese traditional white sesame dish. I think it's a perfect cold appetizer. By the way, it's actually on my menu, and we call it "goma ae." Can you please order it, so I can stop throwing away so many delicious beets? They're so good, and not easy to prepare.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Want to make sushi at home? Buy your ingredients semi-ready from your favorite sushi joint; buy sushi rice ready to go; buy fish cleaned and ready to slice; and unless you're a glutton for punishment, do yourself a favor and concentrate on the fun part of making sushi at home. Assembling sushi with your friends and family -- that's where the fun is. It will taste better, you'll have less cleanup, you'll save money, and no one needs to be any the wiser to the fact that you didn't do everything yourself.
Are chefs artists, craftsmen or both? I believe that many chefs are one or the other, and I believe that great chefs are both and excel at skating a thin line between the two.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Restaurant life can become one big, long party. It can -- and has -- consumed many great chefs. I'm lucky to have retired from that side of the industry and survived to tell the tale.
What's next for you? If things ever settle down a bit for me at Sushi Sasa, I'd like to try my hand at a slightly different concept. I don't want to let on too much for now, but ask me again in another year.
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