This is part one of my interview with Wayne Conwell, executive chef/owner of Sushi Sasa. Part two of this interview will run tomorrow on the Cafe Society blog.
While his toddling friends were chowing down on burgers and pizza, Wayne Conwell celebrated his fourth and fifth birthdays sliding raw fish down his throat, unknowingly prepping himself for his future career. "I was exposed to sushi when I was really, really young, and I always wanted to spend my birthdays at Benihana -- or somewhere like Benihana," remembers Conwell, the executive chef/owner of Sushi Sasa. He credits his mother and his grandmothers for introducing him to a culinary canvas of international foods: "My mom is Colombian and a good cook, but my grandmothers -- they could really cook, and they made amazing meals."
Still, a boy has to do what a boy has to do, and Conwell, who was living in Orange County and needed a summer job to get spending money (to eat sushi, obviously), took one at McDonald's, using his father's ID to get it. "I was fifteen and underage, but I needed money, and my dad has the same name as me, so I whipped out his social security card," recalls Conwell. In 1986, Conwell moved to Denver, where he attended East High School; some Japanese friends there helped him solidify a gig at a now-defunct Japanese restaurant. "My main goal was to learn as much about Japanese food as I possibly could -- and I learned a lot," he says.
Conwell garnered enough knowledge to land at a restaurant that "starts with Sushi and then rhymes with the word 'pen,'" he quips, a stint that lasted for eight years. "I started as a sushi-bar bitch and left as one of their longest-serving chefs," says Conwell, who gave up the gig in order to go to Southeast Asia. "I was kind of burned out on the industry; I wanted to take a break and clear my head, and I had a lot of money saved, so I decided to travel."
In Southeast Asia, he really began to think about his future -- and the prospect of owning his own restaurant. But before Conwell committed to Sushi Sasa, he took a detour to Philadelphia to work under Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. "A friend and I were sitting around, drinking beers and watching Iron Chef, and there was Morimoto taking on a guy making sushi, and we sort of wondered how we'd stack up to his competitor," he recalls. It wasn't long before Conwell found out. He fired off a resumé and cover letter to Morimoto's eponymous restaurant, ate dinner there, did a knife-skill test and was hired. "He put me through the wringer, but it was his birthday, he was in a good mood, and all the stars were aligned that night. I couldn't do anything wrong," recollects Conwell.
So he moved to Philly, leaving his wife behind in Denver, to work alongside the Japanese master, and while he started at the bottom -- doing prep -- he emerged as a "fully commissioned sushi chef," ready to do his own thing. Conwell returned to Denver, where he opened Sushi Sasa in 2005. "I think we have everything nailed down here -- the service, the atmosphere, the wines, the mixed drinks, the food. We have the whole package," he says. "We're progressive but very well-grounded, we have a really tight-knit team, and we've branched off in our own way, pioneering our own style, system and dishes."
In the following interview, Conwell raps on customers who want pot in their toro tartare, the guy who fled his restaurant in the face of fire, and how a gladiator staff of restaurant health inspectors would fare on the Food Network.
Six words to describe your food: Addictive, interactive, progressive, grounded, labor-intensive, and evolving.
Ten words to describe you: Meticulous, admiring, relentless, reflective, critical, sentimental, tolerant, logical, pessimistic, and, oftentimes, silly.
Culinary inspirations: Both of my grandmothers were great culinary inspirations in my life. My dad's mom possessed a real scientific approach to recipes, and she patiently observed me preparing a lot of strange concoctions in her kitchen -- most of which were inedible -- and rarely pulled the plug on my attempts, unless they seemed too dangerous or expensive. She always let me cook my own smaller version of her recipes side by side in her auxiliary oven while pretending that my innovations were revolutionary.... I miss her and often think of her when I cook. My mom's mother never read a cookbook -- at least not that I ever saw. Simply put, she doesn't need no stinking cookbooks; she's just a great cook. And being from Colombia, she's always been my connection to culture and food. When I visit my Grandma Blanca (my mom's mom), I never want to go out to eat, because if I did, it would mean sacrificing the loss of one of her beautiful meals: sancocho, a traditional Colombian stew; arepas, plátanos, lentils and rice -- I can never get enough. I often use my memories of her practical knowledge and instinctive approach to cooking, especially in my soups.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Opening Sushi Sasa. I finally had the chance to trade in all the training and sacrifice for a ticket to try my own hand with my menu -- on my own terms. Once upon a time, I might have thought I was pretty hot stuff as a chef, but the process of opening a restaurant beat out most of that foolishness -- and then some. Thinking back, it's a miracle that I actually managed to get the doors open, and it's a good thing I was too far in it to back out, because there were times I doubted whether I had what it took to own a restaurant.
Best food city in America for Japanese food: I think L.A. has the best collection of Japanese restaurants if we're talking about food, although New York is the best if we're also including atmosphere.
Favorite sushi restaurant in Tokyo: Tsukiyabashi Jiro's restaurant in Ginza. The man is a legend, and he has three Michelin stars. His progression of sushi is prepared and delivered right before your eyes with perfect execution and timing. Simply put, it's the best twenty pieces of straight sushi available anywhere in the world.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: JJ's Chinese Seafood is my favorite non-upscale Denver restaurant. It's a special place for me for all sorts of reasons: The owners and staff work as hard and consistently as I've seen anywhere; you can eat as healthy or as trashy as you want; it's a perfect restaurant to take a bunch of kids; there's something for everyone; it can be as exotic as you can stomach; and the dim sum on the weekends is killer. We eat there more than any other single restaurant. That said, there are so many other restaurants worth mentioning. I had the opportunity last month to meet with many friends who are all top Denver chefs, at various charity events, and it made me happy and sad at the same time. I was happy to see everyone, but sad that we are all so busy and never have enough time to catch up. Enrique, man, thanks for the food. It was great, and I was starving.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? I consider Martha Stewart to be an "honorary famous chef." She certainly has hosted a great number of famous chefs over the years, and I imagine she's dined on just about every culinary wonder this world has to offer. I always wonder what she would think of my food.
Current Denver culinary genius: Jeff Osaka from twelve. His dishes are solid, he works most of his recipes personally from start to finish, he constantly refines and strives for perfection, and he seems to find some higher meaning in walking uphill both ways. I have no idea how he has time to start a family -- he and his wife are having a baby -- but congratulations, brother.
Favorite celebrity chef: Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. When I worked for him, I knew immediately that he was the real deal. Is there anything he can't do? Most incredible is his ability to manipulate the hard work of others. He can do things with your own creations, which you never imagined were possible.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Let's just say that I'd like to see Gordon Ramsay come and show us a thing or two about sushi.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Independent and smaller restaurants that are open Sundays and Mondays. I know it's selfish, but those are my days off, and I can never make it out to eat at some of my favorite places because they're closed on Sunday and Monday. I guess the upside is that when I do make it out, it feels like a very special occasion. We have a ton of talent here in Denver, and I just want to experience more of what we already have.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Burger joints and cupcake shops. Don't get me wrong: I love a good burger from HBurger, or a moist, yummy cupcake, but don't we finally have enough?
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? An avocado slicer. We fondly refer to it as the "avocado biatch." We prefer to do most things by hand, but slicing avocados is not one of them.
One book that every chef should read: Escoffier: The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery. I think it's a great reference book. Maybe Patrick [DuPays] from Z Cuisine could explain a few things to me sometime, because many of the ingredients are a mystery to me. Nevertheless, I have combined it with instinct and substitutions to come up with some solid recipes.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network and what would it be about? I'd call it Inspector 12: Respect Your Health Inspector. It'd be a show about a gladiator-like staff of health inspectors who would travel around to various famous restaurants, completely ripping each one apart while armed with The Book of Retail Food Establishment Regulations. This highly trained staff would then step up to the challenge of running service. They would attempt to "smoke" the restaurant's real chefs while adhering to every code and regulation in the process. I'll keep waiting for the callback from Food Network, but I won't be holding my breath.
What's your favorite knife? I use a Fugubiki -- a knife used for preparing blowfish. I like it because it has great precision and it's extremely light. I started using it because I was having problems with my wrist and fingers.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Packages of tortillas. I could eat a wrap or burrito every day, especially when I'm on the go. I guess I also buy two packs of turkey breasts and two packs of Swiss cheese, too. There are some weeks when I feel like I live on turkey wraps.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Quail eggs. Mini-size, individual eggs cooked sunny-side up on every slice would be pretty cool.
Guiltiest food pleasure? Peanut butter. My son is deathly allergic to peanuts, and I'm afraid to keep any in the house. We enjoy almond butter at home, but even the best isn't quite the same. I love peanut butter and can't help but snack on it on the sly when he's not around.
Weirdest customer request: Customers have, on occasion, asked me to mix marijuana into their sushi. I tell them that I just can't assume that kind of liability. Anyway, I think it would taste horrible. Sushi edibles are not my thing.
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Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: In Thailand, I once ate wild exotic mushrooms with red ant larva. It was similar to rice, and pretty good, too.
Last meal before you die: My wife's home cooking. I think she might consider cooking for me if I were truly on my deathbed. Just kidding, baby.