Standing behind a large wooden sushi station, chef Hiroyuki Naruke looked at me with a serious glare through his thin white glasses. The Tokyo native that most people call chef Hiro is the maestro behind Q Sushi in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, and he's widely recognized for embracing a traditional style that dates back to the 1800s when Tokyo was still called Edo and fresh fish from Edo Bay was first served over vinegared rice and nori.
When asked if he sees his sushi in the Edo style, a long pause ensues.
"Yes," the chef says hesitantly after about 10 seconds. Then silence.
You paused. Why?
"We say Edo style, Edomae style, [which] originally means traditional," he responds. "It started about 150 years ago in the former [city that became] Tokyo. But as you know, they did not have refrigeration, so that's why they cured and pickled and marinated. So, nowadays, we have refrigeration, so we don't have to do that, but it's like an essence. It originally meant traditional Tokyo style, but it means 'sushi renaissance' to me."
At the start of the decade, the chef owned and operated Nogizaka Sushi Yuki in Tokyo, but a 2011 earthquake and tsunami disrupted his operation. Three Angelenos who regularly visited his restaurant in Tokyo pitched him on the idea of bringing his decades-long expertise to Los Angeles, and the chef agreed. Opening in 2013, Q Sushi delivered what the late, great food critic Jonathan Gold described as the first "real edomae sushi in Los Angeles."
A few days before meeting with chef Hiro after his lunch service, I visited the restaurant for an omakase dinner that showcased the subtle changes that come with curing, braising, pickling and aging fish. I had not personally experienced the Edo style before, but it was clear that Q Sushi was steeped in tradition. The style, rarely seen in American sushi restaurants, almost had a spiritual quality to it, and the chef clearly took his job—or should I say his mission or purpose—with the utmost seriousness.
Chef Hiro's passion lies in mastering the art of sushi, not in doing interviews, but he answers my questions nonetheless giving a lesson in tradition, sourcing and cutting.
Due to lack of refrigerator, 19th-century Edomae chefs often cured the fish. Which types of fish do you commonly cure, and what is the curing process?
White fish like fluke or snapper, silver-skinned fish like shad or mackerel. Typical processes are vinegar marinated, salt cured, seaweed cured and so on.
How does curing fish change the flavor?
Most people think sushi is just raw fish and rice, so sometimes customers say, "I like only fish, no need for rice," but that's not sushi. It's just fish.
Does curing produce stronger flavors maybe?
Yeah, sometimes stronger.
Curing has two purposes [depending on the type of fish]. Type one is mackerel and shad, and they are not eaten simply raw—shads are too fishy and too boney, and mackerels are easily spoiled by their histidine. Type two is white fish like fluke or snapper. They are often cured with kombu, which is dried seaweed. Kombu adds umami on fish.
How long can you cure a fish?
That depends on the fish, on the condition. Maybe one week. Wait, check this out.
The chef pulls out a fish wrapped in plastic.
This fluke is cured with kombu seaweed, dried kelp. So not just raw. I put the salt to dehydrate it, take unnecessary water out. And then after that, wipe and absorb and press with dried kelp. And this kelp is from Hokkaido, Japan. Hokkaido has the best dried kelp.
How long will this fish be cured like this?
This fish is small and thin, so maybe one day. Big and thick ones, maybe two days.
When you started out, you worked at both a sushi bar and a kaiseki restaurant. What drew you to sushi over kaiseki, and are there elements of kaiseki in your omakase?
I think sushi and kaiseki are the same for me, just different expressive styles.
What do they express differently?
Do you know what kaiseki is? Okay, [you] start with small appetizers and soup and sashimi and then grilled fish and braised dish and deep-fried dish—it consists of many courses with seasonal stuff. And sushi is also the same: raw fish and marinated fish and braised fish. We use same methods with raw and cooked and braised—actually we don't do fried—but vinegared and cured.
Which dish do you braise?
Sea eel and sometimes octopus, sometimes squid, other fish. We usually marinate silver-skinned fish—bluefish, shad, herring, sardine, mackerel, horse mackerel.
The omakase menu includes fish flown in from Japan, Spain and other countries. What are the challenges in sourcing fish from around the world, and how often do you receive fresh fish?
If I can make sushi with 100 percent local fish, that is fine, but unfortunately there are not many good fish from the local ocean so more than 60 percent of our fish is flown in from Japan. Almost every business day.
How do you approach rice differently than what guests typically experience in other restaurants?
Making sushi rice is one of the most delicate parts of my daily work. Our rice comes from Niigata, Japan. I make mine by myself, every day. Most restaurants have someone else make the rice, not the head chef. That is the biggest difference.
How does a proper cut affect the taste and texture of the fish?
It keeps umami and freshness.
What would be the difference of a master cut?
You don't break the cells in the fish. If the technical knife skill is not good, you break the cells of the fish, so umami runs away, runs out.
How long does it take to master the sushi cut?
It depends on the person.
How long did it take you?
When did you become proud of your knife skills?
It took at least 10 years. When I was young, I thought I could, but now I reckon in my young age, I was not able to do that.
The space for Q features masks, an old sake pot and other objets d'art. Which decorative item should diners pay the most attention to when they visit Q?
The samurai sword case.
The chef turns and points to a decorative case near the wall behind him.
It's 400 years old.
What are the similarities and differences between Nogizaka Sushi Yuki and Q?
The sushi and dishes are similar, but the restaurant style is different.
What were the most important traditions for you to bring from Japan to Los Angeles?
Maybe real sushi.
Yes, kind of traditional, but the common style in Tokyo. Current high-end restaurant style in Tokyo.
Which is your favorite fish to eat personally?
Maybe white fish… snapper and fluke.
If you are not eating sushi, what do you typically eat?
Do you have a favorite steakhouse in Los Angeles?
Anything new you are planning for next year?
Yes, I want to try more… actually, for now, there's something I cannot try. I want to try to introduce more traditional real stuff. Even more.
You want to go even more traditional?
Yes. I hope I can do that next year.
What would be an example of being more traditional?
For now, I do not serve hand rolls traditional style. [Most are] real Americanized. For American customers, I want to make hand rolls that are Japanese style.
And going more traditional would include the types of fish you choose?
Not only the type of fish but the style. The omakase is very popular, but compared to Japan, it's not real omakase. It is just a prix-fixe style. Omakase and prix fixe are not the same. If I do real omakase, I sub different things to each person. But it is very difficult for this situation.
Are there any fish you have not served yet that you hope to start bringing in from Japan?
More live fish, but it is very difficult with the FDA. If they ship live fish, it is dead when it arrives.
To what extent do the courses change from month to month or season to season?
Day by day, little by little. So it would be about half different in six months, but the main part is same. For example, tuna, sea urchin, salmon egg, white fish, maybe some scallops… those parts are mostly the same. Seasonal bony fish, mackerel—there are many kinds of mackerel in Japan—horse mackerel, Spanish mackerel and jack mackerel.
What is something American customers should know about sushi that will make them appreciate it more?
I want them to know this restaurant, this style, is not traditional. I don't want to call this style traditional sushi. It is just sushi to me. But the word sushi is already famous in the States. It includes Americanized sushi rolls, some other sushi, so sometimes first-time customers can't imagine anything different. I tell them we do traditional sushi, but I don't want to say this is traditional. This is sushi. Just sushi.