A landlocked mountain city/town is not the logical place for a sushi revolution, but Knoxville is in the midst of one. Meshing the Americanized sushi pioneered by Nama and the traditional offerings from sushi chefs like Seisuke Fukuoka of Anaba, Knoxville is enjoying the best of old and new and everything in between. How do we roll with sushi? These tales of a handful of leading sushi chefs only begin to tell the story.
Executive Sushi Chef, Nama Sushi Bar
Downtown: 506 S Gay Street
Bearden: 5130 Kingston Pike
Where I learned: From Maki San—"San" in Japanese is the term for Mr., especially an older person you respect. He used to have his own restaurant in New York and had retired to Florida and wanted to make pocket money with another place. I was age 15, and he offered me a job starting as a dishwasher. I was from Korea, and didn't have a green card, and Maki offered to sponsor me. I have been making sushi for 15 years, including in several different places in Knoxville for about five years.
When I eat sushi: It's something really exotic, not something many people are looking for: sea urchin. Or giant clams. You don't see those a lot in Knoxville, but we serve them at Nama and they've got quite a taste, really.
A favorite ingredient: I love to use tons of micro greens—micro cilantro, Bloody Marys, which are small scraps of bright red with a radish sprout flavor. They're super small, and very intensified; really fresh, refreshing, with a little kick.
I do elaborate sushi designs: if time allows. I carve butterflies with carrots, rose flower shaped tomatoes. I majored in music in school, studying conducting. When I started cooking, I see myself the same way. Sushi is a lot of practice. And like conducting, it's not you, it's through you. The audience experiences it, and tells you how good it is.
Have I advanced Knoxville sushi? I think so. As simple as it is, I am trying to bring more fish to town. People need to know more about what's out there besides tuna, yellowfin, salmon. I try to keep sea urchins all through the week—and gooey duck, the clams known as miugai. Nowadays, more and more, people want to know what we have; they don't want to avoid fish. I'm bringing in a featured fish, depending on what's in season: Japanese sea bass, flying fish, gizzard shad, striped jack—that's also called shim agi.
How the Knoxville sushi scene is changing: When I first got here, people were more used to comfort food, Western style, and wanted even their sushi cooked all the way, or fried. The new trend I see is a lot care about what they eat, and are taking care of their health, looking for food that is fresh, clean, and refreshing. A lot of people, more and more, are looking for something new every time. What is really huge is also mixing flavors, tastes, I see more fusion sushi. Sushi can be anything, really. "Sushi" basically means seasonal rice with vinegar. Whatever that involves can be sushi.
My most unusual sushi request: It was really super odd. One customer asked me to make a tuna dish with ketchup. I did use tomato puree with honey, but...
Sushi Chef, Nori Modern Sushi + Noodle Bar
1931 Cumberland Avenue
Where I learned to make sushi: We rolled at home for years—friends would get together with a bunch of rice and some top quality fish. I'm originally from Florida, but my first time making sushi as a professional I trained here in Knoxville under J Cooney. He worked at Tomo for years and is a fantastic chef and I use some of the things he taught me on a daily basis. I've been working in restaurants since I was 15: the first place I worked here was King Creole's in the Old City.
When I eat sushi: I love everything, depending on what product we have in. I like to utilize the freshest, most high quality ingredients, and to draw on all parts of my palate when I eat sushi, so I can better serve our guests. As long as I can remember, my parents have encouraged me to be an adventurous eater, and that has served me well as a sushi consumer and chef.
A favorite sushi ingredient: This being football season, I've been playing with escolar and salmon to do an orange and white presentation that naturally lends itself to being on the Strip. I've also been getting fantastic tuna lately, though the recent typhoon has raised the prices. And I love perfectly ripe avocado. I use it to create architecture, build bowls. So much of sushi is presentation.
My sushi philosophy: I think when you have people who are passionate about what they do, and the proper tools to express that passion, that's when magical things happen—when food becomes art. Most of what anybody in Knoxville is making isn't strictly Japanese, so I say, "Let's embrace that, have fun with that, see where we can take it." So much of what makes being a sushi chef satisfying is the one-on-one interaction. You're not just there to feed. You're also the entertainment: it's dinner and a show.
My favorite sauce: I like to play with sauces in combination and make a unique, one-off sauce. For example, I've paired eel sauce and pineapple juice and a little bit of other spices.
My greatest sushi moment: It was most gratifying when a 16-year sushi chef, who had trained in Yoko Homa, saw me playing with avocados as a structural element, and asked me, "How do you do that?"
My most unusual sushi request: I once had a guest who asked me to do a roll with chicken. I told him, "I can put whatever you want in there." My co-workers really want a steak and cheese rolls. At another place that had crab dip, we used to melt it and pour it over the top of rolls and then broil it. These are nothing serious—just for fun. But that's the danger; you can be playing around and then customers start asking for it. At one place the general manager would request a Cades Cove BBQ Pork, Sweet Baby Ray's sauce, slaw, and crushed up pork rinds. It's fun to be silly like that every now and then, but I don't like to stray that far.
Where Knoxville sushi is headed: I think the Knoxville eating community has embraced sushi in a limited way. Next I'd like to see our diners try things outside their comfort zones, be willing to branch out—try eel, for example. There's nothing wrong with knowing what you like but if you don't try new things you'll never know if you like them.
Owner, Anaba Japanese Cuisine
9405 S. Northshore Drive
Where I learned: In Japan, in Osaka. I'm third generation. My father and grandfather still make sushi in Japan.
When I eat sushi: House of Dragon.
Have I advanced Knoxville sushi? Here I serve a lot more traditional sushi than other places. It's more traditional Japanese style and I offer sushi kaiseki. It's a multiple course sushi experience.
East Tennessee culture shock: The language was hard because of the unusual accent. Also, people ate so many sushi rolls here—you don't see that in Japan.
The most elaborate sushi I ever made: The Anaba Roll is always elaborate but it changes daily. In the winter, I use monkfish liver.
Some favorite ingredients: Tuna, fresh sardines and oysters.
My favorite sauce: I don't use many sauces.
My proudest sushi moment: I have a certified Japanese sushi license. I think I'm the only one in Knoxville, so I'm proud of that.
What's next for Knoxville sushi: People are learning to eat more traditional Japanese foods and in more traditional ways. People are learning to eat o-toro [fatty tuna belly] so maybe they'll eat less California style sushi rolls.
The next generation: I've been training someone for a year now, her name is Yung. And it will take a long time to learn the traditional way.
Nama Executive Chef Anthony Fowler
Where I learned: From the chefs who were at Nama when I started at the downtown location three years ago. I trained with them and I'm still learning from some of the sushi chefs who work here now.
When I eat sushi: It's nigiri, sashima. I'll taste the new creations as a chef, but when I'm eating I like the purity of those—just tasting fish and rice.
My most exotic sushi: I only come in to work the sushi bar if we're low on staff or Jeek needs me. But one time I was running the Bearden Nama and had to be the sushi chef for a bit, and just for fun I came up with this feature roll. I got major fun made of me for this: It was a $50 roll, with gold flakes, seared filet, this faux caviar called Angel Tears, clear with gold flake inside. They had lobster inside. Yep, they made fun of me, but I sold six that night. People still tell me, "We need a T-shirt, ‘Home of the $50 Roll.'"