I ASK NAOKI NAKASHIMA ABOUT THE DIFFERENCE between the fish he sliced up at Shaw’s Crab House over the last several years and what he’s getting in at Naoki Sushi, the eponymous sushi restaurant tucked into the former L2O private dining room at one end of what’s now the Intro kitchen. “Basically people love to eat the tuna, that’s number one, second is yellowtail, hamachi, and then salmon. So these three items I did at Shaw’s. Now, at Naoki Sushi, these three of course are must items, plus I bring in madai, which is sea bream, and scallop. And then different plating, of course.”

You couldn’t exactly say that Lettuce Entertain You was hiding Nakashima by having be in charge of the sushi program at the busiest seafood restaurant in town for 13 years. But all the same, Lettuce showcasing him in his own restaurant with his name on it represents a kind of debut for him, so add this veteran of NoMI as well as sushi restaurants in California, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong to the list of 2016’s hot new chefs in Chicago.

“When I was a kid, I loved to cook. I loved to stand next by my mother when she was cooking,” he says. “When my school is finished—Saturday in Japan, school is finished at one o’clock—when I got home at one o’clock, I tried to make dinner for my family. Not many dishes, only one dish. Then when I was teenaged, I worked in a ramen noodle shop, also a fish market. I didn’t touch the fish, but I was selling fish in packages to the people.”

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Nakashima originally came to the U.S. at 21 to go to college in Fresno, California. (“A country place,” he describes it.) But after a while he felt bashful about asking his parents for money, so “I got a job as a dishwasher in a sushi restaurant—then my history as a sushi chef starts.” A period of international job-hopping eventually landed him in Chicago at the Park Hyatt in the early 2000s. “I was a sushi chef, but I was also interested to learn how to make French and Italian food. So I was helping a little bit.” Lettuce CEO Kevin Brown learned of him there and offered him a job; NoMI countered by offering him a sous chef position, which he was interested in. But in the end he joined Lettuce, where besides working at Shaw’s, he devised sushi programs for other Lettuce properties, including Foodlife, Tokio Pub in Schaumburg, and their airport foodservice division.

Gallery: Sashimi and Japanese food at Naoki

Photos by Anjali Pinto

At Naoki, “my specialty is a sashimi plate, with kind of a dressing, a Japanese touch, Japanese flavor.” But nigiri is also a focus—especially the rice, which he takes very seriously. “Most Japanese restaurants, they get rice from the same vendors, maybe four different vendors. Fish quality must, of course, be sushi quality, but how restaurants make [themselves] different is seasoning the rice. How to wash the rice, how to cook the rice, how to season the rice… that kind of stuff is important,” he finally says, as if bashful about bragging too much about something so basic to Japanese cuisine.

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But I press him for more on the subject. “Number one is, choose the brand. There is a lot of kinds of rice—short grain rice. Not like Uncle Ben’s,” he laughs. “You rinse the rice—how much to soak in the water, how much to dry out. It depends on the season how you change the water—because new crop is more moisture in each grain. So almost one years old, you have to add water, and new crop is less water.”

“I just try to make good food, always, and keep consistent. That’s my job, basically,” he says. “If somebody came and it was good, and next time they come and not so good, maybe they’re going to be disappointed. I don’t want it to happen, that kind of stuff. So I always want to keep good quality.”

We turn back to his initial decision to go for a green card by working in a restaurant. “Originally I am interested in travel and tourism,” he says. “But then I decide I like the restaurant industry better. Also, I wanted to stay in the United States, and getting a green card as a student—wasn’t going to work. So I go to work in the restaurants.” He thinks back on his decision, sitting at a table in the restaurant with his name on it. “I think I made a pretty good choice,” he says, as his face opens in a smile.



Michael Gebert is 0-editoro of Fooditor.

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