By Savannah Sharrett,
For a refreshing, crash-course in what it means to have passion, spend a little time with Chef Suzuki and his team.
Recently, I spent a Friday evening at Hachi ju Hachi, located in downtown Saratoga, CA. Entering the restaurant, the first thing I noticed was a sense of calm to the dimly lit space. Looking in from the front door, the sun light reveals long walls lined with small tables. Straight ahead is a sushi bar with a clear view of the open kitchen.
This understated gem has been open for 8 years and has many loyal, regular customers. Looking up at the ceiling and around the walls, there is clear evidence of appreciation. Written in Sharpie, you’ll find hundreds of comments of praise. Beaming with pride, Owner & Chef, Jin Suzuki says of the walls, “You’ll notice that there is not one celebrity and only ordinary people”. The restaurant is open for regular business hours but every two weeks, the doors close to the general public to host a special sushi night where they invite a small group of people for a carefully curated tasting menu.
From time to time, students from the ICC have had the opportunity to work under the apprenticeship of Chef Suzuki. Currently, you can find two of our alumni working alongside each other in his kitchen. Working under Chef Suzuki’s guidance and training in the art of Japanese Cuisine, EJ, a 2013 culinary graduate and Kristen, a 2016 culinary graduate are cultivating qualities like patience and respect for their craft. There is something to be said about the precision and attention to detail this team of 3 is able to maintain consistency.
In an effort to understand the success of HJH, I asked EJ to share his thoughts on the restaurant’s philosophy on food. He said, “Chef Suzuki is not just a mentor. It is not just food; its philosophy and life. To survive in this kitchen you must have the mindset that this isn’t just food or recipes, it’s a lifestyle. You have to respect that”. He added, “Techniques are done correctly. Make your mistakes but don’t do it again.” In reference to the passion that has grown within him over time, EJ asks himself, “Do you want to cut cucumbers every day? Yes! Do you want to crack eggs every day? Yes! I want to.”
Although they were given a foundation in French Techniques from their schooling at the ICC, I appreciated that both EJ and Kirsten had an ease using Japanese terms. When I asked them if that was a requirement for working at HJH, EJ said, “Learning the proper words shows respect”. Working with Chef Suzuki has certainly added to their culinary repertoire and given them versatility.
When I had first arrived that evening, EJ had been working on Saba mackerel, preparing them to be marinated at room temperature and then overnight in the fridge. I asked him if there were certain techniques he had especially enjoyed learning at HJH and he mentioned something called San Mai Oroshi– a 3 part technique used to open a fish that results in 2 full fillets with the spine still intact. He was also very proud to show me and let me taste his frozen sweet potato puree that was served like an ice cream.
I then asked Kirsten to share her thoughts on the restaurant’s philosophy. She was quick to say that, “It all starts and ends with respect”. Throughout the evening, I was impressed to hear her call Chef Suzuki, Itacho, which means in Japanese, “head of the cutting board”. Having now worked at HJH for a year, she has gained many new skills from her mentor. She was kind enough to give me a demonstration on the difference between Japanese and French knife techniques. She also mentioned that she was currently learning something called, Katsuramuki. This term refers to the ability to slice a vegetable such as a cucumber or a daikon into one long, thin sheet. For this technique, she was taught to use a Usuba, a “single-bevel knife used for cutting veggies”. Initially feeling like this task was daunting, Kerstin describes the learning process as a practical lesson in discipline and now feels driven to do it every day. She notes that her constant goal is, “doing better than the last time. I did this today and I’ll do it tomorrow”. Comparing her limited year of experience to her mentor, Chef Suzuki, she happily exclaimed, “I’ll meet you there in 30 years”! Being the newest to the kitchen, Kirsten benefits from the experience of not only Chef Suzuki but also her fellow apprentice, EJ. In regards to her training under both of them, she noted, “They never go easy on me but I know it’s because they care and that in turn makes me care as much as them”.
Even with his 30 years of experience, Chef Suzuki doesn’t hesitate to point out that he is still learning and feels that it is his responsibility to pass on the knowledge he does have. He comments, “Most people are looking for an instant result but cooking isn’t about that. It takes patience and discipline. The journey is not 6 months, it takes years”. Chef made sure to note that he will never claim to a master chef. Explaining that personal joy is essential, he expresses, “ I just like what I do and that’s enough”. I asked him how he received his own training and he explained that throughout his early career in Japan, he had 3 different mentors. With that attitude in mind, the ICC is looking forward to hosting Chef Suzuki on our campus this August for a class on the history and usage of miso. (Click here to learn more.)
Later that evening, Chef Suzuki asked me to stay for dinner and was very generous. I left the restaurant that evening feeling peaceful and energized. If you ever find yourself in the Bay Area, Hachi ju Hachi should definitely be on your itinerary.