It’s a running joke with one of my colleagues that I often force him to drive with me up Takashi in Salt Lake City before it opens in case there is a line around the block. Usually there are only five or six people waiting in front when we pull in; once in a rare while, there are several dozen, even at 5:00 (the restaurant opens at 5:30 most nights) and we’re lucky to get a table.
Jason, Tim, and I did the same for lunch this past Friday, arriving a few minutes before they opened at 11:30, but this time was different: We were there to interview Takashi Gibo himiself, at his eponymous restaurant. The premise for the meeting was two-fold:
- Eat delicious sushi with friends, obviously.
- My session at Adobe Summit is going to use an analogy comparing analysts and sushi chefs, and getting Takashi’s perspective on his practice will inform the story I tell.
I had sat in front of Takashi before, at his sushi bar, while he prepared rolls and fish for me, but I had not taken the opportunity at that time to introduce myself. I wish I had. Today we found Mr. Gibo to be soft-spoken, humble, and patient. We stumbled through hastily prepared interview questions that probably seemed rambling and incongruous, but he thoughtfully, slowly answered each one, talking at length about how he got into sushi, where his inspiration for his menu comes from, and why he is in Salt Lake City of all places.
Jason and I were both a bit intimidated, since Takashi is something of a local legend as well as the owner and proprietor of our favorite restaurant in the world, but I think Takashi was also intimidated in his own way, and behind his teal-framed glasses his eyes were as furtive as mine.
He speaks with an accent blended from the three countries where he has lived: Japan, Peru, and the United States. I did not expect to hear a Japanese chef speaking English with a hispanic flavor, but this also explains his menu, which features ingredients that, in his words, “could get me arrested if I tried this in Japan.” Spicy peppers are a mainstay. Ceviche, a Peruvian dish, is featured in a few places. He mentioned his Strawberry Fields roll several times, as it happens, was inspired not by the Beatles song which lends the roll its name (although Takashi mentioned loving the Beatles), but by an experience where Takashi gazed on a strawberry cake and got the idea to combine strawberries, escolar, and almonds with thai chili peppers rounding out the unorthodox combination.
This is a man whose life, going back to his earliest memories, has been about delighting the taste buds. Takashi’s parents first owned a bakery, and then got into the restaurant business themselves, first in Lima when Takashi was a small boy, and then in Okinawa beginning when he was 12 years old. While there was sushi in Peru, it was not until his brother took him to a proper sushi bar in Okinawa that Takashi fell in love with the craft. He is, I got the sense, the only sushi chef at his restaurant who has been formally trained in the ancient Japanese art of sushi preparation; he mentioned that he has several times hired chefs with zero experience making sushi. In fact, he prefers them; they are often better learners. I am amazed at how well he is able to teach them, as I have never had a bad sushi experience in however many dozen pilgrimages I have made to his sushi mecca.
In fact, the flavors that he has crafted over the years are so delightful that I was taken aback when he said that the one he believes represents his restaurant best is ponzu sauce, the citrus soy-based sauce that his chefs use on many of their dishes. While it is a common addition, and they use it well, there are so many others that I would have gone with. Their lemon pesto adds a tart zing wherever it goes. He mentioned that they use garlic quite a bit (again, flying in the face of the Japanese tradition in which Takashi trained). Or their spicy mayonnaise, which they always use sparingly, but which is also much more intricate than the lazy Sriracha-and-mayo like most American sushi joints. I happen to know from experience (attempting to recreate it) that it is a blend of mayonnaise, tobiko, togarashi, Sriracha, and sesame oil. The fact that they have their own unique take on spicy mayo is really what Takashi is all about, but it is not the flavor that he thinks best defines his restaurant. On the other hand, ponzu sauce may be the perfect epitome of Takashi’s sushi, because it is an ingredient that anyone can use—they sell it every grocery store—and yet nobody uses it as well as he does. While he certainly has his exotic ingredients too, he is a master of taking fairly common ingredients and using them better than anyone else can.
Takashi’s wife, Tamara, is the general manager at the restaurant and brokered the interview for me. We sat at a table for four, and talked while I ate a Black Magic Woman roll and a Buddha roll, the latter of which was invented, it turns out, not by Takashi, but by one of his chefs, who needed something to serve to a vegetarian friend. It is a fairly pedestrian roll if you simply list the components: tempura vegetables, rolled in rice and seaweed, and drizzled with a bit of eel sauce (but, unlike most other sushi restaurants, not to the point that the roll itself tastes sweet). To Takashi’s point about ponzu sauce, the quality of these very common ingredients makes the roll quite a different, almost purer experience than a similar roll from another restaurant.
Perhaps the best thing I can say about Takashi comes from his answers to my final questions. I asked him why he still serves from behind the sushi bar. He certainly does not have to. He has a large staff, and many capable chefs. “I love it,” he said, as softly as ever. These are the people Seth Godin wrote about in Linchpin: people who take genuine pleasure in sharing their art with you. Takashi sincerely wants to dazzle you with sushi, to have you love what you just ate, and the pleasure he gets from providing you with that experience is enough to keep him on his feet for five hours a night most nights of the week. Lastly, I asked him whether, with waiting times for tables commonly reaching two hours even on weeknights, he has ever considered expanding, perhaps opening another restaurant in the area. He smiled, but firmly answered no. Why not? “My inventory list is very long,” he said. His concern comes down to quality. He would not be able to ensure quality in two places at once, and he does not want to have to hop between both restaurants. He believes, I got the sense, that it would degrade the experience in both locations. He is choosing quality over money. Fortunately, as long as Takashi is in charge at his own restaurant, he probably does not need to fear losing either one.