These days, just about everywhere I go people want to introduce me to their favorite sushi place, but in Los Angeles it’s a special treat. Not only is the quality of L.A. sushi exceptional, but Angeleno sushi aficionados follow the business with a rigor worthy of fantasy sports: a diner knows his favorite chef’s name, and where he worked previously, and with whom he trained. When I was in L.A. recently, I finally made it to Sushi Sasabune, which had been long recommended but eluded me on previous visits. On the drive over to its new location in West Los Angeles, my friend Kevin Arnovitz recounted Sasabune’s founding narrative: the chef, Kenji Takahashi, used to work for Nozawa.
As I write in The Sushi Economy, the opening of Sushi Nozawa in the 1980s was a key moment in the evolution of sushi in L.A. The drab strip-mall bar in Studio City was noted almost immediately for its many idiosyncracies: from the warm temperature of its rice and the generous topping of sauces, to the autocratic method of Nozawa, the eponymous chef famous for ejecting customers who refused to follow his rules. Nozawa came to be known, with affection, as “the Sushi Nazi.”
As we took our seats at Sasabune’s bar, the heritage became clear. The chopsticks arrived in paper sleeves ordering diners to TRUST ME!, a catchphrase Nozawa has enshrined in signs around his restaurant. The sushi — including a notable piece of salmon with sesame and kelp — featured that jarring contrast of warm rice and cool fish, all sitting in a shallow pool of extra sauce, that I recalled from a trip to Nozawa two years earlier.
Los Angeles is unusual in having a sushi scene with enough width and variety to encourage innovators like Nozawa to take risks. But it is in the passing of unusual conventions from Nozawa down to his apprentice Takahashi, that we see the making of a real sushi culture: one chef’s idiosyncrasy is systematized through transmission to the next generation. This is where individual creativity becomes culture — requiring not only innovators like Nozawa and adaptors like Sasabune, but consumers like Kevin who not only trust them, but follow them, too.