You can knock the California Roll all you want, but Ichiro Mashita’s invention from the 1970s goes to show the depths of L.A.’s sushi ingenuity—even if it did begin with avocado.

While the idea of raw fish served over seasoned rice has stretched to all corners of the country, L.A. has always been at the forefront of America’s sushi scene. The city adopted sushi culture relatively early, thanks to the milestone 1966 opening of Kawafuku in Little Tokyo. Proximity to Japan, access to abundant Pacific seafood, and the influx of culinary talent allowed for sushi bars to proliferate in the area. Its influence spread as chefs immigrated to the South Bay to feed a growing army of auto employees at Toyota, Honda, and Nissan (now relocated to Orange County), and strongholds continued to develop on Sawtelle (“Little Osaka”) and Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley.

Global celebrities like Nobu Matsuhisa came into their own on L.A.’s palm tree-lined avenues; Kazunori Nozawa earned a reputation for his uncompromising set of rules. Slowly but surely, sushi bars became a status symbol for businessmen brokering deals, or Hollywood actors looking to show that their taste extended beyond the steakhouse.

Kazunori Nozawa of the famed SUGARFISH empire. (Photo courtesy Sushi Nozawa)

Utter devotion to certain chefs like Sushi Sasabune’s Nobi Kusuhara and Katsuya’s Katsuya Uechi helped propel them to multi-city status. Westlake’s Sushi Shibucho, Venice’s Hama Sushi, and Torrance’s Kantaro Sushi each have more than three decades on the books and are still going strong. Now, the spectrum spans from staunch traditionalists like Hiroyuki Naruke from Q, who adheres to Edomae dictates set forth in the 1820s, to modernists like Nobu Matsuhisa, who draw on global influences to create exciting new flavor combinations like ankimo (monkfish liver) with caviar.

There’s very little to hide when it comes to preparing sushi, but there’s always been a gap between our adoration of the food and what we actually know about the chefs preparing it. Maybe it’s a language barrier, or even lack of exposure (unless your name is Jiro, how many sushi chefs are being profiled in glossy magazines, or driving traffic with their Twitter rants?). Getting a full picture of who these people are is just as challenging as pinpointing what makes their sushi so good in the first place.

We recently caught up with six of L.A.’s sushi masters and asked them questions designed to demystify their craft—and, of course, point us towards the good stuff.

Our esteemed panel includes:

Read on to soak up several decades worth of sushi wisdom.

Shunji Nakao

1. What type of behavior bothers you when customers eat sushi?

Kataoka says: Some people eat sushi and ginger together. I tell them it’s much better to eat separate.

Kusuhara says: Talking on the phone while eating sushi.

Nakao says: Sometimes there are customers at the bar who don’t eat sushi at all—they just drink. They might get confused with a regular bar and sushi bar.

Namba says: I’m pretty flexible. I’ve been in the business quite a long time, and I do accept some of the American habits of sushi eating too. But sometimes I don’t like it when they want to combine lots of different fish into the one roll. All of us chefs go to the fish market and pick our own fish. We have pride to serve one by one instead of mixed together, so that kind of bothers me. Or dipping soy sauce way more than you have to—that kills the flavor. Otherwise they will eat the ginger too much or wasabi too much. I mean, I know it’s the 21st century. Things must change from 100 years ago, and continue to [evolve], but I don’t like something that kills the flavor of the basic ingredients.

 I don’t like it when customers want to combine lots of different fish into the one roll. All of us chefs go to the fish market and pick our own fish. We have pride to serve one by one instead of mixed together, so that kind of bothers me.

Naruke says: Not eating the sushi that’s been served right away. Sushi tastes best right when it’s served. The taste quality goes down by the minute. That is why sitting at the counter and being served piece by piece is considered to provide the best experience.

Nozawa says: It bothers me when people don’t pay attention to what they are eating, or when they say that they are allergic to something simply to avoid trying it. Good sushi chefs begin their days at the fish market at 5am so that they can select the very best fish to serve the best they can to each guest—and that’s just the start of their day.

2. What are the most common mistakes that sushi chefs make when they are starting out?

Kataoka says: The most important things are rice, grip (not too hard or too soft), and the cutting of fish in different ways. [Otherwise] the muscle can be chewy.

Kusuhara says: Beginners think that how to cut the fish and make sushi is most important. It is not. The most important thing is knowing the fish well. The knowledge of fish avoids mishandling.

Namba says: There are so many mistakes. You can always create what you like; or maybe you’re going to be the top-of-the-world chef in the near future. But it’s about learning basics, learning the traditional way to clean and prepare the fish. Many of them don’t do that anymore. That bothers me. They should follow the people. After you learn everything, you can always go on your own. But I want those people to get the very good fundamental skills that many people don’t have.

Many chefs will do whatever is trendy instead of believing in the food that they serve. It’s important for a chef to first do the hard work of developing what he wants to serve, and then he has to stand behind every dish.

Naruke says: Going against the restaurant’s concept or style in an effort to please all types of customer preferences. Our restaurant, for example, specializes in traditional Edomae sushi. A chef might develop a very interesting dish, but it would diminish the experience if the style and preparation were not consistent with what we do.

Nozawa says: Many chefs will do whatever is trendy instead of believing in the food that they serve. It’s important for a chef to first do the hard work of developing what he wants to serve, and then he has to stand behind every dish.

Ken Namba

3. If you were to eat sushi at one sushi bar in L.A. (barring your own), where would you choose?

Kataoka says: My teacher [Nobi Kusuhara] is at Sasabune, so I’d go there.

Kusuhara says: Sushi Spot in the Valley. I can see most of my friends at this restaurant.

Namba says: Obviously the people who I know. I feel comfortable so I’d rather go there, such as Asanebo in Studio City or Sushi Zo in West L.A. It’s about consistency. Being busy, rotating fish, and having pride in what they do usually generates much better food. That makes me feel really good to go there.

4. Who’s a young sushi chef in L.A. on track to have a great career that people might not know about?

Kusuhara says: Ei Hiroyoshi at Sasabune Beverly Hills. He is very detailed and has plenty of knowledge about fish.

Namba says: He’s not very young, maybe mid-30s, but Mark Okuda from Asanebo is quite good. He’s a university graduate, but he’s been working really hard in our business since his early 20s.

Toshi Kataoka

5. What’s one aspect of great sushi that more people should consider?

Nakao says: There are many kinds of fish for sushi—not only tuna, albacore, or yellowtail. We have seasonal fishes. For example, albacore is available in the summer, but we cannot have wild fresh albacore during winter. There are many kinds of snapper—not only red or golden eye. We would like customers to enjoy those different kinds of seasonal items.

Namba says: It’s a balance of the percentage—the amount of the rice and fish. I can’t really tell one small detail or aspect. It’s total performance that comes through a raw piece of sushi.

Naruke says: Careful fish preparation is the key to creating good sushi. Customers tend to think that fresh fish equals good sushi. However, a good sushi restaurant should only be using fresh fish to begin with, nothing less. The challenge here is to come up with something no one else can do with the fresh fish.

Nozawa says: Simplicity. Sushi should be prepared simply, but simple preparation doesn’t mean that it’s easy. It takes great skill to make a simple dish of a piece of fish, rice, and a little sauce taste great.

Nobi Kusuhara

6. What are the differences between what Japanese and American clientele order?

Kataoka says: Now there’s not much difference. A lot of American customers have been eating sushi for a long time, so some Americans are better than Japanese.

Nakao says: American customers know Japanese food really well. But I’ll point out one: Japanese people usually eat sushi and then rolls at the end (not like California roll/spicy tuna roll type, more simple authentic rolls). That’s kind of a popular way to eat. But American customers sometimes like to have rolls first, or only rolls.

Namba says: They’re very different. Many Americans eat the same fish, but more pieces. Instead, Japanese people want variety. And Japanese like seasonal fish because in Japan we have spring, summer, fall, winter—it’s really different for seasons. But here, people say, I like fatty fish, so they come and they want everything fatty. If somebody likes yellowtail, they get ten pieces of yellowtail, but not the Japanese. You know that some people eat more ginger, more wasabi, dipping soy, this way, that way. But the biggest difference is that Americans eat one thing in large quantities.

Spanish Mackerel from Nozawa Bar. (Photo: Joshua Lurie)

Naruke says: Our restaurant is omakase (chef’s choice) only so there’s no difference in how the customers order. But from my experience, American customers tend to like bolder flavors. This preference reflects a general difference between American and Japanese cuisines. In Los Angeles in particular, customers are used to a wide variety of ethnic cuisines and have developed strong palates. They like their spice.

Nozawa says: That’s not really a fair question since it wouldn’t be right to make such sweeping generalizations. I can say that when I first came to the U.S. many years ago, I found that Americans were not very adventurous when it came to eating sushi. I made it my life’s work to educate my American guests about tradition-based sushi, and over time, I’ve seen my clientele develop a great appreciation for authentic sushi and open their minds to trying sushi of all kinds. I love that years ago nobody would eat uni, and now so many people do!

Hiroyuki Naruke

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