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Behind the Line: Young sushi chef shines in the big city
Sushi Dojo brings laid-back atmosphere to Big Apple sushi scene
By Lauren Kramer
May 01, 2014
Chef David Bouhadana is trying hard to take the stuffiness and seriousness out of sushi, which is no easy feat for a 27-year-old French-Moroccan Sephardic Jew. He’s the co-owner of Sushi Dojo, a 32-seat restaurant that’s booked solid nightly as diners come to pepper him with questions and learn about authentic Japanese sushi in an environment akin to an improvised cocktail party.
Many customers learned of the restaurant, which opened in June 2013 in New York’s East Village, after reading a review in the New York Times, one wherein Sushi Dojo was given two stars and a significant business boost, putting Bouhadana on the culinary map.
“We have nice music and we all enjoy a good drink,” Bouhadana says of Sushi Dojo. “But we don’t sacrifice anything when it comes to the food. We offer a casual approach to high-end sushi.”
Most of his ingredients are flown in daily from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market and two other Japanese fish markets. Bouhadana meets his four fishmongers each week and they place orders, sourcing horse mackerel, golden eye snapper and spotted sardine, among other species. Tuna is flown in from Spain, sea trout from Tasmania or New Zealand and scallops and orange clams from Long Island or Massachusetts.
Bouhadana came to the United States as a toddler, grew up in Florida and started out in 2004 as a server at Yokohama Sushi restaurant in Palm Beach County.
“On my first night, when I walked into the restaurant the sushi chef looked at me and declared, ‘Tonight, you chef,’” he recalls. “I countered, ‘No, I server,’ but he was adamant. He needed me and from that moment on, I became his student. I didn’t find sushi — sushi found me.”
Sushi is the only food Bouhadana makes, and that’s the way he likes it. “I love what I do every minute of the day, the discipline, the instant gratification it brings and the learning involved as you begin to understand how to do it right,” he says. “Learning how to make sushi isn’t something you can rush — it takes time, and I’m still on the learning curve, even after 10 years in the business.” After he left Yokohama, Bouhadana did an apprenticeship in Japan for three years and helped design and open three other restaurants in Los Angeles and New York.
Until the New York Times review, though, no one knew his name. “When I opened Sushi Dojo I didn’t expect the respect and recognition I’ve received over the past nine months,” he says. “Now, when I prepare sushi in my restaurant there are 32 people looking at me and they all know my name!”
There are some items that are never served at the restaurant, including avocado rolls, spicy rolls and teriyaki. Those items are excluded from the menu because “that’s not what sushi is — that’s the Japanese equivalent of pizza in America,” he says.
Bouhadana has made a name for himself by trying to show the true essence of sushi, and when someone asks for avocado rolls, he instead suggests a piece of handcrafted sushi. “Customer education is a lot of what I do and it’s why we named the restaurant dojo — a place of study and practice,” he says. “We offer serious yet accessible sushi, for not-serious people.”
In saying accessible, Bouhadana means his price points. His 10-piece omakase (chef’s selection), for example, costs $45, “which is arguably the best deal for sushi in New York City,” he says. “My goal is to teach and explain, which is why I offer lower-priced options for people my age who want to try sushi, but can’t afford to spend $150 on omakase.”
His unconventional path to sushi puts him in a league of his own when it comes to educating diners. “People don’t find me intimidating, they trust me and feel they can ask questions,” he says. Most often he is asked about where the fish he serves come from, whether it arrives whole or filleted and how he got into the business of sushi.
“Because I’m American, diners find me approachable, identify with me and listen to me,” he says. “There’s a huge boom in sushi in New York City. Hopefully I’m the one who will be able to shed light on this cuisine and help bring it to a new level.”Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in Richmond, British Columbia