Kazutoshi Hirata is one of the few Freelance Sushi Chefs in the San Francisco Bay Area.
For the past twenty years, he has worked for many top San Francisco Sushi Restaurants like Ozumo and Yoshi’s. Now at 65, Mr. Hirata is still actively working as a Sushi Chef, as well as connecting Japan and the U.S. through food.
I had a chance to talk to him about his unique experience.
Q: Why did you come to the United States?
Hirata: I always wanted to live overseas, like in Spain. After visiting many countries in Europe, I came to the U.S.
Q: Did you always want to work in a restaurant?
H: No, never. I never thought about becoming a chef, let alone a Sushi Chef. After graduating from college, I got a dishwasher job in Berkeley. Then I worked at non-Japanese restaurants so I could practice my English. I worked as a dishwasher, kitchen helper, dining assistant manager. I did almost all the positions in a restaurant.
Q: When did you become a Sushi Chef?
H: When I was forty-five.
Q: Why Sushi Chef?
H: I always loved the ocean, though I was born and raised in Tokyo. My family had a second house by the beautiful ocean in Izu. We visited there frequently. When I traveled Europe, I visited many fish markets, bought and cooked fish. I wanted to use my Japanese heritage, so that was why I chose Sushi.
Q: Which restaurants did you work in?
H: Thankfully, I worked for many famous restaurants like Kantaro Sushi (now closed), Ichirin, Tokyo Sukiyaki, Marriot Sushi Bar, Ozumo, Yoshi’s Oakland, and San Francisco.
Q: After twenty years, now, you are a freelance Sushi Chef. Why?
H: About two years ago, I wanted to change something. I did not want to continue working as a Sushi Chef in a restaurant anymore, but I wanted to do something different using my experience.
Q: How did you get freelance work?
H: I get work from the people I used to work with. Also, referral, and word of mouth.
Q: What kind of advice do you give to those who are thinking of becoming freelance Sushi Chefs?
H: The challenge is to get work consistently, and that’s hard to do. I think I value my past network. I value the people with whom I worked. That is how I get my work. Also, I think we should think about offering good quality Sushi. Of course, Sushi ingredients are expensive, but it’s important to challenge the new. I try to discover new and inexpensive fish so that I can offer affordable Omakase Sushi.
Q: What are you doing to find new fish?
H: I visit many fishermen and buy local fish, fillets and eat them. Whitefish like snapper I tried many, and they are a lot different from Japanese snapper. Some I could use. Sure you can get expensive fish from Tsukiji Market, but there is a lot of fish that local fishermen throw away. So, if we could get them on distribution and we could use them, then there is a chance.
Q: What are the changes you saw in the past twenty or so years in San Francisco Sushi Restaurant scene?
H: There are fewer and fewer Japanese Sushi Chefs from Japan now. In the older days, it was a lot easier to find a job, but now, everything is different and it's economically challenging to live in San Francisco like I used to. Because of that, I think it's more difficult for younger people to live and work as Sushi Chef in San Francisco.
Q: What are your future plans?
H: I am at an age, where I can retire, but I want to continue working with food that will make people happy. Since five years ago, I am traveling back and forth between the US and Japan – the Kyushu region like Oita, Kumamoto, helping my friends’ farm and winery connecting the ones here in Sonoma and Napa.
Q: That sounds like a lot of fun.
H: Yes, it is. I always had to think about money and making money. Now I don’t have to think about making money so much, which is nice.
Mr. Hirata's LinkedIn Profile.
Blog: Sushi Net USA (in Japanese)