Food in 2 Worlds™- The Food’s Great, But Where’s the Chef From?

(Photo: Julia Hettich)

Fi2W is featuring stories by students in the Feet in 2 Worlds journalism course at The New School.

The sushi bar on New York’s Upper West Side is filled to capacity. It’s a Friday night and the staff is busy taking orders, refilling cups of green tea and carafes of sake. It’s a typical New York crowd: middle-aged businessmen in the company of younger and prettier female companions, chic girlfriends and the occasional single man at the bar in for a quick bite after work.

To the surprise of many of these restaurant patrons the chef behind the bar is not a Japanese sushi master. He’s actually a Vietnamese immigrant who learned to cut, roll and assemble the beautiful little pieces right in this restaurant.

“I moved to New York last year to go to school and I needed a job to make a living,” said 22 year old Binh. ”I had never made sushi in my life but I grew up watching my mum cook, so I thought how difficult could it be?”

Binh’s boss is also Vietnamese. Tho Nguyen took over what was originally a Vietnamese place from his uncle four years ago. “I had been working in the restaurant for years. Guests would often ask if we had sushi, so I thought, if that’s what people want, why not offer it?” he said. He hired a sushi chef and added the Japanese specialty to the menu. It quickly became the most popular dish. After maintaining a Vietnamese-Japanese fusion menu for two years, he decided to concentrate exclusively on sushi.

Tho is following a remarkable trend. According to the Culinary Institute of America, the number of Japanese restaurants in the U.S. doubled from 1996 to 2006. With Japanese immigrants making up just 0.3 percent of New York’s population, a significant number of Japanese restaurants are not run by Japanese owners and staff.

They are not the only restaurants where cultural lines are regularly being crossed. At Pommes Frites in the East Village the “authentic” Belgian french fries are made by a mostly Filipino staff. At the Greenwich Grill, the Japanese-Nigerian manager successfully merges Japanese and Italian specialties into one of the most creative cuisines in the city, while French celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s temple of Southeast Asian street food Spice Market has been one of the city’s top destinations for years.

Following the sushi hype can be a clever business decision—as in Tho’s case. “It’s going very well. People love our sushi,” he said proudly. So well in fact, that he had to hire two more sushi chefs to keep up with the growing demand.

The main sushi chef is Malaysian, Binh and the other sushi cook are from Vietnam, as are two of waitresses, the third one is Chinese. “We don’t have to be Japanese to make good Japanese food,” said Tho, and his customers seem to agree.

“It’s the best sushi in town,” said Craig Douglas, who comes in regularly on his way home from work. Confronted with the lack of authenticity in his favorite restaurant, he looked rather surprised: “I thought they were Japanese. But as long as the food is good, what does it matter?”

Hannah Stone, 32, and her friends share this opinion. “This our go-to-place for girls night out. The sushi tastes great, the Saketinis are to die for and Tho is a doll”, she said taking a sip from her cocktail.

As if he had overheard this compliment Tho, the owner, comes over to the table and greets his happy customers with a bright smile, “how are my favorite girls tonight? Everything alright?” and turning towards the waitress he calls, “another round of Saketinis for the beautiful ladies!”

“I am here every single night. I know all my regular customers by name. People appreciate it, when you give them the feeling that you actually care about them,” Tho explains, which he believes to be his recipe for success: “The Japanese might have invented sushi, but the Vietnamese are the masters of hospitality and customer service.”

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation.