How Master Sushi Chef Derek Wilcox Brought His Japanese Training to New York — Omakase

– What I would say to my
mentors back in Japan, (speaking in Japanese) Good evening, welcome, how are you? I grew up in Virginia, northern Virginia,
suburban Washington D.C. I grew up eating pretty much
what everybody else eats, SpaghettiOs and macaroni and cheese. Being a foreigner living
and working in Japan, especially in a traditional
industry like that, you’re helpless at first,
kind of like an infant. This is okoze, called goblin fish or
scorpion fish or stonefish. And then, you kind of go through an adolescence or teenager year where you’re kind of rebelling against it and then, you go to the point where you realize that
rebelling against it isn’t helping you at all, and then, you’re basically an adult. These spines are venomous. There are these little poison sacs along the side of the spine. It’ll sit along the sea floor with these spines up to protect itself. You kind of have to, if you
just graze it with your fingers, you probably won’t get any venom, but if you stab yourself,
it injects the venom. Even when it’s not alive anymore,
it will inject the venom. And this guy won’t kill
you but it’s very painful. There’s some thrill about eating something that’s trying to kill you back. I actually did fugu before I did okoze. So, I was kind of over the
poisonous fish nervousness by that point. But really, the danger is really to the fishermen and the chef more than it is to the
diner with this fish. So the first thing you do
is to get the spines out by cutting down on each side. All right, I’m going to
have to move fairly quickly ’cause we don’t have a lot of time. So first you got to get the
eyes out, then the guts. Oh, this one has eggs, which is nice. My first day at Kikunoi (chuckling). So, Kikunoi is kind of famous in Japan for being a really,
really hard place to work. But I didn’t know that. We’ll serve more than 100,
150 people for dinner, which is large in Japan. It’s very traditional kaiseki, so you learn a lot of
traditional techniques across all of Japanese cuisine, not just say, sushi or tempura
or something like that. You learn the whole breadth
of technique, which is great. The first Michelin guide
came out in Kyoto in 2008, I think it was. And they got three stars, and they’ve kept the
three stars since then. Chef Murata is passionate about showing what’s incredible about Japanese cuisine and spreading it around the world. That’s probably the
reason why they let me in. They told me 16 hour days,
which was actually not true. It’s more than that. I wasn’t ready for that. I wanted an immersive, tough experience but nobody’s prepared for that. Most of the kids who go there
quit in the first two weeks. These are Japanese kids, of course, coming from top-level cooking schools, or were the children of famous chefs. And they quit in two weeks, most of them. I’ve done a lot of octopus, and this is the only way
I’ve ever done it, so. Let me get some of that ink off. And these are the eggs of the octopus. Here, you can see where
the membrane is broken, you can see the individual eggs, they’re very small, very tasty. This is a coarse, flake-style sea salt. You don’t want to use like, kosher salt ’cause it’ll give it a strange flavor. I think after about six months,
your body kind of adjusts, and it gets little easier
in terms of physically. And then, you start to
get more responsibilities and then it gets tough again. I think not knowing
what’s going on so much, and not understanding when
I was being chewed out in Japanese, at least at first, kind of helped me, maybe to stick it out. I ended up staying there
almost seven years. I probably didn’t settle in
until about my sixth year, in terms of not just the language but also just fitting in in
the social environment at work. Now this octopus is squeaky clean. All the slime is out
and we cut into pieces. And you can either leave the siphon on the tentacles, I’d take it off, I’d take it off and
butterfly open the head, and then split the tentacles
starting here at the back. And this one’s already had
the beak removed in Japan. So, they’ll kind of attack each other and you’ll get this like, bite marks if they don’t
remove the beak, so. (thudding) It’s almost like, if you
give someone a massage, kind of like, a deep massage, and you kind of feel that
there’s knots in their muscles, that’s what it feels like. (tapping) This is zarame. This is basically a Japanese version of demerara or turbinado sugar. It’s a raw sugar or washed
sugar from southern Japan, where they do sugarcane production. You put in the tentacles by kind of dipping them and
pulling them out a little bit, and dipping them and pulling them out. And that’s to get a nice
curl on the tentacle. Then the head can go in too. After working in Kikunoi for seven years, I was thinking of coming
back to the United States, but I realized that in the U.S., sushi is by far the most
important Japanese cuisine. Just to have the professional skill, I wanted to train in sushi
for at least a few more years. So I went to Tokyo and
trained at Sushi Aoki in Ginza for another three years
before I came back. Kaiseki in Kyoto, is
not just a tasting menu. It’s a cultural experience. And it’s plugged into all these cultural and craft elements in Kyoto. And then you go to Tokyo, and it’s more like a restaurant here, where you’re trying to
just put together a meal that makes people happy. It’s nowhere near as demanding. I think what makes the menu here at Shoji different from other omakase restaurants is it’s a combination of the kaiseki and sushi. So that tai has got to be 10
years old, I’d say, maybe 13. For tai, there’s kind of sweet spot at about two and a half kilos, where if it’s too small,
it doesn’t have enough fat. And if it’s too big, it’s still good but you get a little bit less yield because the tendons get larger and you can’t use the parts that have a lot of tendons in them. This is kohada, gizzard shad. You sort of have to go through learning, not just the language but
you know, body language, and what’s expected of you
in the workplace in Japan, which is totally different from here. Work in Japan is your life. When in Western culture,
I think, in general, I know in America, you can
mimic, you can mirror people. And it’ll get you a lot of places that if you feel uncomfortable
in a social situation or you don’t know how to act, if you mirror the person
you’re with, it’s a good guide. In Japan, it’s a very bad thing to do. The thing is, in Japan, it’s hierarchical. So every relationship, you’re either above or below
somebody for the most part, especially at work. If say, a chef is telling
you something to do and you mirror even their body
language, that’s very bad. I mean, if they know that you
don’t know what you’re doing, they might put up with it. But most of them would be just furious. Also, once you get some responsibility and you’re responsible for
some of the younger cooks, if you mirror the way they talk to you, they’ll assume that you’re below them, and they won’t listen to you and they’ll actually
start talking down to you. You have to learn how to
act in different situations, and you have to think what you’re supposed to be
doing in that situation. There’s so many different
kinds of eel around the world. As far as Japanese food goes, there’s three major ones that you eat. There’s the anago, the
unagi, and the hamo, which is this guy. Hamo is a kind of eel, it’s sea eel but it’s not
the normal sea eel, anago. It has the same richness that eel has, but it also tastes like
a white-flesh fish. In western Japan, people are passionate
about it during the summer. If you go there, you’ll have it a thousand
different ways every place you go. Hamo is not just a great fish in terms of its quality and its flavor, but it’s a great achievement
in Japanese cuisine. It took a lot of ingenuity and skill to develop a technique
to make hamo edible. After I learned how to do it, I didn’t want that skill to be a dead-end. And I want to pass it along to the people that work here also. All the eel are funny. It’s not like a normal fish. It’s more like an animal that then went back into
the ocean or something, and lost its legs. This one is from
Awaji-shima, Awaji Islands, which is off of Osaka. There’s sort of a strait between Kyushu and the main island and Shikoku. And it’s very nutrient-rich but also fast-moving ocean currents. And all the fish from there, are particularly fatty but not flabby because they have to be athletic to survive in the fast currents. It’s one of the best places
for fish in the whole world. On the inside, eels smell like an animal smells on the inside. They don’t smell like a
fish smells on the inside, particularly hamo. This part looks kind of normal
compared to a regular fish. But instead of taking off the whole filet, we’re going to butterfly it. And this part is different. You come from this side. And this is the kind of
part, the difficult part ’cause it’s very thin. And you don’t have a whole lot. Okay, that was the first difficult part, getting out the backbone. The ribs are also difficult to remove. Well, the hardest thing
is cutting the bones because you have to cut through the flesh, through the bones, but
not through the skin. And the bones are hard, they’re calcified. They’re not soft like
some other eel bones are. But you need a very thick, heavy knife to get through the bones. You know, it’s almost
like playing the violin. You have to learn how
to do it step by step. The knife is a honekiri-bocho, which means bone-cutting knife. So this is the bone-cutting knife. If you look at the edge, you
can see it’s quite thick, about a quarter-inch thick. It’s heavy and there’s
no weight in the handle. The handle is just wood. It’s basically weighted like a machete. And you need that weight
to get through the bones. (cracking) You’re hearing the bones cutting through. Yeah right there, there’s about 10 bones. So, maybe 80 rows of six bones. So, hundreds of bones. You want to cut about
every millimeter or two, and that makes the bones small enough that you won’t notice them. Even if you’re not serving hamo itself, the muscle control that you need to do it, is an important training step
when you’re becoming a chef. I think what makes the menu here at Shoji different from other omakase restaurants is it’s a combination
of kaiseki and sushi. I wanted to learn Japanese cuisine, but I wanted to learn it
in a way and to an extent that no one had done before. So I needed to do something
that nobody had done before. This is okoze, sliced very thin. A little bit of its skin has been blanched and is in the middle. If I were doing French cooking, I could work five days a
week and 12 hours a day. But no, I’m doing Japanese cooking, so I have to work six days
a week, 18 hours a day. So this is the hassun, which contrasts something from the ocean and something from the mountain. This octopus is from
Sajima island in Tokyo Bay, poached until tender. And new potatoes from Hudson Valley with snap pea, also from Hudson Valley. Hamo with bainiku, which
is pureed pickled plum. You have to really, really want to do it. You have to be passionate
about it or you’re gonna quit ’cause it’s so difficult. I kind of couldn’t quit,
even if I wanted to.

100 thoughts on “How Master Sushi Chef Derek Wilcox Brought His Japanese Training to New York — Omakase

  1. Sounds like the training is more intense! I really understand his view, because its about technique and not the money. I come from a little town of new and old traditions with that being said. I can understand why graduates and chefs from college only last 2 weeks. It's not systematic when you know everything there is to know on a specific subject it takes dedication.

  2. This is REAL "Japanese food"
    There are a lot of FAKE "Japanese food" in the world because most of their orners don't know the core of "Japanese food" unlike him
    In fact, it's very rare that foreigners work Japanese restaurant in Japan for training.

    Some people insist that it is not "fake" but "localization". However, only those who know the core of real Japanese food and can make it can "localize". How can people do advanced stuff without learning basic stuff?

    His Japanese food is "American Japanese food", but it exactly has the core of Japanese food. It's same as that the style and ingredients depend on the area even in Japan. This is the real localization.

  3. You can see the way he moves when he's preparing the seafood. There's no rushing and no wasted movement and you know he does it exactly that way every time.

  4. give this guy credit for taking a decade of his life to go there and bring this back. thats passion and id love to eat there. even if its 250 a head

  5. I stood on a stone fish aged 12, and for some reason didn’t get stung. As I sat there on the harbour steps my head in my hands thinking thank god, my father shouted to a local ‘is it edible.’

  6. Did this guy worked at Aoki amd Kikunoi!?!? Those are legendary sushi that most Japanese doesn’t get a chance to go nor work…. So much dedication, passion and work in top level sushi restaurants.

  7. Notice how he spends so long cleaning his produce and always under running water. This is why Japanese food is so clean compared to Western food, where Jamie Oliver picks mint from the soil and throws it straight into his dish

  8. What a great story to be shared, such dedication and determination to be a sushi chef in one of the most difficult place to live as a foreigner… Hats off to you Derek, you are just great and awesome, many fortune in the future

  9. Hey hey,18 hours a day, 6 days a week PLUS No Christmas No New Years holiday boys! coz Its the busiest time in Japan and you will probably working 20+hours in those busy days. Friend of mine mastered stand and sleep technique.

  10. Man! was cleaning and bone-cutting Hamo hard, when we did it class we didn't cut it very good and we got tiny bones in our mouths. Unique flavor but horrible to clean.

  11. 凄い美味しそうだし美しい

  12. I wish i coukd see a traditional japanese village with traditional japanese people eith theor katanas and all but i cant and now im sad😢

  13. No thanks.

  14. Did he just say that stonefish can’t kill you, that’s the most poisonous fish in the world.

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