Yasu Kizaki is double-checking the Japanese sushi knives arranged at each of 22 place settings in a private dining room on the second floor of Izakaya Den. With a small white towel, he wipes the blades and inspects them to ensure they’re spotless. As he adjusts the orientations of spoons on plates and moves cutting boards just so, he tells the story of his decade-long tradition of the sushi class at Izakaya Den.
In 2015, Yasu taught 1,000 students how to roll temaki, tatemaki, uramaki, and nigiri, and this marks his 10th year spreading the sushi gospel. Yasu co-owns Izakaya Den, Sushi Den, and their newest venture, OTOTO, with his two brothers: Toshi, master chef; and Koichi who visits the fish market in Japan everyday to hand-select the fish that will arrive at his brothers’ restaurants less than 24 hours later.
The secret to the remarkable success of Yasu’s sushi classes lies in an epiphany he had after the very first one, which he dreamed up after a loyal customer asked him to think of a creative Christmas gift. After the inaugural lesson, Yasu asked his wife Elizabeth, who had sat in on the class, if she had enjoyed it.
“I love you, darling, but …” she began, which Yasu immediately knew was precursor to criticism. “I couldn’t believe how boring it was.”
Yasu was shocked. He had been so excited about the idea of turning his customers into sushi chefs, and now he felt disillusioned by his wife’s cutting honesty.
But then something made sense to him. “I know!” he said during a revelatory shower. “I need to make fun of my customers.”
“Are you crazy?” Elizabeth replied.
“Yes, I need to make fun of my customers, and then make fun of me.”
And the rest is, more or less, history. In the first year, he offered three classes and didn’t promote them at all, only letting people know about them if they asked. Eventually, he ramped up to one class per month, but when demand grew even more, he increased the classes to weekly. Now, he hosts everyone from mother-and-daughter pairs, to couples and groups of friends, to politicians and businesspersons entertaining their clients, to corporate staffs seeking team-building experiences and professional hackers. Yes, professional hackers love sushi, too.
Yasu draws a diverse audience for good reason. The two-and-a-half-hour experience is one you’ll never forget, and if you do want to learn how to make sushi, there’s simply no substitution for learning from a master in-person. Part sushi-themed stand-up comedy, part storytelling, and part instruction, the class goes by faster than you can say “sliced.” Here are six things to know before you go:
1. It’s Yasu’s way or the highway. “My way is so tasty and wonderful,” Yasu explains. So why would you want to go with any other? Follow his instructions and you’ll get pro-grade sushi. “At the end of class, I take applications for sushi chef,” Yasu jokes.
2. Practice with parchment makes perfect. Before you start handling real sheets of fragile nori and fresh fish, you’ll practice rolling sushi rice with parchment paper until you get the hang of it.
3. Prepare to sweet-talk your roll. Before we even touched the sushi rice, Yasu asked us to pick up our rolled-up wet towels, pretend they were our rolls, and give them pep talks. Even if our rolls turned out a little lopsided or bulky, Yasu encouraged us to go easy on ourselves and massage our rolls’ egos with greetings and compliments.
4. Don’t use too much rice (or too little). Lemons dot the table to provide a frame of reference for how much sushi rice to use—a full lemon, or 10-percent less than a lemon, for example. If you take too much rice, Yasu will point out that this is probably reflective of an oversized ego. If you take too little, he’ll pronounce your little ball of rice “cute.”
5. Sushi is all about the perfect balance between rice and ingredients. This is another reason not to go crazy on the rice, and also why you should be careful not to get over-zealous with your fish or other fillings.
6. Come hungry. After the class, you’ll move into Izakaya Den’s beautiful dining room to enjoy your very own rolls and nigiri sushi. In addition to a saucer of miso soup, we devoured a California Roll with spicy crab filling, a Barbecue Eel Roll with avocado and cucumber, a Poke Hand Roll, and Shrimp, Yellowfin Tuna, Yellowtail, Smoked Salmon Nigiri, and Gunkan Style Scallop. And trust us, there’s no better sushi feast than one you miraculously rolled yourself.
Izakaya Den offers SLICED! Sushi Classes weekly and occasionally twice weekly. Classes fill up very quickly, so plan ahead. Classes are $75 (not including drinks, tax, or gratuity), and include a full sushi meal and a beautiful pair of chopsticks. Izakaya Den also offers Sake Seminars and Pairing Dinners. For more information about classes at the Dens, visit sushiden.net/sliced.
By Maya Silver | Editor
Photography by Sharon McGill | Art Director