Sushi is sort of the ‘it cuisine’ of the corporate lunch world. Popular places have people lining up around the corner for their healthy lunchtime fare. But I find it hard to take places seriously that have cream cheese in their sushi.
I should probably admit here that I’m a bit of a sushi purist. I never wanted to be, but in 2007 I found myself scooped up from a rather average life in Melbourne and dumped in the middle of nowhere Japan. It made for some of the most incredible and challenging days of my life. Without fail every week I would go to the local sushi train, I could easily polish off 8 plates and in one rather impressive sitting I devoured 11 - that’s 22 pieces of sushi! But those heady days came to an end and this sushi junkie was yanked away from her wasabi dealer and back to NZ where sushi chains inexpicably have french names. It was like spending a summer in Colombia then coming back to find cocaine in NZ is terrible and really expensive (so I’ve heard).
I guess it’s not surprising that when a sushi deal popped up on Grabone I bought 12 of them! And so I found myself at a tiny shop on Brandon Street and my love affair with Domo Sushi began. Whenever you enter Domo Sushi you are always greeted by Daniel San, he is genuinely excited to see you, whether you are a first time customer or long time friend. With that cheeky grin of his, he will always ask you how your day is going. It is hard not to love this man. He is the personification of the japanese word genki. He clearly loves his customers, determined to give them good sushi and a little happiness in their work day.
The day I sat down and had my interview with Daniel San I was having a terrible day. We sat and chatted as new found friends before the offical interview started. Looking over the interview I actually think lead to him opening up a little himself.
How did you end up living in Wellington?
About 10 years ago I had just graduated from university and was working in Tokyo. I had only worked there about four months and I found it so stressful. In Japan, if you are the newbie you are expected to be at work really long hours, so I was working from around 6am until 10pm. I realised very quickly that I didn’t want to live like that. I didn’t want to become my father who I never saw when I was young, he left before I woke up and came home after I had gone to bed. So I decided I needed a holiday. I saved my money for 6 months and planned to go to New Zealand, Australia and then South East Asia. I was so excited about New Zealand as I had heard so much from my friends. But when flew into Auckland I was disappointed to be honest with you! It felt like a small Tokyo - Everyone was in a hurry. So after a few hours I went back to the airport and said put me on the next plane and I flew to Wellington. While I was still in the air, I looked down and already knew I loved this city. So I rang up my parents to tell them I was staying here. I never made it to Australia or South East Asia!
What do you miss about Japan?
I miss baseball and football, I occasionally watch the Phoenix play here, but it isn’t the same.
What made you decide to become a chef?
I was working for a Japanese import company in Wellington and I went back to Japan to visit my family, when I came back they told me I had lost my job. After that it was so hard to find a job, it was during the recession and it was especially hard for a foreigner. At first I thought about opening a coffee shop because I love coffee so much, but there are so many coffee shops in Wellington and I only knew how to drink it not make it. So we opened Domo Sushi with my girlfriend Visy and my friend Kazio.
Who taught you everything you know?
Kazio, she has been making sushi for 20 years. She taught me everything about sushi. Most importantly how to fillet a whole fish and which parts of the fish are used for different types of sushi. Kazio has moved back to Japan now.
What's your favourite dish on the menu and why?
Nigiri. Normally when we say sushi in Japan we mean nigiri. I always make sure the best cut of salmon is saved for the nigiri.
What makes a good Sushi chef?
The recipe for sushi isn’t secret, so making good sushi is more than just ingredients. You must love your sushi. I will always try my sushi before I put it in the cabinet. Because if I don’t like it, I won’t serve it. My mum always says your mood influences you dishes, so that is why I make sure I’m always in a good mood. But most importantly keep all the materials fresh, the sushi will not say in the cabinet for longer than 2 hours.
What makes Domo Sushi special?
We don’t want to cut corners. We use Japanese sushi rice and not Australian medium grain rice that a lot of shops use. We use sake and sugar like traditional sushi rice, not mirin. All the chicken is free range. I go to the market every day and hand pick the fish so that we have the freshest fish you can find.
But what makes Domo Sushi special is the customers. I want to be more than just sushi. Every day I ask my customers how their day is going and usually they say “crazy busy”! I probably hear that 30-40 times a day. So if you only have 20-30mins for lunch, I want you to enjoy your break. Recently I was offered double for what I paid for the shop but I turned it down. I would miss my customers too much.
Do you change anything for NZ eaters?
When I first opened the shop I wanted to do authentic sushi. So on the first day I only had nigiri in the cabinet, I got as many different fish as I could and arranged them from the lightest tasting to the strongest taste. But it didn’t sell, over the whole day I only sold 10 pieces. I have had customers come in and ask for “authentic sushi” and turns out they want california rolls! Give me a break, this is sushi that was invented in the 70s in America!* I have to serve a lot of ‘kiwi style’ sushi as the customers ask for it but I still make sure I have nigiri.
What are the challenges you have finding ingredients?
Wasabi - I had a friend who grew fresh wasabi here in NZ for a while so had it in the shop. I would grind the wasabi root in a china bowl over a candle, as the water evaporates, you are left with a wasabi powder. He tried to sell it commercially but nobody bought it because customers found it too strong. So I can’t find any fresh wasabi root anymore.
Fresh fish - I don’t understand why you can’t buy live fish here in NZ, I want to see the fish alive, so I know it is as fresh as it can be.
Tuna - In Japan you can buy tuna whole and cut it into the three parts for the differnt types of sushi, but here in NZ you can only buy tuna fillets, so I don’t serve it because I don’t know what part of the fish it is.
Where do you like to eat out for dinner?
When I walk the dogs I love to go to The Bach out at Lyall bay. They have the best burgers and great iced coffee.
What do you make for yourself at the end of a long day?
Whatever meat is left over, chicken is very popular here so we usually have salmon.
But I love sweet food so I always have ice cream with a drop of plum wine.
This interview threw me a bit, after the second post was the idea of the blog compromised? In contrast to Little Penang who took a well-loved cuisine in Wellington and worked hard to give us something better, it felt like Daniel san was struggling to do the same. Maybe it was the thought of that cabinet full of nigiri sushi going to waste that made me depressed. But then I realised this one is a slow burner, Daniel san is working with a tough crowd. People who only have time to duck out, grab a bite and not think too much about the authenticity of what they are eating. But by engaging with his customers, building loyalty and trust in his brand he is slowly able to get them to try new things, introduce them to different styles of sushi and ultimately curb attitudes. That is why I also wanted feature Domo Sushi early on because this man deserves our patronage. From those of us who care about how fresh our fish is and who want to know that no corners are being cut for the sake of overheads. I would love to one day hear that they had sold out of nigiri for the day and ultimately walk in and see the cabinet just as it was on its opening day. This sushi junkie can dream...
Follow Domo Sushi's Facebook page just for the amazing status updates alone.
*Reading up on this I found the explanation behind my absolute pet hate - Avocado in sushi. Turns out the same chef also thought that avocado was a good substitute for fatty tuna. He has a lot to answer for that guy.
Domo Sushi, 22 Brandon Street, Wellington.
(04) 499 8089