On Friday, sushi chef Chris Kinjo opened MF Sushi just west of the Galleria. The move represents a shot at redemption for Kinjo, who declared bankruptcy after his restaurant Atlanta MF Buckhead closed under a wave of debt. When Eating Our Words published a story about MF Sushi coming to Houston, it seemed the restaurant had appeared from thin air, with none of the usual fanfare associated with a significant restaurant.
Eater reached out to Kinjo to allow him the opportunity to introduce himself to his new city. Usually, an interview is a series of questions and answers. On Thursday, Kinjo took "Tell me about how you decided to come to Houston" and spoke for over 20 straight minutes on his background, his philosophy and the ways in which MF Sushi is unlike any other sushi experience in Houston. The bold headings are merely a guide to topics.
I've been a chef for 21 years. I started in Los Angeles and worked at 33 sushi restaurants before I decided to open my own. Since I've opened my restaurants I go to Japan every year, to Tsukiji, the fish market, to check out new techniques. I actually have a broker over there. We Skype and email to get specialty items: rare, rare stuff people can't get.
My first restaurant opened in 2002. That was in midtown Atlanta. I moved from San Francisco to Atlanta because of my parents.
In 2008, I spent eight months building MF Buck. That's the one the Atlanta Journal Constitution gave 5 stars. It basically was a 26 seat sushi bar. It sat around 250 downstairs .? I was importing charcoal from Japan. The place was so big I thought there was no way I could just do a sushi concept. It was 8,000 square feet. I spent $2.6 million. It went from half a million in sales to $175,000 because of the recession. I spent four years just trying to make it work. Got it back up to $350,000.
Because of that drop, all that debt snowballed on me. I filed for bankruptcy. I lost everything. I lost all three restaurants. I lost my house. I lost my cars. Everything I owned was gone.
On coming to Houston
Basically I partnered up with my chefs. I told them we're going to leave here. My wife has a brother in Houston. I was, like, let's do Houston. For the last four months, I've been working on this project, just underground. I didn't want anybody to know. I just kind of want to open the doors and see what happens.
On lessons learned
I've learned from my mistakes. Sometimes you need that break to find your inner self. I had a lot of time to think about my food. I miss it. All that business and all that financial situation I was in with MF Buck, it took the fun out of the food. I like to be behind the bar making sushi, but when you have three restaurants and 16 chefs to control and a staff of 30 servers. I didn't like that part. I did it. I handled it well, but I didn't enjoy it.
This time around it's just me, my knife and my cutting board. I'm going to do what I love to do. That's why I decided to have a low-key locaiton. I don't want to be high-end. I don't want to charge people a lot of money. I want to be very reasonable in my prices. I want people to experience my food.
I don't like to compromise for what I do. I've been doing this for 21 years. At every restaurant, I took what I liked about what that chef did; every chef had a special skill that I liked. So I locked it up in here (points to head). I developed my own style, which is, everything has to be perfect. If you choose the perfection of each person and turn it all into one practice, it's perfect in my book.
Every cut of fish, when I make sashimi, it's, literally, everything's aligned. It's like an architectural drawing. When I move, I'm thinking 10 steps ahead. It's a flow. I don't pause when I work. My head doesn't move. It's just my hands and my body. It's speed and accuracy. Trying to perfect everything. I hand-cut carrot that's as thin as my hair for a garnish.
Everything's hand cut with a sharp blade. You get that crispness with the vegetables. You seal in all the juices .... The detail is that everything has to be hand cut, because I want the quality.
When I make nigiri, when I'm grabbing the rice, I'm fluffing it up, trying to get the grains separated. By the time I assemble it, I just want each grain of rice to barely touch, because I want air to flow evenly through each grain. So that when you put it in your mouth it just falls apart perfectly. The trick is not too tight and not too loose.
Some people like big sushi ... I'll explain to you how it shold be. [When a] sushi chef makes sushi, they use two fingers to shape the rice. So every fish should be cut the length of an average Asian's man finger, and it should be two fingers wide ... you can form the nigiri perfectly because it fits your fingers. The nigiri should not be any bigger or any smaller. That's the tradition. That's my size. I don't cut big. I don't cut small. That's the right size in my world. That's how it's been practiced forever.
That's my style. It's old school. It's all about understanding cleanliness and preparation. It's about choosing the right fish, the right product, the right preparation and the right presentation. There's nothing fancy about what I do. I don't put a lot of sauces on stuff. It's just plain, simple. Sushi's very simple. It's just good quality fish, good rice preparation, soy sauce and wasabi. That's sushi. No more, no less. That's how sushi is.
When I arrange my sashimi, it's like a chess game. So the back is the freshest one, the best one. The front is like pawns. You work your way to the best. So when you eat, you eat from left to right and front to back. That's how I do all my food.
The monthly omakase at MF Buckhead
Upstairs, I had a sushi counter that sat eight guests. I'd have omakase once a month. It would take me two or three weeks to plan them. I didn't just buy from Tsukiji. I bought from two or three other markets, too. Whoever had the best at that time of year. Fish came in that day. I would assign each chef a preparation duty. I chose them because they were the best at making this or understanding that. I would come in and make sure everything's perfect. It was a lot of work. Everything's fresh. Everything's flown in. Everything's made that day. Right before the dinner sometimes my guests would arrive and we wouldn't be ready for them.
We would literally spend six hours in preparation just for those eight people. I'd stand them from three and a half to four and a half hours. Feeding you anywhere from 28 to 40 courses. Every group is a little different. Every meal I do is different. I just create as I go alone. I never write the menu. I just do it based on ingredients and based on the reaction of the guests. I change it up. It's custom based on what I feel about your behavior.
On building a relationship with diners
The way I make sushi is very personal. The more I know you the better food you're going to get from me, because I understand your palate. It's the process of me getting to know a client. From there, once I get it to my standard, I take them to the next level.
If you come in and I ask you what you like to eat, and you say California rolls, I can't get give you uni. Based on what you tell me, I bring you to the next level. There's many levels. That's the enjoyment of being a sushi chef is taking people to the next step. It's ok if all you've ever had is a fried roll. It's time to move on. That's how I look at it. There's so much diversity and so many options. Eating a shrimp tempura roll with spiced mayonnaise is like eating candy all the time. You need to grow up and try other stuff.
There's only one thing I know how to do. That's this. That's why I'm up here, getting ready to do this tomorrow. To me, I understand some people have their way, but I can't do things much differently than what I know. That's 21 years of trying to master this. The end result is that everything I try to do has to be perfect. It has to look perfect. I can make you 1,000 pieces of nigiri. They'll all look identical as far as the shape. You can count my rice balls. They'll be 99% accurate.
I'm not saying I know everything. I'm still learning. Every day it's a new thing I learn. One little bitty trick or one little bitty step. I always try to find one thing that will make it better. I never stop looking. I'm really happy. All that time I had off. I can get back to doing what I love to do. That's standing there every day making sushi. That's how I got success.
On the opportunity of being in Houston
I've been through all that fame and being number one. It's nothing but stress. I just want to stand here and make sushi. I hope that people will enjoy what I do. At the end of the day, that's all I care about right now.
My crew right here is from Atlanta. I've got nobody from Houston. They've worked with me for 10 years. That guy over there he's been with me for 13 years, from before I opened my first restaurant. I'm happy about that, because I don't have to train anybody. We're ready. It's just my waitstaff I'm concerned about.
You can literally bring a full house with five turns and nobody's going to wait for food. That's the way we work. I'm as fast as three or four chefs. They're two or three chefs each. We're like seven or eight chefs together. We're not playing around. We move. We're professionals. It's not like someone who isn't trained.
The best thing about what happened to me, and it was bad losing all that stuff, I came to work not happy. Coming to work, first of all, I wasn't making tons of money. I was making enough to pay the rent. I was coming to work with no purpose. I didn't come to work to make sushi every day. I came to work to deal with all the headaches. To be honest with you, losing that beautiful five-star restaurant is one of the best things that ever happened to me. Now I get to have this one right here. It's the perfect size.
· MF Sushi Houston [Official Site]
· Acclaimed Chef Chris Kinjo Opening MF Sushi in Houston This Week [Eating Our Words]