How Master Sushi Chef Derek Wilcox Brought His Japanese Training to New York — Omakase (2023)


Chef Derek Wilcox spent seven years learning expert sushi techniques in the kitchen of three Michelin-starred Kikunoi. He came back to New York to open Shoji at 69 Leonard, where he continues the traditions he learned in Japan.

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- 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.


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.


When it's not alive anymore, it will inject the venom.


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.


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.


We don't have a lot of time.


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.


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.


First Michelin guide came out in Kyoto in 2008, I think it was.


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.


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.


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.


These are the eggs of the octopus.


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.


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.


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.


This octopus is squeaky, clean.

All, the slime is out and we cut into pieces.


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.


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.


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.


It's plugged into all these cultural and craft elements in Kyoto.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


It's very nutrient-rich, but also fast-moving ocean currents.


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.


Instead of taking off the whole filet, we're going to butterfly it.

And, this part is different.

You come from this side.


This is the kind of part, the difficult part 'cause.

It's very thin.


You don't have a whole lot.


That was the first difficult part, getting out.

The backbone.

The ribs are also difficult to remove.


The hardest thing is cutting the bones because you have to cut through the flesh, through the bones, but not through the skin.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Who started omakase? ›

Omakase has been around for centuries: the concept originated in the Edo period (1603-1868) in Japan, when sushi chefs began offering customers a selection of their best and freshest ingredients.

Who is the number 1 sushi chef in the world? ›

Jiro Ono

How many years of sushi chef training does it take to be trusted to make the rice? ›

It is a common Japanese legend that a truly great itamae-san ("san" is an honorific suffix) should be able to create nigirizushi in which all of the rice grains face the same direction. Itamae training is conducted all over the world, including Japan, the USA and the UK. The process can take from 2 to 20 years.

What does omakase mean in Japanese? ›

Omakase (Japanese: お任せ, Hepburn: o-makase) is a Japanese phrase, used when ordering food in restaurants, that means 'I'll leave it up to you' (from Japanese 'to entrust' (任せる, makaseru)).

What makes omakase so expensive? ›

If it's varied, the chefs choices will determine the price of the meal. As many course menus tend to be, omakase sushi tends to be more expensive due to not only the many dishes that you're provided with, but also due to the quality.

What is the philosophy of omakase? ›

The success and key to all omakase lies in mutual trust and going with the flow, and the whole service takes place in front of the diner. The Japanese work omakase means "trust" or, maybe more specifically, "I trust you", referring to the trust we have in the chef who prepares our food.

How much does a sushi chef earn in the US? ›

The average sushi chef salary in the United States is $42,969. Sushi chef salaries typically range between $27,000 and $68,000 yearly.

What is the average salary for a sushi chef in California? ›

What is the average salary for a sushi chef in California? The average salary for a sushi chef in California is $29,500 per year. Sushi chef salaries in California can vary between $17,500 to $61,000 and depend on various factors, including skills, experience, employer, bonuses, tips, and more.

How long does it take to become a Japanese sushi chef? ›

Unlike 'fast food' sushi made at chain restaurants, real sushi takes a lot of time, dedication and passion. Traditionally, a young chef begins his apprenticeship at the end of high school with a chef himself approved and will complete his course after 10 years!

Is it rude to not finish omakase? ›

When dining omakase, finishing everything that's put in front of you is essential for good sushi etiquette; it's considered extremely rude, not to mention wasteful, to leave any of the pieces uneaten.

Why is omakase so popular? ›

The system allows chefs to take advantage of the day's freshest ingredients, resulting in a menu that expresses creativity while controlling costs. For diners, omakase offers a refreshing opportunity to let go and trust in the expertise of another person.

Who was the first sushi chef? ›

In the 1820s, a man named Hanaya Yohei found himself in Edo. Yohei is often considered the creator of modern nigiri sushi, or at the very least its first great marketer. In 1824, Yohei opened the first sushi stall in the Ryogoku district of Edo.

Who is the founder of sushi kitchen? ›

Jing Tan is a passionate entrepreneur for healthy plant-based food and mindfulness. In 2009 she co-founded Sushi Kitchen™, a Japanese fusion vegan food. The First vegan Sushi in Malaysia.

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