Ziran Muse: Yoya Takahashi

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By Kelly Shanahan

When I was 22, I worked at an upscale sushi restaurant called Sashi. I worked with my friends, slanging fresh sushi and expensive sake to the finicky patrons of Manhattan Beach. The restaurant is no longer around (which is a whole other story), but I’ve remained friends with a lot of the people who worked there. One of them --  the freewheelin’, rad, sometimes scary -- Yoya Takahashi is now an Executive Chef and Sushi Chef at the esteemed Los Angeles restaurants Hamasaku and Umi by Hamasaku.

We caught up with Yoya as he sliced and diced a 130 pound sustainably farmed Bluefin Tuna from Japan. Amidst hacking off fins, delicately carving into raw flesh, and encouraging us to try fish bone marrow, he explained how he uses sustainable fish and why LA is a good place to make sushi.

Yoya is from Kyoto, Japan and came to the United States in 2000. He didn’t speak English, “so I took the easiest way out and worked as a server in a Japanese restaurant in Hermosa Beach,” he says. Yoya then hustled his way up the food chain, eventually becoming the Executive Sushi Chef at Sashi. After the restaurant closed, he worked in different sushi restaurants in Los Angeles before settling at Hamasaku.

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Now at Hamasaku (THE FOOD IS BOMB!), all of the fish is sustainably farmed or locally sourced, “because it’s healthy and better for the environment.” The salmon is from Farro Island in Iceland. Yoya says that other types of salmon (like from Chile) is “weird, really weird. When I touch it oil comes up, it’s not right. The color is orange. Salmon shouldn’t be orange. We also don’t sell eel, because nobody knows where the eel comes from.”

Yoya equates good sushi-making with that of being a good baseball batter, “it’s the edge, the angle, and practice that makes it good,” he says. We watched him slice the huge tuna (with big eyeballs and teeth!) with finesse and expertise. I couldn’t help but think about mankind’s roots as hunters eating meat, which our ancestors did for thousands of years. Obviously those days of survival are over but today if meat is responsibly farmed and utilized, is that really a problem? How many sushi spots even care about sustainability? As consumers we are used to hearing about “grass fed, non-hormone, etc” beef and chicken - but what about fish? If we start to think about where our food comes from, make responsible choices, and share what we’re doing -- the world is a better place! 

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In a town of pressed juice and gluten-free diehards, Yoya’s take on sustainability is refreshing and exactly what LA needs. “I love to see people enjoy my food, my sushi, and this connects me to my passion. I don’t have any problems with making sushi! LA is a good place to make sushi because it has everything fresh we need.”

When we asked Yoya where he sees himself in 10 years he replied, “I’m not sure but I’ll keep going on my way.” Cheers Yoya!

PS: Yoya is a huge Grateful Dead fan. He also was on Vice rolling the biggest “sushi roll” joint I’ve ever seen. Check out the video here.

Thank you Yoya for sharing what you do with us! 

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