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Head Chef Yoshi Sakamoto and Chef James Lee Discuss Their Culinary Art

Written by: Tyler Holland Sliced to Perfection at Mizu Sushi Bar and Grill
Photographed by: Adam Gentry

Orange County sushi lovers are getting a taste of Mizu Sushi Bar and Grill. First established in San Jose, California, in 2008, Mizu saw so much success, the team invested in a Tustin location in 2015. Mizu skillfully fuses Asian flavors with unlikely twists to create innovative dishes that keep customers coming back. The team of highly experienced chefs prepares dishes from fresh produce and seafood to create the most flavorful dining experience. Not a sushi fan? Not a problem. Mizu’s menu also features dishes from the kitchen like Korean barbecue, Japanese Wagyu beef and signature salads. Mizu also features a varied selection of sake, spirits, signature cocktails and wines in their full bar. The restaurant has a large main dining room, a sushi bar, a private dining room and a spacious outdoor patio.

Head Chef Yoshi Sakamoto and Chef James Lee (who is one of the restaurant owner’s sons), discussed Mizu’s success, the inspiration behind Mizu’s dishes and their overall passion for cooking. It’s easy to see the love Sakamoto and Lee have for the restaurant and food, all qualities that can be tasted in each of Mizu’s dishes.

Experts: Yoshi Sakamoto and James Lee
Credentials: Head Chef and Chef
East Meets West: SoCal is known as the first U.S. region to fully embrace sushi

Were you always interested in the culinary arts?

Yoshi Sakamoto: I was always interested in the culinary arts ever since I can remember in Osaka, Japan. However, the path to becoming a sushi chef was not immediate. While in Japan, I had to learn prepping for two years before I was even allowed to touch the fish. Sushi takes some serious skill to do correctly. It isn’t something you can do after two months. What kept me going and still keeps me going are the smiles people have when they eat great sushi.

James Lee: My interest in the culinary arts started from occasionally making meals for my family since I was young. Like Yoshi-san, one of the best things about cooking for me is making people happy through what I create, whether for my family or the customers that come to Mizu.

Q: What prompted your interest in sushi and fusion cuisine?

YS: When I came to the United States, a lot of chefs were doing different and interesting things. The same sushi ingredients used in Japan were not available in the U.S., so chefs had to improvise and do things differently, such as using smoked salmon and avocado, which was available in the U.S. but not used in Japan. Fusion started out of necessity but chefs had to be creative to come up with new styles and dishes. This led to new and interesting developments in the cuisine. Innovation in styles of sushi is what inspired me in the beginning of my career and is what continues to inspire me today.

JL: I started working at Mizu San Jose when about five years ago and was excited to try every possible job you could have in a sushi restaurant. From bussing tables to working in the kitchen, I found most gratifying work was from behind the sushi bar. I think what drew me most towards sushi was the artistic value behind it. There’s so many different and beautiful ways you can present sushi. After seeing one of our chef’s amazing sashimi platters I knew I wanted to recreate that kind of art on a plate of my own.

Q: What led you to become a chef at Mizu?

YS: What drew me to Mizu was that the restaurant accommodated both worlds: traditional and fusion. From making Mizu signature rolls to serving customers omakase style (chef-selected courses), I knew I wouldn’t be limited in my ability to satisfy any type of customer if I was a chef at Mizu.

Q: What makes Tustin such a great addition to the Mizu family of restaurants?

JL: Orange County customers are well educated in local food, especially sushi. It’s rewarding to serve customers that are really knowledgeable and familiar with sushi. It makes the experience that much better both for the chefs and the customers. If Mizu can satisfy sushi lovers in Orange County, then we’ve shown that we can succeed anywhere.

Q: Where do you get your sushi-grade fish?

YS: Our fish comes from all over the world. We get bluefin tuna from Spain and bigeye tuna from Hawaii, for example.

Q: “Mizu” means water in Japanese. Does that inspire the theme of the menu and restaurant?

JL: Of course. Water is an essential ingredient in life so we strive to make sure our menu and experience upholds this theme through good health, high-quality ingredients, experienced culinary techniques and excellent service.

Q: Are there any dishes you would recommend to someone who has never tried sushi?

YS: Signature rolls are always a great place to become accustomed to sushi. We have many different rolls you could start with if you don’t know sushi that well. Eventually, you can move on to raw fish on its own. If you are unaccustomed to raw fish, our signature rolls such as the Mizu Jumbo, which features tuna, avocado, grilled unagi and shrimp tempura, will definitely help you ease into enjoying quality fish on its own.

Q: What dishes would you recommend to the more adventurous eaters out there?

YS: We have various dishes such as black tiger shrimp, sea urchin, Boston clams, toro and conch. When you eat seafood this fresh, you will notice it has a natural sweetness to it. Other options include unagi [eel] with foie gras and shaved truffle. Recently, we served octopus carpaccio on our specials list, which people really enjoy.

Q: How would you go about choosing sake to pair with a meal?

YS: There are different types of sake available, such as super premium, premium, regular and non-filtered. At Mizu our servers can answer any questions you may have about your meal and what sake goes best.

Q: What inspires you when creating new dishes and menus?

YS: The excitement of our customers when they have something new always makes my day and inspires me. Our regular customers know they are in for something a little different each time they visit Mizu.

JL: Our goal is to pair high-quality ingredients with skill and creativity. This allows us to bring out the flavor of each menu item that compliments the fish’s qualities. Whether it’s halibut or fatty tuna, each fish has a unique character and potential for flavor that we strive to unlock. At Mizu we are always trying to stay in front by constantly creating new recipes and perfecting others.

Q: How do you push the limits and explore sushi beyond the average California Roll?

JL: A California Roll doesn’t demonstrate the years of experience a sushi chef has had. Whether you casually or regularly enjoy sushi you can tell the difference without question. Yoshi-san’s dishes really show off his years of training. His precision with a knife is something to marvel, sushi is an art form.

YS: Mizu has seasoned chefs that can make anything you desire. If you are adventurous I recommend sitting at the sushi bar for omakase. Our chefs will create your custom course meal right in front of you. From our toro tartare to our Rainbow Blossom Roll, we can demonstrate that the California Roll is only the beginning of your sushi journey.

Q: How does presentation factor into the preparation of each dish?

YS: Sushi is an art so presentation is one of the most important things for a chef. Without beautiful presentation a dish isn’t complete. At Mizu we want our dishes looking as great as it tastes.

JL: One of the first and most important things I was taught when I began sushi was this motto: “You eat with your eyes first.” Presentation is the first impression a customer will have and it’s extremely important to complement the quality of our food with great presentation.

Q: What do you do to constantly hone your craft and stay up to date with trends?

YS: As a chef you have to continue to learn every day. For example, in the Surf and Turf Roll, instead of drizzling the sauce over the dish like you would find at most restaurants, we infuse Tabasco sauce into caviar pearls. When you bite down, the pearls burst, creating a flavor explosion in your mouth, which is key to that dish. Attention to detail and consistency is important. Reading various books is also a useful tool. In order to create fusion cuisine, you need to learn about the individual ingredients from all cultures and incorporate them into dishes.

Q: What is the most interesting trend in sushi you’ve noticed and will this dish be coming to Mizu if it isn’t already served?

YS: Omakase and rolls are trends in Orange County. It can be difficult to represent both trends in a restaurant, but Mizu does. We’re constantly innovating our menu.

Fresh Out of Water: Mizu has at least 10 different types of fish flown in from different countries around the world every day.

Mizus 5 Recommended Dishes: Rainbow Blossom Roll, Alaskan Roll, Unagi Foie Gras, Spanish Bluefin Toro and Grade A5 Wagyu Steak.

Mizus 5 Recommended Drinks: Pear Tree, Mai Tai, Blue Ocean Martini, Pineapple Jalapeño Margarita and the Kuchinoshima.

Mizu Sushi
2881 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92782
714.730.0200

R A W /// Canvas: The Sushi Chefs at Tustin’s Mizu Sushi Bar and Grill Treat Sushi as Art.