Omakase ’Sushi Nuha’ Represents the Chef's Life.
Magazine YOOHEE No.18 <sushi nuha>
'Sushi Nuha' is Seochon's only Omakase sushi restaurant. Sushi Nuha, is where you can experience the warmth of Seochon Hanok and Chef Ji-hoon Lee's light atmosphere, it provides a unique dining experience. From a young man who enjoyed tuna to a chef at a restaurant known as 'Sushi Nuha', I could sense the chef's passion and sincerity as he constantly inquired and experimented with new ideas.
Chapter1. Ji-hoon Lee, a chef who is constantly posing questions to himself.
I want to know about you first. Could you please explain to me why you chose to become a sushi chef over other cuisines?
When I was discharged from the military, I ran a chicken business with my father, and I had a conflict with him. After I left the chicken business, I began living on my own. I was 22 years old, and I had a lot of worries at that age, so I worked at a tuna restaurant at the time, and I think that was a good decision. Two or three times a week, I worked in the restaurant, and I became interested in the business when I saw the owner working.
During that time, I was wondering what you were interested in specifically, and how you got started working.
At the time, I had not even attended college. I remember having a lot of concerns about what I would do in the future, but I found it interesting to see the owner working at a tuna restaurant, and I thought it would be exciting to do that. I remember asking my boss a lot of questions regarding how to start my own business. Sooner or later, I became the youngest employee of a large Japanese restaurant. When I began working in the kitchen in the back as the youngest, there were many differences from what I had anticipated, and it was a more difficult environment than I anticipated, but I worked hard nevertheless.
You must have found it difficult to begin a new job for the first time. How was your experience working at a large Japanese restaurant?
For a time, I arrived at work earlier than others. I arrived two hours earlier because I had a lot to learn as the youngest. After completing my assigned tasks, I learned how to work by assisting my senior, but I believe the chef was quite uncomfortable watching me at the time. "Do your job properly," he stated. As a result, I resigned. It was a brief period, but my seniors encouraged me to go to Seoul, stating that I could do well elsewhere.
How did you find it following your departure from a large Japanese restaurant?
I resigned from a large Japanese restaurant in Incheon and relocated to Seoul. It was a sushi bar. To be honest, I believe I was preoccupied with work the entire day at the time. I work from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. or 12 p.m. and then take the bus back to Incheon. It was a time when I lived this monotonous existence. Prior to establishing Sushi Nuha, I led a routine life centered on work.
I developed an interest in sushi after working at a tuna restaurant, and consequently working at a large Japanese restaurant and now a sushi restaurant in Seoul. It's impressive that you were so fixated on a single subject. How long have you been preparing to open up your own sushi restaurant?
I began working at the age of 22 and am now 29 years old, having worked diligently for six to seven years. For me, the most difficult moment occurred when Festa Dining opened at the Banyan Tree Hotel. At the time, I was required to be at work by 8 a.m., but due to my commute from Incheon, my commute was two hours one-way and I got off work at 1 a.m. This has been my routine. Festa has since changed to Mingles, but things arose and I moved to a newly open location, and I worked with open support for only three months. Following that, I intended to travel to Japan and continue my studies.
Have you visited Japan in order to increase your knowledge of sushi?
I traveled to Osaka in order to study sushi. There are numerous cooking and sushi academies in Japan, but in Osaka, I met an excellent Japanese teacher named Hoshikawa and gained knowledge beyond the class.
It was in Japan that you first discovered sushi in earnest. Then, do you have any strengths as a chef as a result of your education in Japanese cuisine?
I believe I have numerous self-doubts. This may be an advantage or a disadvantage, but I believe I am constantly asking myself, "Is what I am doing right, is it the right way, or am I doing my best?" Even if you become a little slothful or indolent, I believe that if you ask yourself this question, you will reclaim your original intention. Additionally, I believe that is how one develops.
Your first impression appears to be quiet, calm, and a little blunt, but how would you describe your true personality?
That is not the case in reality. I do my work at a restaurant, and I want customers to feel about me in a certain way, so I'm somewhat controlling it. In reality, I'm loud, enjoy drinking, and am prone to pulling numerous pranks.
When we first visited and dined in, it didn't appear as though you were speaking much, but I believe this is to get a sense of the atmosphere you mentioned.
It appears to vary depending on the situation or the guests. For instance, people who visit alone and consume alcohol occasionally converse because they believe they need someone who can talk to. However, if you don't want to have a conversation, I'll provide a brief explanation in case you want to know about the space and food. Frequent guests appear familiar and recommend a drink, at which point they can converse, but they rarely converse otherwise.
Chapter2. In Its Entirety, 'Sushi Nuha’
I would like to ask you about Sushi Nuha. When did you think you should run your own store while learning how to work at another restaurant?
As an employee, it has not been enjoyable since I was in Japan. While I thought that I could express my own color quite well, I also wanted to make sure that I was doing what I wanted to do and thinking about what I learned. Throughout the years, I have worked hard to achieve this goal. Originally, it was intended to open last year or even the year before, but it was postponed for a while, prepared for the last year, and realized in May of this year.
Have you thought about operating your own business since you visited Japan?
Until I went to Japan, I did not consider opening my own restaurant. At that time, learning and working were fun, but once I returned to Korea and began working, I felt like I should run my own restaurant.
Sushi Nuha is the only sushi omakase in Seochon. I believe there was a settlement process in Seochon.
Initially, an acquaintance recommended the other side of Bukchon. Initially, I went to see a property near Sushi Nuha, however, as I was looking back, the real estate agent suggested this location. While it was a rainy day, the appearance of this building caused me to think a great deal. I thought it would be fun to wear something white and greet customers outside the store, and my wish came true. Other stores did not appeal to me as much as this one, so I settled here.
How did the employees who are currently employed by Sushi Nuha come to work with you?
The youngest member of the team had an interview and joined the team. Originally, his hair was long, but I asked him to cut it, so he agreed, and that's how he joined the team. I met the chef I work with as a customer. The chef was among five people who came to the opening, and after drinking together, we became close. At that time, I had placed a job posting and I received a call a few days later and asked him to come for an interview. It was the chef with whom I am currently working. I spoke to him during the interview and he stated that he was moving right next to the restaurant. Since then, we have worked together. I try not to get angry at employees on the spot when they make mistakes, but to sit down and talk with them after some time. Explain the mistake to them and let them think about it. I want them to have the opportunity to think without concluding that they have done something wrong. In this way, the individual can act in accordance with the standard.
I can see that you are considerate of your employees. Allow me to return to your relationship with customers and ask questions. You do not talk much because you want customers to experience the atmosphere of the restaurant quietly. Though there are times when you are talking to customers and regular customers who come alone, what kind of conversation do you usually have?
It has been observed that people who hand over alcohol usually want to talk. I believe most of these customers are drinking and talking about food and alcohol as they bring a lot of good corkage free. Thus far, no customers have discussed deeply personal issues. Based on the topic, I believe it is primarily about sushi or alcohol.
It hasn't been long since the restaurant opened, but I am confident there will be one particularly memorable customer.
At the beginning of the opening, two famous bloggers each came. Unaware that they were bloggers, I seated them together. They recognized each other as soon as they sat down, and we drank together since it was still in the early stages of opening. That day was particularly bad for food. There were no good items in the market, as the sea conditions were poor. The day when I started to apologize, was the day when I changed the rice and said that I would increase the amount instead. As we drank during the day, I assured them that they could eat comfortably after all the other customers had left. Therefore, I left the restaurant during lunchtime, ate, drank, and they said they would like to stay at the restaurant until dinner. Since they were drunk, I asked them to come back next time. As bloggers, they have had so many perfect days where they are tempted to find fault, but they cheered and left due to their good character. Since I was so grateful and happy, I thanked them by contacting them afterward, and they are still very memorable to me.
When you combine delicious sushi with alcohol, there is a saying that the boundaries in an awkward relationship will loosen. What is your favorite pairing for sushi?
Sake is a good pairing for sushi. There is something called "sushi is the best with sake." I believe both those who are interested in sake and those who are not can be lightly accompanied by this pairing. It is not necessary for you to prepare a perfect meal, but I believe there is a certain synergy connected with good food and beverages that allows you to feel good.
I cannot recommend a single pairing. I, however, believe that sushi should be eaten with alcohol, so I always bring alcohol with me. In my opinion, it is a food with which you cannot avoid drinking. My opinion is that pairing involves finding your taste, such as sweet and spicy, while lightly adding sake. Every individual will have a different preference. In the future, we will continue to change the list of alcoholic beverages, but I believe it may be an additional fun experience for customers who enjoy visiting the store to eventually visit their own pairing in the process of adding and removing sake according to the season.
Why then do people seek out Omakase at such high prices?
Probably because it feels special. There is something special about sushi that customers may not know about which makes it more attractive. The tastes and atmosphere of every restaurant differ. Simple and difficult seems to be appealing to customers.
How does Sushi Nuha Omakase differ from other restaurants?
The ambiance. There have been a number of restaurants that have expressed strong individuality in recent years, but there are a number of businesses that share the same ambiance as sushi restaurants, and Sushi Nuha has a distinctive and unique atmosphere. Upon entering the restaurant, the ambiance and experience that makes you feel like you have come to Sushi Nuha, are unique.
What do you think are the characteristics of a good restaurant?
According to the expressions of the working people, it appears to be divided into restaurants which are good and those which are not. A restaurant's positive or negative influence appears to vary according to the employee's expression and attitude. No matter who works at the restaurant, whether it is the owner, the chef, or anyone who works there if they have a passion for something, it is bound to be shown. If this is the case, the food and service will inevitably improve. Although I may try to hide it, I can see what goes through my mind when I go to work and think that I should return home after some time. I believe that the mindset of the employees is very important.
I agree with the statement that the mindset of employees is very important. Does Sushi Nuha have a philosophy?
It is the first time I have considered this topic. Instead of focusing on the philosophy of the restaurant, I would like customers to experience Sushi Nuha rather than simply remember it as a sushi restaurant. The sushi should be excellent because it is a sushi restaurant. However, it is the experience created by combining these elements - such as thinking of Sushi Nuha and arranging a reservation, visiting Sushi Nuha after arriving at Seochon, waiting outside, the atmosphere, the music, and the tone of the staff that makes it great. I'm trying to run this place so that it can be remembered as an experience.
Chapter3. The best sushi with a unique twist
I found the sushi's ingredients to be particularly fresh and delicious. How do you obtain and manage the ingredients?
Noryangjin is the most convenient place to supply fish since it is located in Gangbuk, Seoul. You may be able to receive the ingredients directly from the production area, but due to the size of the business, they are delivered to Noryangjin in any case rather than directly to the client, so Noryangjin only purchases enough ingredients to consume on the same day. Generally, Korean domestic products are used, but only fresh, not frozen, tuna is used. Due to my belief that I would use fresh tuna immediately upon opening, I use Spanish tuna instead. I also did not want to let go of Wasabi. Wasabi is brought indifferently to Nagano Prefecture and Shizuoka from time to time. As far as possible, frozen ingredients are not sold in our store. Due to the low price range, it is difficult to completely exclude freezing, though we are making every effort to do so. Due to this, the store does not have a freezer with the exception of the tuna freezer. The tuna freezer is primarily used to store my side dishes, and I avoid freezing whenever possible. As a result, I removed the red shrimp from the menu. Even when we clean fish, we do not freeze it because we do it within the shortest amount of time just before we open.
Sushi with firm basics versus sushi with a unique texture or appearance.
In my opinion, what you said is the industry standard for chefs who leave hotels and open their own businesses. There are usually hotelier chefs who are almost mild and think that it's pretty neat sushi, whereas business owners and small businesses of non-hoteliers can sometimes be considered a little more unique. In the beginning, the hotel's chefs settled down first, so those others' sushi may feel unique; however, when considering the fact that Korean hotel chefs have restaurants in Japan, their sushi may also be considered unique. Sushi is simple food, but its taste can vary depending on who makes it. "Characteristic" and "mild" are simply slight differences. While I have likes and dislikes, I want to express my color as much as possible. My goal is to make more and more attempts.
Chapter4. Concluding the interview
What type of restaurant do you want to be remembered for in the future?
It is my sincere hope that customers will feel the same way I did when I saw the store's appearance. I envisioned the restaurant with the same feeling I had when I first saw it, but the restaurant is now taking its place. The first time customers arrive here, I hope that they will remember the feeling they receive. As I look back now, I can see that each customer would have felt differently. In spite of how kindly they responded and the food was, it might not have been to everyone's taste, and there might have been those who enjoyed the meal even though it was not satisfactory. It is my hope that it will be remembered in accordance with the individual's feelings. Although, I am simply trying to ensure that the guests do not feel bad and that this place remains a positive memory in their minds. If you are in a good mood, you will revisit, and I am doing my best to make that happen.
As a chef, how do you envision yourself in the future?
I think this is a good starting point for me. Someday, I would like to open a shop where I can express my thoughts and emotions as they are. It is still an abstract concept, but I hope that one day when customers come to the store, I will be able to feel and experience what I think. Ideally, I would like to have a store where customers can sympathize with my thoughts based on their own experience and create their own colors. I don't know when, it may take ten years. I am considering a store where I may sympathize with myself. It would not be interesting to sell only food.
Finally, a few words from the chef!
I wish to remain a chef who can grow more today than yesterday and more tomorrow than today. As a chef, you should be asking yourself questions on a constant basis so that your customers can sense them. I will strive to make you feel that this is a good store that tries to serve its customers.
A word from the editor!
Hae: After listening to the chef's journey to becoming Sushi Nuha, it was clear a lot of worries and processes had been involved. The taste of the food, the manner in which customers are welcomed, the signage, and the interior seem to have been influenced by the owner. Good luck in becoming a Sushi Nuha with your own distinctive style.
Hye: As a modern city, we seek a relationship that is free from the weight and coercion of artificial relationships, not cold or uncomfortable, but as much as we desire. A relationship at the right temperature. This is what Sushi Nuha achieved. A restaurant that reflects its chef. You will be immediately struck by the calm and serious atmosphere of Sushi Nuha when you enter the store.
INTERVIEW DATE / 2021. 01. 06
INTERVIEWEE / @sushi_nuha
INTERVIEWER / Hae, Hye
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