Ask the Chef

Words With Yingji Huang of Kakui Sushi

Yingji Huang, the chef-owner of Kakui Sushi in Montclair was born in China, he didn’t grow up with sushi culture and didn’t even sample sashimi until high school. It was only after moving to Chicago at 15, enrolling in private school and meeting his eventual best friend that the Japanese way of life entered his consciousness.

“He was from Japan and in the same boat as me. He didn’t know any English. But we communicated with kanji, and became friends,” says Huang, now 36. “He invited me to go back to Japan with him. I went and met his grandfather, who owned a private sushi bar in Tokyo. That was my first time having sushi, and after I saw the sushi chefs with their samurai-like swords, I told his grandfather, ‘I want to be a sushi chef.’ ”

We caught Huang between business calls one busy afternoon.

Q: What was the first fish you tasted that day?

A: Tuna. I’d had raw fish before, but my palate never had that whole experience. I was like ‘Wow, what am I eating right here?’ It totally opened my mind.

Q: What’s the biggest difference between Japanese and American cuisines?

A: In Japanese cuisine there are a lot of things that are really Zen. Zen is in everyday life. When we eat sushi, we always have ginger. Lots of people think it’s to polish your tongue to taste the different fish. But it’s really yin-yang. Fish is cold; ginger is warm. It’s healthy living to create that balance. In this country, at least before now, it was more about fast food. There’s no time to cook. Now we’re eating better, but there’s still not an understanding about balance. Just eating organic food isn’t healthy. Japanese food really represents the modern-day Zen lifestyle.

Q: Are Americans finally learning that Japanese people eat more than just sushi?

A: There’s a good movie called Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Have you seen it? To understand sushi, you need to see this movie. Maybe you can get it on Netflix. See, sushi is a luxury in Japan. It’s a really expensive thing. Japanese are not eating sushi every day. Most Japanese eat simple food—pickled radish, dried fish.

Q: How important is the art of presentation?

A: To appreciate the food as the four seasons change, you have to put a different look on the dish to show that you understand it. For example, in the summertime, we’re using a lot of lotus or lotus leaves. We use different flowers to match different foods. Then you’re appreciating the season changing and acknowledging what the Mother of Earth brings to us.

Q: Is consistency an issue for all sushi restaurants?

A: Every fish is different … You really have to see this movie, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. You can Google dreams of sushi. You’ll find it. You really have to see this movie before you add this to the magazine.


Kakui Sushi, 2060 B Mountain Blvd, Oakland, 510-338-1188,

This article appears in the January-February 2013 issue of Alameda Magazine
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