David Bouhadana, chef and co-owner of Sushi Dojo on First Avenue between 6th and 7th Street in the East Village, is living his dream. There's no reason for a 28-year-old white kid of French-Moroccan descent from South Florida to be slicing better umami-rich fish than some of the city's longtime sushi masters. But that's exactly what's happening behind Dojo's 12-seat bar on a Tuesday through Saturday night basis. Bouhadana is single handedly reinterpreting the ancient art of sushi, flipping the forever serious business of consuming a high-end, wallet-breaking omakase meal into an affordable sushi party where five types of uni play alongside six-foot-long octopus tentacles, all set to a Coachella-esque soundtrack of Chromeo, Holy Ghost, and Breakbot. And despite the upbeat, sake-slugging atmosphere, Dojo's fish-on-rice quality is up there with every other lauded sushi haunt in this city—but at about half the price.
Bouhadana compares the allure of sushi to the allure of riding a motorcycle: "Just like most things that are cool, a motorcycle is cool but it's dangerous," he says. "That's what makes it cool. Sushi is actually dangerous. It's raw food, everything is consumed in its natural state. All can have bacteria, can have worms, can have parasites, it could be cut wrong, it could be poisonous fish... "
Manahttan's best sushi spots all share the same handful of fish distributors. And although there are different grades of fish, rated on a scale of one to five, all the high-end restaurants that order the same grade receive the exact same fish: In order for these top places to source from Japan, they rely on one another to keep the weekly order high enough to pack a plane—flying fish in from 6,500 miles away for just one restaurant would be prohibitively costly. So the drastic variation in sushi quality from one great restaurant to the next isn't a result of different ingredients, it's a result of a chef's philosophy—the philosophy he learned from his sushi master.
The only way to learn sushi is to be taken under the wing of a sushi master. Bouhadana's sushi journey began when he was 18 years old, living in Boca Raton, Florida. He had applied for a server position at Yokohama Sushi, a typical two-for-one-sake-bombs kind of Japanese joint. But on his first day of work, the restaurant's Chinese owner Gang Mao asked Bouhadana if he could hold a knife, and quickly set him up with kitchen duties. He botched the first night of work (ruining tempura and ripping sushi rolls), and his boss gave him $20 and told him to never return. Instead, Bouhadana went home, made flash cards, and memorized the restaurant's entire menu. He returned two days later during lunch and, though he didn't even know what all the ingredients in the rolls were, he perfectly recited the menu, surprising both himself and Mao. So began Bouhadana's culinary adventure.
"I fell in love with sushi for discipline and the instant gratification of my master, and the approval of doing something good," he explains. And that's what's kept him engaged over the last decade, spending three years on and off living in Japan, teaching himself to speak Japanese, and opening three restaurants along the way (with another two set to open on October 6). Now it's no longer the approval of a master he seeks; rather, it's the instant gratification of a customer taking a bite of his uni flight or chu-toro, and making that OMG face.
The idea of a "master" is a bit hard to translate. Japanese chefs spend their entire lives learning and honing one craft, be it soba, ramen, or sushi. To be called a master, you must achieve a certain level of respect in your given trade, and to learn a trade in the first place, you must be accepted by a master and pretty much devote your life to that person and his craft. It's tough enough for a Japanese kid to aspire to be a sushi chef and find a master to learn from. For a white kid to penetrate the unwelcoming Japanese world of sushi is a challenge, to say the least.
"The only way to learn sushi, or to become a sushi chef, or to understand sushi is to have a secret bond with a master," explains Bouhadana. "There are programs, schools, seminars, but you will never learn to become a sushi chef unless you apprentice and you completely give up all your rights to one man and a master. Once you've proven your honesty and discipline to that person, he will teach you everything."
After two years of sushi in Florida, Bouhadana flew to Los Angeles to take a four-week sushi class, only to discover that he was far more advanced than the other students. He ended up helping his teacher, Andy Matsuda, cater extracurricular events, and in exchange, Matsuda introduced him to his brother in Japan, Yuki-hiro Matsuda. Yuki-hiro became Bouhadana's second master, and first true Japanese sensei. As Bouhadana tells it, "I don't think I learned anything about sushi. What I learned is what it means to make sushi and to make sushi is the same thing as anything else in the Japanese culture. It's the discipline, ethics. If I could get the Japanese respect, then I could become a Japanese sushi chef."
Sushi Dojo isn't Bouhadana's first solo show, although it is his first venture as a principal partner. After returning from his first trip to Japan, Bouhadana made his way to New York and, via a friend from Miami, he scored the opportunity to design a sushi bar, build a menu, and train staff for a seafood place with a sushi bar, Rockaway Seafood Company, in Rockaway Park. At the age of 21, he was working 14-hour days and cutting anything and everything he could get his hands on. He stayed at the restaurant for seven moths before succumbing to an itch to get back to Japan where, thanks to help from Yuki-hiro-san, he worked in Kasumi, a small town famous for crab and squid. He stayed for a year and a half apprenticing for free.
In Japan, sushi apprentices usually wash floors and learn to make rice for two or three years before ever getting close to cutting fish, which is one of the final skills a sushi chef learns. Apprentices aren't even allowed to watch a master cut fish; the punishment for getting caught could be a scalding bowl of rice thrown at you, which Bouhadana experienced firsthand. When it is time to learn, an apprentice can only be taught by someone who is literally holding his or her hand. It's the most challenging part of being a sushi chef: Compared to meat, fish is more sensitive to heat, more delicate, and often more expensive, so minimizing waste is essential. When a chef properly breaks down a fish and removes the head, guts, tail, bones, and any damaged flesh, she can lose 20 to 40 percent of the fish.
After earning the honor to cut fish, and newly equipped with even fiercer knife skills, Bouhadana returned to New York. He briefly trailed at Masa, working with Nick Kim and Jimmy Lau (formerly of Neta) and then, after jumping through hoops and passing numerous culinary tests, he landed a sushi chef position at Morimoto, where he stayed for nine months. Halfway through his time at Morimoto, Bouhadana answered a Craigslist ad that advertised a "platform for a rising star" via a new Lower East Side sushi bar, Sushi Uo, owned by Frannie Marchese. It was situated above 151 bar on Rivington Street, in a space that's now home to lauded upscale izakaya Yopparai (the same owners went on to open Azasu nearby). Bouhadana landed the job.
Marchese built the restaurant, and the 23-year-old Bouhadana built the menu and hired a Morimoto vet and a 60-year-old Japanese chef to work alongside him. Uo was initially a huge success, due in part to a rave Tables For Two review in the New Yorker that landed the restaurant more reservations than its 42 seats could handle. Needing additional help, Bouhadana hired chef John Daley. And when Bouhadana eventually left Uo for a third stint in Japan, Daley took over as head chef.
When Bouhadana returned to New York after a year in Japan, he received job offers from Sushi of Gari and Hatsuhana. He accepted the latter, which is where he eventually met his now-partner Boris Lidukhover. (Hatsuhana had a great impact on Bouhadana as a sushi chef: Sushi Dojo's bar is almost identical to Hatsuhana's bar, and Dojo even uses the same Ti leaves from Hawaii, which were once signature plates at Hatsunana.)
After leaving Hatushana, and while searching for a location of his own, Bouhadana worked part time behind the bar at 15 East. He stayed longer than expected, taking a full year to run through 15 potential locations and eventually settled on a space at 110 1st Avenue, bringing along with him two chefs from 15 East.
Dojo specializes in classic edomae sushi, the same sushi style crafted at places like Ichimura and Hatsuhana. It's the oldest form of sushi preparation, a style based on simplicity and fresh ingredients that originated in the Edo Period, which ran from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. It refers to sonomama, which translates from Japanese as "as it is," or sushi in its cleanest, most natural state. Sushi prepared in the edomae style may be enhanced only with sake, mirin, shoyu (soy sauce), sugar, and salt. The preparation of fish is minimalist: eaten raw, cured, marinated, grilled, simmered, or braised.
An omakase at Sushi Dojo is divided into categories of fish. Bouhadana starts with white fleshed fish then moves to colored fish. His first piece is always madai (red snapper). Depending on the season he might follow that up with hirame (fluke) and then move into the yellowtail family for some hamachi (yellowtail) and kanpachi (great amberjack). The idea is to start with clean, delicately flavored fish, and segue into firm, oilier types with more flavor. Then he might serve some shellfish, like mirugai (giant clam), and move on to the salmon, trout, and arctic char family. Second-to-last are silver fish, inclusive of sardines and mackerels, and last is tuna. Though Dojo also offers cooked dishes like braised snapper head and soba, sushi here is the name of the game.
The most common Dojo order is a 15-piece omakase plus hand roll, which runs $85. If you're an uni fiend, Dojo is your new best friend. Bouhadana sources five origins of uni: Santa Barbara, Maine, Chile, Kyoshu (South Japan), and Hokkaido (North Japan). Between 60 to 70 percent of Dojo's fish comes from Japan, either the Tsukiji (Tokyo) or Hakata (South Japan) markets, and he works with several purveyors plus guys on the floor at each. Though he usually gets what he wants, there's a hierarchy to buying fish, with the oldest sushi masters getting first pick.
Of course, every element of a sushi meal is important. There's not just fish quality to consider, but also rice and seaweed quality. Seaweed is graded on a scale of one to six, and Bouhadana buys level five. To prepare his seaweed, he uses a heat box to torch it until crispy. As for rice, Bouhadana believes that rice is 90 percent of sushi. So, he uses the highest grade of short-grain Japanese rice harvested in Japan or California, and seasons it with red rice vinegar that he prefers to be on the sweeter side of tangy, to balance out the fish from the mackerel family, which tend to be saltier. He says he freaks out every day at 5:45 p.m., nervous whether or not his rice cooked properly.
Despite his fellow chefs' collective experiences—with time spent at 15 East, Hatsuhana, and Kurumazushi, there's serious firepower behind the sushi bar at Sushi Dojo— the six seats in front of David Bouhadana remain prime real estate. Grab one for proof that Bouhadana is crafting fish at a skill level well beyond his years, and at totally reasonable prices.