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How Borgognone Won the Lotto With Sushi Nakazawa

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All photos by Krieger

By now the origin story of Sushi Nakazawa is legendary. Alessandro Borgognone, a restaurateur from the Bronx, watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi and was immediately taken with the idea of opening a sushi restaurant. He tracked down Daisuke Nakazawa, one of the apprentices of the legendary sushi chef Jiro Ono, working in Seattle, and convinced him to move east and open a restaurant. That restaurant, a sushi counter with a dining room attached, opened last summer and immediately became impossible to get into. Then in December Pete Wells made it one of only six restaurants with a perfect four star review from the Times, and today it remains just as impossible to get into as ever.

Now, as the restaurant crosses the year mark, Borgognone and Nakazawa discuss the surprises of their first year, cultural sushi differences, and how Sushi Nakazawa isn't that different from the Borgognone family's Italian restaurant, Patricia's.

So I feel like we've heard often the origin story of Sushi Nakazawa, but what would have happened if that hadn't worked out? Would you have opened a different restaurant?
Alessandro Borgognone: You know what? It's possible. It ended up being that it went this way, but I'm sure that we would have been doing something different.

Once you guys actually met up, how long was it before the restaurant came together?
Borgognone: I think our first email is October 2012? Or November?

Daisuke Nakazawa: No, November 1st….Maybe two years ago.

Borgognone: We were in contact about approximately two years ago or so. The process wasn't that easy, it wasn't that I contacted someone online and basically tomorrow we opened up a restaurant together. There's much more in depth than that, there were a lot of details we needed to iron out. Construction was probably the least time consuming — it took us three to four months to construct what you see here. At the end of the day what was really time consuming was creating a concept. We really needed to be on the same page together.

You come from very different backgrounds. How did you blend those into this one concept?
Borgognone: We definitely come from two different cultures: I'm Italian, he's Japanese. But at the end of the day, we all had the same goal in mind: to create the best restaurant that we possibly can together. We did that by me giving what I knew best, and him doing what he knew best, and putting everything else on the side for the time being. At the end of the day we always respected the culture that we both came from.

How much did you take the sushi culture of New York into consideration? Was that something you thought of yourself in context of?
Borgognone: I never thought about opening up a sushi restaurant really before I saw the movie. But we didn't think that there was any better place to open up what we wanted to open up than New York City. By coming to visit, he [Nakazawa] built a relationship with New York City and really fell in love with it. That's why we chose to do it here.

How is New York different than Japan? Or from where you were on the West Coast for that matter?
Nakazawa: Japan? Custom is a lot different. Focus more on details , and different details, more on dish quality. In Japan, they just want to taste. In Seattle, customer don't want to just taste. Of course taste the quality, but they want to be entertained, to enjoy the food. I learned entertaining in Seattle, the American custom. In New York I mixed high quality with entertainment. *laughs*

So how did the actual opening go? Were there any surprises?
Borgognone: We didn't know how big the interest would be in Sushi Nakazawa, but we knew that there was a tremendous amount of people that had watched the documentary. So the week before opening we announced that we had a website all set up and were taking information on everyone who wanted to see it. The first day we had about 3000 inquiries. But when we did open we had a very soft opening. We only had the bar, and we were doing two seatings, so that was only 20 people. We basically grew into that as the days went by, and started taking on a little bit more, a little bit more, until we got to this point.

So you were totally surprised by how many people sort of came knocking that first week?
Borgognone: We knew that the documentary was really popular, but who would ever think that you would get that much? It was a real shock. We just hope that we are living up to that expectation.

Did that change anything about the way you were planning things or the way you were running things?
Borgognone: No we stood consistently on track. What we wanted to create was a blend of having the most amazing sushi and a having very theatrical event at the bar, but then on the other end we wanted to be very different from every sushi restaurant. So we brought a different element, which was service, and the way we do our sake pairings, and the glassware, and the tables That's an element that you really don't find. We brought a very Western type of service to it, a European feel. Not that I'm saying it's better than Japanese, but that's what we've incorporated into this project.

Is there anything you learned as a restaurateur over the course of this opening? This strikes me as a very divergent path from the restaurant path you were on before.
Borgognone: It's not very different. What I did two years ago is what I do today. The philosophy hasn't changed; we believe that every client wants to be treated in a certain way. Everyone wants to feel that they're having the most amazing time, from the minute they walk in to the minute that they leave. That was my main focus at Patricia's, and that's my main focus here. The only thing I wasn't used to at Patricia's, I didn't know people took Citi Bikes. [laughs] I'm joking.

Did you have to do a lot of learning about sushi?
Borgognone: I think that came by staying with Nakazawa. The truth of the matter is I knew nothing two years ago compared to what I know today. And that is truly due to him and my staff around me. Everyone brings something to the table. It's really important that you listen to them. Even though I'm the owner and I'm their boss and [Nakazawa]'s the owner and he's their boss, there's something small that we can learn from everyone.

Was it challenging to try and open a sushi restaurant and also have to learn a lot about sushi at the same time?
Borgognone: I don't think it's challenging, I think it's basically knowing a good amount about what you're doing. I was on a schedule with Nakazawa for the first six months, and by speaking about things you end up getting a grasp of them and start picking it up. You start learning about sakes, you start learning about different species of fish, and you grow with it. It was all really due to him that I learned everything.

How surprised were you by the four star Times review? Did you know every time that Pete Wells came in?
Borgognone: No, we didn't recognize Pete Wells. But at the end of the day, there was a concern, but we knew we were on top of our game and that we were treating every diner as if they were Pete Wells. Did we know that we were getting four stars? Absolutely not. But we did know that we deserved something amazing because we were giving 150% every day.

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Mr. Nakazawa, did you ever have any doubts about moving here?
Nakazawa: *laughs* Oh. I don't know. No.

How long did you have to think about it?
Nakazawa: Half a year.

Is there anything you want to do more of or differently here?
Nakazawa: Now people are thinking that sushi is a roll, right? California roll, etc. I want to educate people in the States about the other sushi types.

What do you think of other sushi places here in New York?
Nakazawa: Oh yeah, I like spicy tuna roll. I go to sushi restaurants, I order spicy tuna every time. But my culture is different.

What about the other sushi restaurants like this one in New York?
Nakazawa: Everybody is doing their best.

How do you balance what goes on at the sushi bar with what goes on in the dining room? Especially give that the bar tends to be what gets all the attention?
Borgognone: Our main goal is to have the people that are sitting at the sushi bar see what is going out into the dining room and say "Wow, I would like to sit there next time," and vice versa. At the end of the day, the product is exactly the same. The only aspect that changes is the theatrics you get with Nakazawa. But as far as getting the most amazing product, that hasn't changed.

What is a typically day like for each of you?
Borgognone: Our days start in the morning, really early in the morning, I wake up at 6:00. What time do you wake up?

Nakazawa: *laughs* I wake up 8 o'clock.

Borgognone: We are always planning the day before for the next day ahead. And we're looking at our reservations, we're looking at exactly how many we're seating. We usually tend to accommodate the same amount every day to keep it consistent. Because if we go over that number, quality and consistency can change and we're not willing to take that risk. It's not really about money, it's really about giving the best product. Yeah, we can do 100 people, 120 people a night, but at the end of the day we don't choose to do that because we couldn't possibly give you what you deserve and what you expect. But there are things that are discussed every day, as far as service goes. Everyone makes mistakes, and as long as you recognize those mistakes you can grow with them.

Have there been significant changes to the restaurant over the past year?
Borgognone: As far as product goes we're pretty consistent on buying the freshest and best products on the market. But there are little changes that we make. Everybody has growing pains. We'll turn around and say, "You know, I think we made a mistake buying that glass" and we'll buy a better glass. I believe that is the key part to any successful business: not just being happy with what you have, but always trying to make it better.

Do you have any particular goals for the next year or five years here?
Borgognone: Here? I'd like to be consistent. I'd like to keep on doing what we did from day one, five years from now. I know that's difficult, but that is our main goal, and that is the philosophy that we live by everyday. We breathe and live Sushi Nakazawa.

Anything else you want to add?
Borgognone: It's an exciting first year. It really truly is equivalent to buying a lotto ticket and winning $100 million. That's really the best way of putting it, you just don't expect it. But here we're riding this wave, it's much more than a wave to us but it's probably the most exciting wave we could ride in our entire life. People in the industry work for this all of their lives, and once it's here you just don't want to let it go and you want to just keep on going.

Does that buzz put more pressure on you for the future?
Borgognone: It definitely does. We basically follow every little review that goes on because we really want to know what people are thinking and if someone is unhappy. Every little detail matters to us. And considering that we are on this level, we would like to really continue doing what we love and we really want to make sure that it is the right thing.

You have said that you've found a new chef, and are planning another restaurant. Can you tell me anything about that?
Borgognone: No, I'm not able to. But I'll promise you that you'll hear about it. When there's a little more time, you'll hear about what we're doing. I think you'll be happy with that.

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Sushi Nakazawa

23 Commerce Street, Manhattan, NY 10014 (212) 924-2212 Visit Website