Co-Owner: Sugarfish by Sushi Nozawa
11640 San Vicente Blvd
Brentwood, CA 90049
Yelp: 4 stars
Interview Date: Monday, July 19, 2010
Emanuele “Lele” Massimini is originally from Rome, and began working in restaurants when he was 13 years old, washing dishes. He has been in the restaurant business ever since, and he and friend Jerry Greenberg, the founder of Sapient, were frequent diners at Nozawa. Chef Kazunori Nozawa is known as the “Sushi Nazi” in some circles, and he is known for his “Trust Me” slogan that exposes guests to what Chef Nozawa says is the traditional art of sushi.
Lele says that one day Chef Nozawa approached Jerry and him about a new idea he had for serving the same high-quality sushi served at Nozawa for half the price. It was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up, so, with the addition of a fourth partner, Sugarfish by Nozawa began development. “Nozawa is the president of the company and is 100% in charge of everything that you eat and the menu,” says Lele. His son, Tom Nozawa, serves as Chef Nozawa’s eyes and ears in the kitchen, while Lele manages the front of the house.
“Nozawa is always the first guy at the fish market – he wakes at 4:30 a.m. each day and spends 2-3 hours at the fish market selecting the best fish available,” says Lele. “His ability to always pick the best fish is incredible. He is so admired, and it is very stimulating to work with someone who you look up to.” According to Lele, after selecting the fish, Chef Nozawa prepares it for his restaurants and then takes a catnap in his chair before the lunch rush. Another catnap before the dinner rush, and he’s ready to go. From the sounds of it, he sleeps just a few hours at night.
“He puts so much of his soul into this food,” says Lele. “Eating is a sacred moment for him.”
As for Lele, he maintains what he calls a “normal restaurant schedule.” He manages all service and front-of-house operations at both Sugarfish locations. Lele says that Tom, who has worked in his father’s restaurants since childhood, makes sure that the food served at Sugarfish meets his dad’s high standards. For example, most sushi restaurants create sushi rice in large batches a few times a day. Chef Nozawa believes that sushi rice should be loosely packed and fresh, so the rice at his restaurants are cooked in small batches and discarded after 20 minutes. “The health inspectors are always blown away by that,” says Lele. “Old rice is usually the first mark against other sushi restaurants.”
Chef Nozawa’s high standards require some explanation for guests who are used to American sushi, which has quickly grown from an exotic food to something that you can find in the refrigerated section at your supermarket, 7-11, and even at some gas stations. For example, the rice is lightly packed, which makes it hard for some people to pick it up with chopsticks.
The menu is based on Chef Nozawa’s interpretation of the Japanese tradition of omakase, in which the master chef determines the menu. There are no caterpillar rolls or anything else that strays from the simple combination of fish, rice and seaweed. “Our concept is bringing high-quality sushi at a price that is more affordable,” says Lele. The team accomplishes this task through a combination of elements, including labor and real estate.
Sugarfish was first opened in Marina del Rey in June of 2008. “The economy happened while we were in construction,” says Lele. “But we moved ahead and consistently increased our revenues from Day 1.”
Lele also says they learned a lot in the first eight months of operating. “We had a lot of rules before,” says Lele. “Fish is a high-priced ingredient, and so we required people to order the ‘Trust Me’ menu so that we could control inventory and control the price point. Then we learned how to keep control without requiring our guests to order the ‘Trust Me’ menu.”
The Brentwood location was opened in June 2009 and both restaurants now offer both a ‘Trust Me’ menu and a la carte options. The team is working on another location this Fall, followed by a fourth in the Winter. “We have to make sure that with each expansion we can ensure the same high-quality fish supply,” says Lele. He says that the farthest they are considering for expansion is San Francisco because it would mean a short 1 hour flight for either himself or Tom to fly up for support.