MF Sushi – Chris Kinjo’s Magic Fingers
The Kinjo brothers have moved to Houston and have brought MF Sushi with them, causing lots excitement among sushi purists.
I met Chris and Alex Kinjo at the height of MF Sushi in Atlanta, but I didn’t have a chance to pick Chris Kinjo’s brain then. I’ve now had a chance to sit down with Chris and ask him the questions a regular person asks an expert. I started with the basics.
What makes good sushi great?
“The daily grind. Every day you make sure every single ingredient is prepared perfectly. From the slicing of the fish, at a perfect angle, doing the same thing over and over.”
What should I look for in sushi to know I’m having great sushi?
“Good sushi should come apart in your mouth, it should be buttery and it should melt,” replied Kinjo. “Sushi is simple, it’s just rice and fish. It should have great fish,” he added.
Where did you learn to make sushi?
“I didn’t know anything about sushi, I had no idea. I worked for Chef Muto, a 65 year-old man, my first sensei. I started out as a kitchen helper, he taught me how to cook the rice and frying things, making the miso soup. For one year it’s all I did, miso soup, I made the rice and scrubbed the floors.”
Kinjo would watch Muto talking to customers, “having fun.” “I would bring plates to the sushi bar and watch him (Muto), I’m thinking to myself, he’s not doing anything, he is just cutting fish and talking to customers and they give him tips and stuff. It’s easy. I can do that. I would watch him every chance I got. He would kick me out and finally he asked me if I was interested in sushi.” Muto then taught Kinjo how to make a rice ball, which he worked on for the next six months. “Then he taught me how to cut some fish, little small stuff, easy stuff, and it grew from there.”
On the pursuit of perfection
“I cannot say that I know everything about sushi, it’s a learning process. Every day I’m trying to perfect one detail at a time, it takes a lifetime, and I don’t think you can ever make a perfect piece of sushi. You can only try. What I mean by that is, in order to make a perfect piece of sushi you have to grow the rice yourself and cook the rice yourself. Even when you do that sometimes the timing is off, the temperature is off or something is off. Of course I can try to maintain the consistency of preparation as far as I can.”
He continued, “the second part is, do you have control of how fresh the fish is unless you went and caught it yourself? Even if you grew the rice yourself and caught the fish yourself, that’s the level of perfection. I cannot do that. But, that’s where my head is.”
“I was dedicated to discovering, dedicated to investigating. I wanted to see as much as I could. I traveled. That’s why I jumped around so many restaurants. I wanted to see more, I took that gamble and I think because of that, my knowledge is so diverse. Because I learned from so many different chefs.”
What would you like people of Houston to know about you?
“I’m just trying to do my best, the classic traditional style. I’m very serious about that and it’s very difficult for me to change my ways for money.
“Sushi is very profitable if you use cheap ingredients and call it sushi, and there is a lot of that. I’m paying $50-$80 dollars a pound of fish, many others pay $5.00 a pound for frozen stuff, imitation stuff. People should give simple sushi, traditional style a chance before they eat all those funky rolls. The rolls are fine, but you want to taste the fish, and when you add a bunch of sauces you’re covering up the flavor of the fish.
It’s not easy to find quality sushi restaurants. Out of every city maybe a handful, 4-5 restaurants are good sushi restaurants…it’s a shame.
I didn’t forget about the food, here is what I had:
First I had sashimi tuna—raw tuna pieces. The tuna was as beautiful in color as it was fresh and tender, just add a little soy and wasabe sauce.
Then I had some nigiri sushi. Wild Alaskan King salmon on rice topped with nikiri sauce. Kinjo made one piece at a time for me to eat immediately, before it fell apart. The salmon melted like butter. The entire thing just melted in my mouth, which is exactly what you want. In fact when I told Kinjo that it was like butter, he replied “thank you.” Goal accomplished.
I also tried the Osaka style roll, which originally was made with fermented or pickled fish. This one is made with fresh fish. Kinjo used a box to form the ingredients into a roll: he lightly spread some rice on the box, spread enough to allow airflow between the grains. Then a layer of spicy tuna, a thin layer of rice, then pieces of tuna and salmon topped with masago and voila! A beautiful fresh roll. Add a little soy and wasabe sauce to dip and you’re in heaven.
I learned so much more about sushi than I anticipated. I had no idea how intricate its preparation could be. Sushi seems simple enough—just fish, rice and some vegetables. But the simplicity is deceiving. Great sushi requires perfection. From forming the rice just so, to cutting a very high quality fresh fish, the balanced amount of fish and rice, and even eating it at the right time. Tiny details that are not so tiny in the sushi world.
While talking to Kinjo, I couldn’t help but feel a great sense of admiration and respect for such deep and honest devotion to an old tradition at its purest form. It was not merely an impression, it was palpable in the room. My producer said to me exactly what some have said when talking to Chris Kinjo: “I feel like I’m the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”