Like a magician who works with a sharp knife instead of a wand, Takeyuki Suetsugu turns ordinary produce into flowers, fishing nets, mountains, swans, and anything else his imagination allows. They accompany a wide range of Japanese dishes that keep customers coming to the chef’s modest Gig Harbor restaurant.
Suetsugu, who goes by Chef Tak, and his wife Minae, are the owners of Bistro Satsuma. The 71-year-old chef maintains centuries-old cooking traditions while daring to go where his traditionalist mentors wouldn’t have dreamed.
Just don’t call him a sushi chef.
“I am a Japanese chef,” he states emphatically.
The distinction is clearly important to the chef who takes great pride in his culinary achievements as well as the food he serves to his customers. For Chef Tak, Japanese food is more than the latest trend in sushi.
“The food behind the culture is my philosophy,” Chef Tak says. The walls of his restaurant are filled with certificates noting honorifics, achievements and awards. A member of the American Academy of Chefs, he passes on his knowledge to students in an ongoing series of cooking classes.
Spend even a few minutes with Chef Tak and it becomes clear he is a man of high standards — for himself, his staff, his customers and his students.
His wife Minae admits that can be problematic at time.
“If you work under someone else I think they fire you,” she tells him.
He smiles and then says at least he doesn’t hit any of his students like his teachers did him in Japan.
Takeyuki Suetsugu was just 18 and freshly out of high school when he started cooking in a ryokan — a traditional Japanese inn — in Osaka, a large port city between Kobe and Kyoto.
It was at the ryokan that he discovered he wasn’t like the other cooks he apprenticed with. Though the kitchen was overseen by an experienced traditional chef, the others cut corners and paid little attention to presentation.
It was the opposite direction Suetsugu wanted to go.
“When I worked night time I stayed in the kitchen to learn,” Chef Tak recalls.
Soon he was studying cooking at the Tsuji Culinary Academy in Osaka while apprenticing at the ryokan.
Japanese food, like much of its culture, was based on tradition leading up to World War II. Apprentices would spend years learning how to cook exactly like their mentors who had learned to cook exactly like their mentors.
But like many of his generation in early 1960s Japan, Chef Tak was ready for something new. And he figured America is where he would find it.
He also badly wanted to own and drive a car, which Japan had few of in those days.
Told he didn’t have enough experience to work in America, Chef Tak first went to France. While working in a Japanese restaurant he also learned French techniques that still subtly work their way into his cuisine.
COMING TO AMERICA
After returning to Japan in 1967 Chef Tak once again applied for a visa to the U.S. The older, female acquaintance who took him to the U.S. Embassy was also escorting her young niece that day. It was the first meeting for Takeyuki and Minae but romance would have to wait.
Minae arrived in America first and was soon working as a server in her uncle’s restaurant in Denver.
“I wanted to be in America to learn English. I didn’t think I would stay forever,” Minae says.
With just $135 in his pocket Chef Tak arrived three months later and began working in the same restaurant.
Today, 48 years later, the couple has one daughter and two grandsons who live in Bothell.
The Suetsugus opened their first Washington restaurant, Satsuma Restaurant in Burien, in 1976. In the late 1980s they owned restaurants in Denver. They returned to Seattle to run Nikko Restaurant in The Westin Seattle hotel from 1997 to 2002. In 2003 they opened Bistro Satsuma in Gig Harbor.
It was at his Burien restaurant that Chef Tak says he invented the Washington Roll. The maki (rolled style) sushi contains smoked salmon, crab (or an imitation thereof), tobiko (flying fish roe), and apple among other ingredients. The roll was a hit and has been imitated all over the state, Chef Tak says.
With chefs preparing sushi in supermarkets today it may be hard to believe that the food was considered as strange as it could get for most Americans in the 1970s. The country was just beginning to discover that sushi, much of which is composed of raw fish, was more than just a punchline.
The Suetsugus didn’t start serving sushi in their Burien restaurant until two years after it opened. The food didn’t really catch on in Washington until the late 1980s, Minae says.
Today maki, or rolled sushi, is a no-holds-barred world of ingredients. But most Japanese think of nigiri, a molded ball of rice with a piece of fish on top, when they think of sushi, Minae says.
“I never forget old style cuisine,” Chef Tak says. The basic foundations of Japanese cuisine are unchanged in his kitchen. Dashi, a seaweed and fish-based broth used in many dishes, is made from scratch. Daikon, a large Japanese radish, is finely shredded by knife, not by a grater or mandolin.
“Some Japanese chefs say ‘Americans don’t know the difference’,” Chef Tak says.
“But we know the difference and we have customers who can tell,” Minae says.
From his stock elements Chef Tak says he’s free to create new dishes, such as steamed salmon served with kabocha (Japanese squash) puree. It looks French but tastes Japanese.
One of Chef Tak’s kitchen staples is sweet/savory tama miso. It’s produced from ordinary shiro miso and a number of ingredients, notably egg. The process takes four to five hours on a double boiler. Chef Tak serves it on various dishes. One version is mixed with spinach puree and served on eggplant.
In another dish Chef Tak wraps lobster tail in nori seaweed, dips it in egg and then deep fries it. It’s served with a sauce made from five different kinds of mushrooms.
One of Chef Tak’s most popular dishes is Ika Satsuma: squid sauteed in oil and unsalted butter with white pepper and soy sauce. It’s served with mushroom and zucchini.
“Since 1977 I’ve sold over $2 million of it,” Chef Tak says of Ika Satsuma which he first made at his Burien restaurant. Minae gives him a skeptical look but Tak insists the figure is correct.
Chef Tak has prepared large banquet style meals for corporate clients and the Consulate-General of Japan in Seattle. He will also, if requested, prepare a multi-course Kaiseki style dinner — but only if he thinks the customers will appreciate the expensive and time consuming meal.
PLEASING THE EYE
There are four major components of a traditional Japanese meal, the Suetsugus say: Taste, atmosphere, dishware and presentation. Secondary components would include regionality and seasonality.
Chef Tak won’t name names but he’s disappointed when he dines out at local restaurants and food is simply thrown on a plate. Food should be a delight for the eyes as well as the palate.
Like Michelangelo freeing sculptures from a block of marble, Chef Tak can transform the humble daikon radish into a crane, turtle, crab, chrysanthemum or fishing net. That last one is particularly delicate work.
Using only a knife, Chef Tak thinly carves the daikon into a paper thin roll. It’s a technique he’s used since he was a teenager. When he was in cooking school he and his fellow students had to stand on a bridge and slowly slice a daikon into a long roll. It had to stay intact before it touched the river below.
After he has enough daikon he lacerates it with a careful pattern until it looks like it could be used to catch the fish he sells in his restaurant.
He can also make a net out of a carrot. Or turn an apple into a checkerboard or a cucumber into a vase.
The chef doesn’t have time to create elaborate garnishes for every dish he serves. But most come with something even if it’s a flower cut by hand from a carrot.
The knives he uses are stored in a velvet lined box. One is long enough to almost pass as a Samurai sword. Others have shrunk by several inches over the years, worn down by the nightly sharpening he gives them on a whetstone. He never cuts himself.
“A sharp knife doesn’t cut a finger,” Chef Tak says. “A dull knife does.”
“He doesn’t cut his finger on knives,” Minae pipes in. “It’s always something else.”
Chef Tak wants to keep working until his 80s. His legacy, he says, is to impart his knowledge on new generations of cooks.
“He says he doesn’t want to die with his skills. He wants to give his recipes and his techniques to the people,” Minae says.
It’s never been about the money, the couple says.
“He always says, do not chase the money. The money comes to you,” Minae says seated at a table next to her husband during the restaurant’s off hours.
The chef nods his head. “American people are always chasing the money.”
IF YOU GO
Where: 5315 Point Fosdick Drive NW, Gig Harbor
Contact: 253-858-5151, bistrosatsuma.com
Yield: Makes 5 or 6 pieces
• Cooked short grain white rice
• Sushi vinegar, to taste
Ingredients for each roll, adjust to taste:
• 1/4 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
• 1 sheet roasted nori
• 1 thin strip smoked salmon
• 2 thin slices apple, julienned
• 5-6 cucumber slices, julienned
• 1 teaspoon shredded crab or surimi mixed with mayonnaise
• Small spoonful of tobiko (fish roe)
How to make sushi rice: Cook rice in rice cooker or on a stove in the standard way. When done, spread rice out in a flat container, such as a casserole dish. Mix with sushi vinegar to taste.
Making the roll (maki): You will need a bamboo sushi rolling mat, plastic wrap and a sharp knife
To make the roll: Cover the mat with plastic wrap. Lay a sheet a nori on it, shiny side down. Spread just enough rice to cover entire sheet evenly. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Carefully flip seaweed/rice combo so that seaweed side is face up. Put each remaining ingredient in a line down center of nori, length-wise. Roll the rice and nori (but don’t use mat) over the filling until only a strip of the nori is visible. Then use mat to cover roll and press firmly, still leaving the nori strip exposed. Roll back mat and roll the maki forward and over the nori strip. Then repeat pressing firmly with mat. Use the knife to cut into five or six pieces.