In March 2020, third-generation edokko sushi chef, Kunihide Nakajima, realised a life-long dream. He opened the doors of his namesake omakase restaurant, Nakaji, and its adjacent cocktail room, Bar at Nakaji, in Manhattan, only to have to quickly draw down the shutters due to pandemic restrictions. After a false start, the restaurant and bar are once again open and the family 'edokko' tradition continues.
'Edokko' simply means 'from Edo', the area later renamed 'Tokyo'. The Edo period lasted from 1603 to 1868, and was the era of the Samurai. The Nakajima family is rooted in the traditions of Edomae-style cuisine, which refers to the stretch of water in front of Edo, and the sushi made from the eel, shrimp and tuna caught there. Edomae-style sushi usually means cooking, curing or treating the fish in some way before serving it as sushi, and it is a style that Nakajima still strictly adheres to.
Fine Dining Lovers spoke to the chef about his restaurant, his food (and drink) and life during lockdown.
Can you describe your family history and how the edokko sushi tradition has been passed down through three generations?
My grandfather was a sushi chef in Tokyo and he passed his trade to his son, my father. As a young boy, my dream was not to become a sushi chef, but a gymnastics teacher. In school, I took a liking to sports and wanted to eventually teach in local schools. At 18, my father opened his own sushi restaurant and it was then that I fell in love with working in a restaurant and serving guests. I started off by helping my father in the back, cleaning and prepping. Every so often, I'd look out into the dining room and glance at the happy guests eating my father's sushi. After my 'summer internship' with my father, I decided I wanted to pursue this full-time and take on the family tradition by firstly learning our family recipes. The trade is usually passed on to the eldest son – but, in our family, I was the one chosen to take on the tradition and my brother pursued other things. It was always my father's dream to pass on our family's Edomae-style techniques and traditions and to eventually open my own namesake restaurant serving our style of sushi and continuing the legacy of our Nakajima family name.
Aged Tuna Photo Credit Melissa Hom
You originally opened just before lockdown, can you tell me about what it was like to open, close, and to navigate the whole lockdown period?
Like everyone else, the pandemic was unexpected and detrimental for any restaurant and especially to a new restaurant. So when we opened on 3 March, 2020, just two weeks before the lockdown, it came as a bit of a shock. I've had my fair share of witnessing incidents in the restaurant industry. Every time, I would just put my head down and focus on what can be done. So that's exactly what we did. With my team and partners, we learned to pivot the business and offer takeout/delivery for the first time (something we did not want to offer at Nakaji, but needed to, to survive). I am blessed to have friends and customers who have followed me from previous restaurants, to support and order our omakase boxes. We had great feedback and I was able to maintain the quality by working with my network in Japan to ship seasonal fresh fish from Japan.
Nakaji Hirame Photo Credit Melissa Hom
How does it feel to finally welcome back guests to your restaurant?
It feels great. I am happy to invite my customers back and serve them. It feels like I'm serving them in my own home and I can truly give them the full experience. A part of the Nakaji experience is to share stories of each appetiser dish and explain to them the different regions in which my fish are sourced. At my sushi counter, customers can see some of my family heirlooms such as my grandfather's wooden menu from the 1920s. The menu is hung right above my counter. The minute you walk into the alleyway and into Nakaji, you feel you are being transported back to Tokyo, Japan. This is how I want my guests to experience Nakaji. I am proud of what my partners and I have built and we look forward to welcoming our regulars and new guests.
Nakaji Needlefish Photo Credit Melissa Hom
Can you tell us about the restaurant’s location and how it fits into the community there?
We are on the Bowery in Chinatown, located right in front of the Manhattan Bridge and close to other Asian restaurants/concepts. It felt more authentic to have our restaurant near an Asian community. Also, the Bowery has a long history and nostalgia. I think fits with the traditions I want to share in Nakaji. We are located in a hidden alleyway on the Bowery that is reminiscent of old Tokyo.
Nakaji Squid Photo Credit Melissa Hom
It’s three generations that your family is serving high-quality seafood, but the future for fish and seafood produce is precarious. How will your tradition evolve as the effects of over-fishing and ocean degradation continue to change how we perceive seafood and how we serve it?
Japan is on an island where it is customary for chefs to respect seafood and fish. Chefs and Japanese people are taught to use all parts of the fish - the fillet, head, collar, tail, etc. As a fisherman, we are taught to catch only what we need and have very little waste. One of the great things about Edomae-style sushi is that the techniques of cooking include preserving, curing, and salting fish so that the meat can last for longer periods of time for consumption. These techniques were necessary in the olden days when refrigeration was not an option. I use these techniques of curing to not only preserve fish but to give the seafood a nice umami flavour. I think this mindset of no waste should be instilled around the world, where overfishing is a problem. In other parts of the world, people take only the fillet, for example, and throw away the rest of the fish, which is disrespectful and wasteful. I'm afraid the traditions will be lost as certain rare fish may become extinct unless we all take part in changing the way we source and consume.
Bar at Nakaji Whisky Photo Credit Melissa Hom
You specialise in rare whisky. Can you tell us about your passion for whisky and where it comes from?
At Nakaji, we have quite a comprehensive list of Japanese whiskies, thanks in large part to my business partner who is a Japanese whisky fan. I personally developed a love for whisky for its subtle yet complex flavours - there's a wide range of notes. Also, I prefer Japanese whisky because it tends to be drier and peatier versus Scotch. I also think it's a nice pre-sushi dinner meal drink or after meal drink, almost like an aperitif. Before dinner, I recommend enjoying a Suntory Whisky Highball which is simply Japanese Toki whisky combined with soda water. I'd like to keep this tradition because, at my father's restaurant, the old Japanese businessmen would always enjoy a glass of Mizuwari (whisky and water) right before dinner to relax.
Bar at Nakaj, Bowery Smoke Photo Credit Melissa Hom
Why is the Japanese whisky tradition so strong?
I think people respect the traditions of Japanese whisky-making because it is truly an art form. It's not just a production, it's viewed as craftsmanship. Very much like sushi making. Also, the philosophy of Japanese whisky-making is really beautiful. Japanese whisky producers believe the actual whisky takes on certain characteristics from its environment in a way that Japanese food is influenced by the seasons. Just take a look at the Yamazaki distillery which is surrounded by nature, water, and greenery. The environment in which the distillery lives gives certain flavours, aromas, and characteristics to the whisky. Even the Japanese waters affect the flavours of Japanese whisky. The tradition is also very strong because it is mainly controlled by several large producers, namely Suntory and Nikka. These producers can create hundreds of different whisky styles that are all very different, unique, and high quality. These producers create a level of consistency and maintain high standards.
Nakaji Chef's Counter Photo Credit Melissa Hom
Has the last year changed your culinary vision in any way?
I don't think it has, to be honest, but it has definitely made me more resilient. My vision was to always share and pass on Edomae-style traditions here in the US. I intend on continuing my father's legacy and sharing our family's style of sushi.