Coming from Kazunori Nozawa, this wasn’t so much of a request as it was a command. At his eponymous sushi restaurant in Studio City, he set the menu every day and you weren’t given a choice on what to order—the form of dining we now all know as omakase. You were just going to have to trust that you’d like what he served you. And if you didn’t, you might find yourself thrown out.
With his counter open since 1987, Nozawa had become used to doing things his own way. He shunned garish Americanized forms like California rolls and spicy tuna for the simplicity of traditional Japanese sushi that relies on sourcing the highest-quality fish and handling it with precise technique.
His irascible style—where he objected to people dining too slow or making a wasabi-soy-sauce slurry, among other sushi sins—earned him the nickname “Sushi Nazi,” the West Coast equivalent of the “Soup Nazi” of Seinfeld fame. Not even the biggest celebrities were immune to his rules. Fresh off of filming Monster, the movie that would earn her an Oscar, Charlize Theron made one too many requests of Nozawa, and he gave her the heave-ho.
In spite of (or perhaps slightly because of) his gruff exterior, Nozawa gained a legion of fans willing to wait hours for a seat at his counter. And he had countless suitors who wanted to go into business with him to make more Sushi Nozawas. But the trust wasn’t there. He didn’t think he could find the right partner to meet his standards—at least, not until Jerry Greenberg came along.
After more than a decade of friendship, and a shared love of traditional sushi, Nozawa and Greenberg—the founder and former CEO of the marketing and consulting firm Sapient—created the restaurant Sugarfish. As it approaches its 10th anniversary this month, the restaurant has spread around Los Angeles and to a location in New York where people wait in line for hours to get in. But before they could replicate Nozawa’s signature style, they first had to deconstruct a process that took him a lifetime to learn and trust that they could put it back together again.
Just three years out of Harvard, Greenberg founded Sapient in 1990 at the tender age of 25. The success of his company earned him some perks—namely that he got to travel, and when he did he went in pursuit of the best sushi his host city had to offer. With his trusty Zagat Guide in hand—this was 1995, the dial-up Internet days, after all—he was led to a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, the kind of sprawling, sunburned place Tom Petty used to write songs about.
“I didn’t know where Studio City was, but we got in a car and found it,” Greenberg says. “First bite, and I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ I thought I was a sushi expert. I was wrong. I ate his food and realized there’s a whole other thing going on here.” He marveled at the tuna that wasn’t too fatty, the perfectly deployed ponzu sauce with scallion, and the warm, loosely packed rice that was unique to Nozawa. “That was a perfect bite of food. We went back again on that same trip. I just started eating there whenever I could.”
His persistence eventually started to crack Nozawa’s seemingly hard exterior. “People thought he was tough, but if you respected the food, and he knew I loved it, he would talk about it,” Greenberg says. “People would look at me and say, ‘You’re talking to him?’ I’d respond, ‘Yeah, he’ll talk to you!’ I’d have a piece of toro and try to guess where it was from. I guess that left an impression.”
What also left an impression is that Nozawa found out that this guy who showed up regularly on Saturdays wasn’t some local but a person so committed to his craft that he flew in from Boston just to eat at Sushi Nozawa. Eventually, Greenberg did become a local, relocating to Malibu as Sapient grew into a global business. (“How far is it from Malibu to Studio City?” his wife asked as they shopped for a new home.)
For his 35th birthday, Greenberg’s wife got Nozawa to cater the bash. “It was the greatest party of all time. All my friends were there, and he was in the kitchen cooking, which was crazy.” The sushi party would turn into a biannual tradition at his home, but for subsequent soirees, Nozawa and his wife would come as guests, as Greenberg and the old master’s friendship grew.
About a decade after first meeting, the families took a trip together to Italy—literally Nozawa’s first vacation in 40 years. In Tuscany they ate and drank wine, and one night Nozawa said to Greenberg, “We should do sushi together.” At first, Greenberg was unsure of what he meant. He asked, “Tomorrow you want to make sushi?” No, Nozawa wanted to open a restaurant.
Greenberg was resistant to the idea. “If you bet me that 15 years ago I’d be in the restaurant business, I’d have bet you anything you want,” he says. “No way. What did I know about it?” But he couldn’t shake the idea. After all, Nozawa was getting up in years. “I started thinking about that if we don’t do this together, the food and tradition goes away. He’s not going to live forever.” What if he could take that tucked-away little restaurant in the Valley and make something more accessible to more people? For Greenberg, Nozawa’s inquiry in Tuscany “was a surprising question that has led to a surprising future.”
In the basement of Greenberg’s home, the duo was joined by Nozawa’s son Tom, Lele Massimini, Cameron Broumand, and Clement Mok to figure out what this restaurant would be. For a fan of Alton Brown, it appealed to Greenberg’s sense of getting to the core of what’s important in cooking. “I’m passionate about food, but I’m also passionate about science and math.” They wanted to look at the master’s methods—all these things that had become second nature to Nozawa—then take a deep dive into his brain and measure what they could in order to see if they could distill the essence of his sushi.
“The way the fish is cut, the sauce, the rice temperature, it all had to be right,” Greenberg says. “We drove people nuts for 12 months obsessing over rice cookers. We’ve got probes in there measuring temperature, [and] then we ask, ‘How come it’s this temp this time and another temp the next time we cook?'”
They also had to dial in on the economics of sushi. A chef may buy an entire tuna at the market, but how much of that fish is up to their standards to be used in sushi? In many ways, this is how we got concoctions like spicy tuna rolls—substandard cuts of fish could be disguised by mincing it up and drowning it in spices. That’s not what they wanted to do with Sugarfish. So they observed how Nozawa butchered a fish and then weighed what he considered good enough to serve and weighed what was waste. “We throw away more fish than anyone could imagine,” Greenberg says.
A major challenge to the team was their supply chain. It’s not uncommon to hear fellow LA chefs joke with a touch of envy that Nozawa gets the best fish from the market in the morning. How could they ensure that for multiple restaurants and keep costs down? They buy all their fish centrally and then distribute themselves to their restaurants to ensure quality across all locations. They try their best to cut out middlemen overseas and work directly with suppliers for everything from nori to hamachi.
But it wasn’t just the back-end operations; they needed to figure out the shape of the restaurant itself. At that time, traditional sushi was still uncomfortable to people, so they tried to put the experience in a more accessible package. “We’re Eastern food in a Western wrapper, but we believed people in LA would love traditional sushi once they tried it.” The food would be the same, but the experience would be slightly different. Some of this was out of sheer necessity. They weren’t going to clone Nozawa and have him at each location. “We wanted to take his artisanal, one-of-a-kind skill that he’s developed over 50 years and think that we’re going to build a restaurant that can do it without him there.” So they decided to remove that classic counter experience altogether, using a layout and servers like at a non-sushi restaurant. After 12 months in Greenberg’s basement, it was time to emerge and open.
On June 23, 2008, the first Sugarfish was christened in Marina Del Rey, a neighborhood south of Venice Beach on the LA coast. At first, customers could only order the “Trust Me” set menu, with no à la carte options available. That didn’t keep people away, though. “The first six months were a bumpy ride. We were very busy out of the gates, but that wasn’t a good thing,” Greenberg says.
This being the first restaurant, they started to see the bottlenecks and flaws in the design, and being busy exacerbated them. “We got the space wrong,” he says. They had made the kitchen too small, the decor wasn’t quite right, and they didn’t have the confidence in their operations to offer à la carte menu items. After a busy start, they hit a bit of a lull, giving them time to make tweaks. They added staff so they could create hand rolls that could get out to customers fast enough after they were made to keep the nori crisp. “If we hadn’t learned from those first 10 months, we’d be out of business,” Greenberg says.
One year later, they opened a location in Brentwood with the kitchen and restaurant layout informed by what the Marina Del Rey had taught them. One the eve of their second spot, they worried about a perceived sophomore slump. “It’s an inflection point for anyone in the restaurant business to open a second location,” Greenberg says. “We thought if we’re not better, it opens up the narrative for people to say we weren’t focused or the second location isn’t as good.”
They avoided the backlash to expansion and grew more, but always in a controlled way. “There’s not going to be 100 of them; that’s not our thing,” he says. “I ran a public company for 10 years that I had started prior to Sugarfish. Being a private company is great in that we don’t have to worry about growth. We can do what we believe is in the best interests of our guests.”
Growth could only occur by managing their supply chain and ensuring they could get enough high-quality, wild-caught fish to meet their demand. They wanted to open a New York location, but that didn’t arrive until 2016, four years later than original projections. “I’m glad it took as long as it did because we weren’t ready,” Greenberg says. “We pushed it off because we didn’t have the people and supply chain in place.” When they did open, people waited hours to get a taste of the LA icon.
In 2012, after 25 years, Nozawa closed down the original location in Studio City, and it turned into a Sugarfish. It was time for him to retire after 47 years of making sushi, but he still stays active in the company he cofounded with Greenberg, focusing on the all-important task of getting the right fish for the restaurants.
As Sugarfish’s 10-year anniversary approaches, Greenberg foresees a whole new set of challenges over the next decade as sushi becomes more popular and as having the fish to sustain it becomes even harder. “I bet 10 years from now, there will be some items that we don’t serve any longer because we’ve become uncomfortable with the sustainability of those things.”
And yet, Greenberg trusts he’ll have a customer base that will evolve with them if the menu changes. After all, in this last decade, Sugarfish’s fortunes have been buoyed by the broadening of the dining public’s tastes. “Nozawa used to do snapper two ways. One was with the skin still on, blanched, with a little shiso leaf, which his wife, Yumiko, said was her favorite thing,” he says. “We tried to do that in 2008, and people wouldn’t eat it. Again in 2009? Nope. But I didn’t want to give up because it’s great. We tried it again in 2017, and people eat it. People are changing, and that’s exciting to us.”