“We do not serve American rolls.”
These are the words you’ll see written on a chalkboard right before you walk into Ikko. Unlike most sushi restaurants in America where we are accustomed to seeing California and Volcano rolls, Chef Ikko Kobayashi is more interested in preserving tradition — with a twist.
It’s a Thursday afternoon and I arrive at 2:30 p.m. sharp at Kobayashi’s restaurant, eponymously named “Ikko” in Costa Mesa, California. Lunch service has just ended and Chef Kobayashi and his Head Chef are already prepping for dinner service.
“Domo!” they greet us as we walk in.
Kobayashi is a bit of a legend in Orange County. Any list online that ranks OC’s best sushi restaurants rarely forgets to include Ikko. His style of sushi, which he calls “freestyle sushi,” blends traditional Japanese sushi with sprinkles of French fine dining. After all, Kobayashi’s first job in the kitchen was at a French restaurant in Japan years before he found his passion for sushi.
Aside from the usual nigiri sushi rolls, Kobayashi will present you with rolls using unorthodox ingredients including foie gras or A5 Miyazaki beef. Being able to combine ingredients not typically found in sushi and make it work gives us a glimpse of Kobayashi’s genius.
“What do we have here?” Takashi Kawabe, Head Chef of Ikko, asked me while pointing at the box I’m carrying.
“This is the rice cooker we’ll be shooting with today,” I replied.
Zojirushi is an iconic Japanese company known for their appliances including rice cookers, insulated mugs and water boilers. NextShark was lucky enough to recently land a paid collaboration opportunity with them to promote one of their flagship rice cookers, the NP-HCC10.
Anyone who has ever used a Zojirushi product will usually tell you great things about it. This is a company that has been around since 1918 and is still going strong to this day. Search on Google for any list of the best rice cookers and the Zojirushi brand will almost always be on it. So, you can imagine our excitement when we were given the opportunity to work with such a legendary brand.
Coincidentally, Chef Kobayashi himself has used a commercial Zojirushi rice cooker in his kitchen since his restaurant opened in 2004. Ikko rarely closes, so after using it three times a day, everyday, for nearly 365 days a year, that same unit is still running perfectly after over 10 years.
“I like Zojirushi because of its high functionality and performance,” Kobayahi said. “Most anyone with basic knowledge of cooking rice can make good tasting rice with Zojirushi. Best of all, it is reliable. It has never failed on me ever since I purchased mine.”
Usually, restaurants will use a gas rice cooker because it’s a lot bigger and some may argue that it can produce better rice.
“We believe we can achieve the same or even better quality rice with an electric cooker,” Kawabe said.
“Can you even buy a gas rice cooker at a store?” I asked.
“No, it’s commercial only,” Kawabe replied.
“Usually, a commercial rice cooker is gas, but we don’t have space for it,” Kobayashi said.
The unit Zojirushi sent was a personal home unit, so we figured the best way to showcase this bad boy was to have Chef Kobayashi and Kawabe show us how to make top notch sushi rice at home.
“Sugoi!” the two chefs yell out as they unbox the unit and inspect it. They took about one minute looking through the manual to familiarize themselves with the product.
Chef Kawabe then runs to the back to prepare the rice grains for washing. For sushi, they use a brand of Koshihikari rice that can be easily found at a local Japanese market or even regular Asian markets.
“What is the best way to wash sushi rice?” I ask as he puts the rice in a strainer.
“The key is to wash it until all the water is clear,” he replied. “Leaving the water cloudy could leave the rice tasting starchy and it won’t have the shine you want.”
He then took his right hand, spread each of his fingers, forming almost like a claw, and made circular motions to wash the rice as he ran the water.
“Do this for about 5 – 6 times to get the clear water you need,” he said as he washed the rice and drained the water.
Once the rice is washed, Kawabe comes back out to prepare to cook it. Ironically, the commercial unit they use in the kitchen lacks all the cool features that the home unit has. Chef Kobayashi says that commercial units need to be big enough to serve a lot of people and be, most importantly, reliable. Having more features increases the chance for technical issues, especially on the scale a restaurant like Ikko uses.
While the chefs are experienced enough to know how much water to use and how long to cook it by simply eyeballing it, this particular unit has all the measurements marked already based on how much rice you want to cook, as well as a setting to cook sushi rice. Chef Kobayashi puts the rice in, selects the sushi setting, and presses the cook button. The digital display reads that the rice will be ready in 40 minutes.
As we wait, I take some time to get to know more about Chef Kobayashi’s background. After leaving his job at the French restaurant. He went to the U.S. to pursue a career in music. He was a guitarist for a band that toured around California before he discovered his passion for sushi in 1984. He learned from watching other sushi chefs he worked for, by trial and error, and reading books.
“There was no internet at the time,” Kobayashi said with a laugh.
“How come you didn’t apprentice for a sushi master? Isn’t that how most sushi chefs start?” I asked.
“The generation was different back then,” Kawabe interjected. “Those guys will never teach you — you just watch and learn. Some people get it and some don’t. Those who do, will become their own chef, others will continue working for someone else. It’s different now, though.”
“You need to dedicate yourself to the craft for a minimum of five years. If you are serving Japanese customers, they will easily know if you are good or not from the first bite,” he added.
When world-renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa was about to open Nobu Malibu, Ikko went in to apply for a job as a sushi chef. Coincidentally, Matsuhisa himself was there and interviewed Kobayashi personally. He was hired on the spot.
“He told me, ‘You start tomorrow, ok?'” Kobayashi said.
Being the busy man he is, Matsuhisa didn’t have time to directly train Ikko, but he learned a lot from watching him work and the customers he served.
“I got to watch him a lot in the kitchen, he’s incredible, really fast. I learned a lot just from observing him,” Ikko said when talking about what it was like working with Matsuhisa.
“Nobu had many high-end customers, including celebrities and executives, so they tend to know what’s good and what’s not,” Ikko said.
Right then, the phone rings and Kawabe runs over to pick it up. Since the servers are gone after service, both chefs need to take down reservations themselves.
Although Kobayashi learned a lot and even gained a small following during his time at Nobu, one of his biggest pet peeves was making American rolls. When he first came to the U.S., he noticed almost all sushi restaurants served American rolls.
“Everyone had the same menu, like chicken teriyaki, California rolls, all that stuff,” he said.
“To me, sushi is nigiri,” Kobayashi said. “This is why I started my own restaurant. I didn’t want to make American rolls.”
“There are so many sushi restaurants in the world, but what makes sushi great?” I asked.
“There are a few things,” Kawabe says as he walks back to us. “The rice has to be fluffy, airy, with the perfect temperature, the fish needs to be cut well, otherwise it won’t have that shine you want.”
“If the rice is way too big, it’s not going to work. If it’s too small, then it’s too much fish,” he added.
“And also how much wasabi is in it,” Kobayashi interjects.
“Oh yes!” Kawabe says. “If the fish is fattier, we put more wasabi, if the fish is leaner, especially octopus, shrimp, and squid, we will put less.”
“But these are the basic principles. What separates just ‘good’ sushi from world class?” I asked.
Both chefs paused for a little bit, they then looked at each other and started a conversation in Japanese. I wasn’t sure exactly what they were saying, but it looked like an intense discussion. As this is happening, the rice is almost done and steam is coming out of the rice cooker.
After what felt like 10 -15 minutes of discussion, the two men turned towards me.
“It’s the balance,” Kawabe said. “Everyone can use the same ingredients, but the fish, rice, wasabi, and soy sauce has to be balanced the best. The more balanced it is, the greater the sushi is. Taking sushi to the next level is trying to perfect that balance in each piece.”
Suddenly, a tune played on the rice cooker and the digital display read “0.” The rice was finally ready.
“Some sushi has huge chunks of fish, but it’s really that balance that makes sushi great. Being able to get all these ingredients to complement each other is how you achieve umami,” Kobayashi added.
As Kobayashi opens the lid, a waft of steam floats up to his face. Kawabe looks through the manual and sees that it advises you to use the rice paddle to make even fours with the rice.
“Why are they asking you to do that?” I asked as he starts doing it.
“Um, I actually have no idea,” Kawabe says as we all burst out laughing. “I was just following the directions.”
“How would you guys do it?” I asked.
Kawabe then takes the rice paddle and starts fluffing the rice.
“You don’t want the rice to be sticky, the rice needs air,” Kawabe says. “Fluffing will put air in between the rice grains, that way, when you put a piece of sushi in your mouth, it will immediately disintegrate in your mouth instead of you biting into this hard clump of rice.”
From there, he transfers the rice into a big wooden bowl, adds his vinegar mixture, and starts fluffing it more, slowly mixing it together.
Ikko uses a special in-house blend that includes Yusen branded red vinegar, but he says any sushi vinegar available at your local Asian supermarket should suffice if you’re making it at home.
“How do you know when the sushi rice is ready?” I ask as Kawabe lightly fluffs the rice, making sure not to mash it.
“When you separate most of the rice from each other and all the individual chunks are gone,” he replies.
Once he’s done, he takes a small clump of rice in his hands and tastes it.
“Wow, sugoi!” Kawabe yells out.
Kawabe hands me some rice to try and I quickly taste it. I thought it was very good. The rice was perfectly cooked, the vinegar wasn’t overpowering, and the temperature was perfect.
Kobayashi comes over and gives himself a taste, nods his head and mutters something in Japanese.
“Is this up to your standards?” I asked.
The chefs have a brief discussion, then Kawabe turns to me and says:
“It’s slightly harder than we want it to be, but, that’s because we eyeballed the water ratio. If we had followed the measurements listed inside the cooker, I think it would’ve turned out completely perfect. But it still turned out great.”
“What should the temperature of the rice be?” I ask.
“It’s supposed to be just a little bit warmer than room temperature,” he replied.
As Kawabe is explaining, Kobayashi takes the rice and transfers it into a smaller wooden bowl. He then takes a small clump of rice and starts making nigiri sushi with it.
“How much rice do you typically use for one piece?” I ask.
“It depends on the chef, but the way I was taught is that each roll should weigh about 12-14 grams,” Kawabe said. “The chef I trained under once made me count each grain of rice in one piece. It was between 211 – 214 grains of rice per piece.”
Unlike most sushi places Americans are used to, Ikko doesn’t serve soy sauce and wasabi on the side. As mentioned previously, he believes that great sushi is being able to balance all the ingredients into one piece.
“I think merging fish, wasabi, rice and soy sauce is the ideal way to make sushi,” Kobayashi said. “I believe it’s a way to test the chef’s ability and technique.”
“I’m still learning after all these years. There are many talented young chefs in Japan and the world. There are many different ways to go about it, but for me, I’ve always been going about it this way,” he added.
As our crew took turns munching on the sushi, both chefs start cleaning up to prepare for dinner service. As we prepare to leave, I see Kobayashi diligently wiping his new rice cooker down.
“I’ll continue using our commercial unit, but will have this as a backup from now on,” he said.
“Where are you going to put the unit now?” I asked.
“Right next to its big brother of course!” he said with a laugh.
I follow Chef Kobayashi outside as he puts up his famous sign in front of his restaurant. The last thing I ask him is what his long-terms goals are after all these years of success. Will he chase a Michelin star? Expand into different locations? Find more ways to make money?
“I don’t need to be successful, I just want to continue serving dishes that I can express myself in,” he replies simply.
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Photography by Melly Lee