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Updated Friday, January 18, 2013 at 03:44 PM

Shiro's chef dreams of sushi, too; in fact he was Jiro's apprentice

By Nancy Leson
Seattle Times food writer

DAISUKE NAKAZAWA'S grin widened when I ordered "omakase" at Shiro's last June — giving the 34-year-old sushi chef, newly arrived from Tokyo, the go-ahead to show me what he's got.

What he didn't have was command of the English language. Smiling and nodding, he presented me with Spanish mackerel ("sawara!") and fresh Hood Canal shrimp ("amaebi!"), then, at meal's end, handed-off a pair of tamago nigiri, crowing, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi!"

"Yes," I said, admiring the thick cut of his sweet omelet. "I saw that documentary," an homage to Jiro Ono, the elderly owner of a 10-seat sushi bar in a Ginza district subway station — and the man some call the world's greatest sushi chef.

"Jiro Dreams of Sushi!" Daisuke repeated, when it was clear I'd missed his point. "That's me!"

I failed to recognize this smiling sushiman as the film's solemn senior apprentice who famously recounted making tamago under the stern eye of Jiro Ono: months of failure, 200 rejections and, finally, approval.

"I was so happy I cried," the subtitle read.

So, what is Daisuke doing in Seattle after 11 years under the tutelage of Shiro Kashiba's longtime friend and mentor?

"Jiro has successors. Shiro doesn't have any," explains a translator speaking for the majority owner who bought Shiro's in 2007. "We want Shiro to keep working," as he does three nights a week, "but we need a next generation."

"I'm a lucky boy," adds Daisuke, recruited to sustain the tradition of edomae sushi — the classics, hold the mango-tango roll — under Shiro's Belltown banner.

Since his arrival, he's been an enthusiastic student of ESL, and learned to chide pickled-ginger-scarfing patrons with Shiro-esque wit, noting that palate refresher is meant "to change taste; it is not a salad!"

He's appeared with Shiro at community events and shared Jiro's secrets with his colleagues, showing them how to smoke king mackerel over hay. And he expresses his naturally ebullient character, says Shiro, when he jokes, "bluefin, the Wagyu beef of sushi!"

Daisuke was 19 when he got his first job at a suburban sushi joint. He gave it up to work as a "salaryman" for an Internet company, leaving that job to take on two more: waking at 4:30 a.m. to schlep tuna carcasses at Tsukiji market, then working nights in a restaurant.

He married on his 23rd birthday, about the time Jiro Ono placed a want ad for an apprentice. "Lucky boy" got the job at Sukiyabashi Jiro — which later earned three Michelin stars.

For the first three months, he recalls, "It was all cleaning, all obeying, saying 'Yes, yes,' and never talking back." By the fourth month he was allowed to handle fish. It was five years before he stood behind the sushi bar assisting Jiro and his son.

Daisuke says working for Jiro gave him the confidence to apply for a job overseas, uproot his wife and children, and embark on a career he loves — but would not wish on his sons. "You work too hard."

At Sukiyabashi Jiro, where patrons pay $300-plus for omakase, the experience is more about reverence than revelry. There, "their ultimate goal is deliciousness," said Daisuke. At Shiro's, "It's about enjoyment and entertainment."

Shiro, 71, says his ambitious new hire has what it takes to spread the gospel of old-school sushi in America. As for Daisuke, "My dream," he says, "is to be the No. 1 sushi chef in the U.S."

Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times' food writer. Reach her at nleson@seattletimes.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.


BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Direct from Tokyo where he apprenticed for sushi giant Jiro Ono, Daisuke Nakazawa is now in Seattle, taking his place alongside our own sushi master, Shiro Kashiba.




BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
It took months for Daisuke to learn to make a proper tamago. That sweet omelet is seen here layered over sushi rice.








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