Sen Sakana is a relatively new entrant to the New York restaurant scene, but it has already earned raves for its thoughtful mashing up of the bright seafood of Nikkei cuisine (a Japanese-Peruvian hybrid rooted in years of history) with classic uptown fine dining. The highlight of the experience? The sushi bar – which combines delicate pieces of fish with bold yet balanced Peruvian and Japanese flavors. The individual behind the sushi bar?
That would be Sang Hyun Lee.
Lee is a Korean-born chef who fell for sushi at a young age. Through a lot of perseverance and grit, he was able to work under some of the country’s top sushi chefs, including, most recently, Kazuo Yoshida of 1 or 8 and Juku in New York. While sushi is now old hat for Lee, the Nikkei cuisine at Sen Sakana has been an exciting new challenge.
The two of us sat down one snowy afternoon and split a very delightful Japanese Belgian-style ale called Kagua (more about this in the interview), and discussed the differences between Japanese and Peruvian beers, the best beer to pair with sushi (the answer will shock you!), and Lee’s very fascinating journey to becoming a chef in New York.
You’re doing a mash-up of Peruvian and Japanese cuisine at Sen Sakana, which is something totally new to you. What’s the history behind that combination?
It’s called Nikkei cuisine. In the late 1800s, about 3,000 Japanese people moved to Peru to work on railroads and sugarcane farms. Most of these people were supposed to just work for a few years and then go back, but they loved Peru so much they stayed. More people kept coming, and now, Lima has the second biggest population of Japanese people outside of Japan (the first is Sao Paolo). Japanese people started teaching Peruvian people all these ways to prepare different kinds of coastal seafood – especially varietals like octopus, which Japanese people love, but Peruvian people hadn’t really been eating. That’s how Nikkei cuisine was born.
We have plenty of light beers, of course, like Sapporo, which are really easy to drink.”
So you’ve been able to get really creative with flavors. What’s an example of a Nikkei dish that you all serve?
I do a sashimi with madai, a type of sea bream, topped with aji Amarillo, a Peruvian pepper sauce, and ume, which is Japanese plum paste. It is very subtle, with a mild spice. Madai is a lean fish, but it still has a good amount of fat – so that fatty flavor and the mellow spice go together really well.
How did you wind up as a sushi chef?
Sushi has been my favorite food since I was six years old, when I first tasted raw fish growing up in Korea. I think that raw fish fat is such a delicate flavor, and it melts so easily with the human body temperature. Something like blue fin toro or tuna belly – the way it disappears in your mouth like cotton candy. No taste is better. I started out working at a Korean restaurant, but I quickly realized I couldn’t stand the physical heat of the kitchen. I sweat a lot! Being a sushi chef worked out perfectly – there is no heat or stove, and plus, I love raw fish, and the simplicity that comes with making sushi.
When did you come over to the U.S.?
September 11, 2001, interestingly enough. I was headed to Boston, and had a connection through JFK. We were an hour away from JFK airport when we had to turn back and emergency land in Minneapolis. I didn’t really know what was going on. I ended up stuck in a Ramada Inn in Minneapolis for two days, watching the TV and thinking that what I was seeing with the towers was a Hollywood movie. I didn’t have a cell phone, I couldn’t call my family – they were so worried. After those two days, my plane ended up being the first one to take off after 9/11, and then I rented a car and drove to Boston. That’s where I got my first kitchen job.
Is that when you realized you wanted to be a chef?
I honestly didn’t really have a choice. At that point, I had no papers. I was an illegal immigrant. Working at a restaurant was the best shot I had at a job. It worked out that I just so happened to get a job at a sushi bar in Boston. And I’ve been doing sushi ever since.
Let’s talk about beer. Do you serve both Japanese and Peruvian beers here?
Yes. We have tons of Japanese beers, in particular. There’s this one called Kagua that I love – it’s a Belgian-style beer that’s a little sweet and fruity, with a strong orange flavor. We have plenty of light beers, of course, like Sapporo, which are really easy to drink. In terms of Peruvian beer, my favorite is Cusqueña – it’s basically like the Sapporo of Peru.
Do you see any similarities between Japanese and Peruvian beers?
Aside from the lagers that I just mentioned, not really. Japanese beers seem to have a lot more flavor. They pull influences from more countries – there are Belgian-style beers, IPAs. Though I will say that my knowledge of Peruvian beers is more limited than my knowledge of Japanese beers – I have a lot to learn.
Is beer big in Japanese culture?
Yes! There are a lot of microbreweries popping up in Japan that are really great. I think, in general, the Japanese are just very good at everything. Once they get into a practice, whether it is beer or sake or whisky, it becomes this family thing that is passed down from generation to generation. There is this real sense of craftsmanship in everything they do. Japan is also so open to other cultures, so you get beers that are really diverse.
Do you have a favorite Japanese microbrew?
I love Kiuchi Brewery in Naka. They do a beer called Hitachino Nest White Ale, which has these nice citrusy notes with hints of earthy mushroom. It’s a little bit funky, and it goes great with seafood.
Do you have a go-to beer on your nights off?
There is a Belgian beer called Pauwel Kwak. It’s a heavy beer, but it’s not a stout. It’s strong, sweet, and smooth – just so comforting. They serve it in this really cool glass that balances on a wooden stand. I once saw someone drinking it at a bar and thought the glass looked unique, so I ordered it. Now I love it. It’s very aromatic. It’s a great dessert beer. You can’t drink more than two, as it’s really filling, but it is very well balanced.
I’ve heard about sushi and sake and sushi and champagne as pairings, but not too much about sushi and beer. What are your thoughts?
They definitely go well together! The bubbles in beer nicely balance the fattiness of the fish, and refresh your palate.
When I explain flavors to my cooks, I talk about making a movie. You have to pick a main character & supporting roles.”
What beers would you recommend people pair with sushi?
Light beers, like lagers. I wouldn’t do anything too strong. Too much flavor in a beer will overpower the delicate flavor of the fish. We have all of these great Japanese and Peruvian light beers, but right now I’m thinking about how awesome a crisp Modelo would taste with sushi. Wow.
What’s your favorite Peruvian-Japanese sushi roll you’ve come up with since you’ve been at Sen Sakana?
I make something called an Acevichado Maki – it’s a type of dish that’s in every Nikkei restaurant in Peru. It’s basically a sushi roll with ceviche in it surrounded by some kind of mayo-based sauce. I wanted to make a version that was a little less rich and saucy. So I do a roll inspired by the freshness of a Vietnamese spring roll – it has shrimp, avocado, mango, and basil, with a slice of scallop on the top. And then there’s a sweet potato puree on the bottom, along with a sauce that has oil, lime juice, garlic, ginger, yuzu kosho [fermented chili paste], and aji amarillo. There are a lot of flavors going on, but it’s really refreshing, and attractive to look at. It’s one of our most popular rolls.
What does making sushi have in common with brewing beer?
When I explain flavors to my cooks, I talk about making a movie. You have to pick a main character and supporting roles – you have to know in any dish what the main character is, otherwise the flavors get muddled. It’s the same thing with beer. There’s got to be a central flavor, and then other flavors that balance it out and enhance it. That’s the key to making anything taste good, really.
Do you have dreams of opening your own sushi place one day?
Yes! I want to open up an inexpensive maki restaurant. When I came to this country, I was shocked at how poorly kids ate – there is no culture of healthy food for them. They all depend on fast food. Sushi is such a kid-friendly food; it’s fun to eat, the rice is sweet and sour, which is kids’ favorite flavor. But sushi is expensive. I’d love to set up an affordable spot where kids and families could come in at any time of the day and grab simple maki instead of a burger.