Blaise and DJ Aki of The Sushi Room on Hawaiian Poke and Liquid Smoke

Blaise Aki of The Sushi Room
Blaise Aki of The Sushi Room
Lauren Saria

This week, we're chatting with Blaise and DJ Aki of The Sushi Room in Chandler. The father-son team has been working together since as long as 18-year-old DJ Aki was old enough to help his dad with his catering business. On Monday, we got the scoop on how this Hawaiian family ended up in the middle of the desert and, today, we find out the secret to making the best Hawaiian poke salad in the state. If you missed part one, you can read it here.

See also: Umami in Tempe an Acceptable Entry to the Valley's Woefully Small Ramen Scene

Since coming to the Valley, Blaise worked at a few sushi places (including Blue Wasabi) before landing a job at The Sushi Room in February. Blaise says that though it's a small operation (particularly when you consider he once was a regional chef for Hilton), he likes how much creative freedom he gets with the menu. And it's true. You can tell with just a glance at the specials menu that he's put his personal touch on the restaurant's offerings. The best example would have to be his Hawaiian poke.

"I do the best poke in Arizona," Aki says. "A lot of what other people are missing is Hawaii salt."

Just like that he's gone, only to return with a huge white tub. He pops the lid, heaves out a burlap sack, opens it, and says, "Here, taste that."

Inside are coarse flakes of sea salt from the salt flats in ʻEleʻEle on the island of Kaua'i. The little crystals play a prominent role in Aki's poke. Or at least in the one version we tried -- he does dozens of varieties. For those unfamiliar with the dish, poke is a traditional Hawaiian dish of cubed sashimi marinated and mixed with sea salt and different types of limu (seaweed). Other common elements these days include sesame seed oil, soy sauce, onions, and chiles or chile flakes. Now that's Aki's got the salt, he's working on sourcing different types of seaweeds from the Big Island.

 

Blaise and DJ Aki of The Sushi Room on Hawaiian Poke and Liquid Smoke
Lauren Saria

And poke isn't the only island dish Blaise is making in Chandler. Lovers of Hawaiian food will be glad to know he's also making kalua pig. Traditionally, the dish is slow-cooked in an underground oven, called an imu, and though Blaise doesn't have the luxury of digging one here, he isn't going the liquid-smoke route that many places and cooks do.

"There's no liquid smoke that doesn't taste like liquid smoke," Blaise says. Instead, he smokes his pig butt in a smoker for four hours before moving it to an oven for another six.

If at this point you're wondering why he doesn't just open his own Hawaiian joint, the answer is: One day, he might. But for now, it's hard to give up a place where he effectively can have the best of both worlds. Especially since he can work with his son and still have the time and energy to hit the gym together after work.

"I used to be the one motivating him," Blaise says of his son, who he used to coach in sports. "Now it's the other way around. He's the one like, 'Come on, we gotta go,' and I'm dragging my ass."

As for DJ, who's studying criminal justice at Scottsdale Community College, cooking isn't necessarily always going to be in the cards. He wants to play football (he's a 5-foot-9 outside linebacker, in case you're wondering) or maybe become a cop. And with cooking not being his passion, it's all the more telling that he comes to work every day.

"You know, he's my son," says Blaise. "But . . . he's also a good friend."

 

Blaise Aki coaching his son DJ
Blaise Aki coaching his son DJ
Courtesy of Blaise Aki

Three things people should eat while in Portland: Blaise - Halibut fish 'n' chips, steamer manila clams, and fresh wild-caught salmon

The best thing about working with your son: Blaise - As a dad, when I see DJ really go above and beyond customer service or work really hard. he makes me so proud. As a boss, I have to hold it in and act like that's what I expect him to do, but inside I am so proud of him.

The best thing about working with you dad: DJ - I like how knowledgeable my dad is when it comes to food; it's like he knows everything about food. And I like hanging out with my dad.

One thing most people don't know about sushi chefs: Blaise - They have extremely good knife skills -- far beyond the average chef.

One thing you want people to know about The Sushi Room: Blaise - The sushi is not traditional Japanese. The Hawaiian people were pretty good with fish, too, so I would say that our food here has an island flair to it. But being different isn't a bad thing.

The best comfort food is: DJ - pancakes.

The most important ingredient when cooking Hawaiian food: Blaise - There are so few ingredients to Hawaiian cuisine, so it has to be high quality. Quality makes the difference.

One food/dish you can't get in Phoenix: Blaise - Good manapua

A good chef should always . . . Blaise - "Clean as you go."

Cooking is like football because: DJ - You need to stay focused. Every day you miss, you get slower or your knife skills start to get bad.

Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: Sacha Levine - Rancho Pinot and FnB Andrew Nienke - Cafe Monarch Kevin Lentz - French Grocery Aurore de Beauduy - Vogue Bistro Justin Olsen - Bink's Midtown Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz - Republica Empanada Brian Peterson - Cork Brian Webb - Hey Joe! Filipino Street Food Lester Gonzalez - Cowboy Ciao Renetto-Mario Etsitty - Tertio German Sega - Roka Akor Marco Bianco - Pizzeria Bianco Brad and Kat Moore - Short Leash Hot Dogs and Sit...Stay

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