For Yasu Hashino, chef and owner of North Phoenix's Yasu Sushi Bistro, preparing sushi is serious stuff.
"Sushi is not just my job," Hashino says. "It's bigger than that. This is about me saying to you, 'How can I show you guys what we enjoy back in Tokyo? What can I create with flavors and techniques and attitudes so you know what I know about how food can taste?'"
The 42-year-old chef came to the Valley 27 years ago from Okayama, Japan, not far from Hiroshima. He became bored with his classes at ASU, where he was studying architecture. "I started working as a dishwasher at Sushi on Shea, and then I was doing kitchen prep work," he remembers. "That was the very best sushi restaurant in Scottsdale back then. Everyone in that kitchen had passion about cooking, about sushi. My mind started to be all about cooking. After that, studying architecture was not what I wanted anymore."
Yasu Sushi opened in 2005. "I was 32 years old, with no money," Yasu recalls. "I didn't know if people would come up here to north Phoenix. Would they say, 'Let’s go eat some good sushi on Cactus Road'?"
They did, and continue to — ordering piles of Yasu’s signature cornflake shrimp and Parmigiano cream cheese scallops. Yasu is an informal Japanese gastropub, styled after the izakaya eateries of Japan. House specialties include sake-steamed clams, shrimp fondue, and eel-wrapped foie.
"I'm still doing some dishwashing and prep work," Yasu says. "Because when you own the restaurant, you have to do a little of everything."
He is unable, he admits, to leave his job behind at the end of the day. "My mind is about cooking, all the time now. My house is a library about cooking. When I go home every night after I cook, I study about cooking. This restaurant is my lifetime achievement."
Educating diners about authentic Japanese cuisine is paramount, Yasu explains. "I'm here to show how we enjoy cuisine back in Tokyo. Not many people get to travel there, so I am bringing the food here. I want to make something other than what you think you are looking for."
Yasu estimated there are about a hundred sushi bars in Arizona. "But not a lot that are serving the real good sushi," he says. "A lot of them open a frozen vacuum package and say, 'This is our happy-hour roll.' They don't care what they serve. If it's shaped like sushi, they serve it. I don't want American people to think this is Japanese food. It's not!"
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Instead, the chef insists on the unexpected. "You won't find even half of my menu anywhere else in Arizona. Even people who come from New York City or Chicago have not seen some of the things we serve."
He's keeping those out-of-towners in mind, he says, when he's preparing his menu. "I want to put on there food that a Japanese gourmet chef would recognize from home, and appreciate. I'm very picky about the details. The sake, even the wine — all authentic. I buy from small vineyards, and even the beer is all from Japan. Everything you see here, I select it — the best I can get."
The best is almost good enough, according to Yasu.
"This is my life! I am not chasing money, I'm chasing my dream — that before I die, I can make food for you that you have never had before, anywhere."