Blaise and DJ Aki Chefs The Sushi Room www.sushiroomaz.com 480-821-9000
A restaurant called The Sushi Room in Chandler probably isn't where you'd expect to find some of the city's most authentic Hawaiian cuisine. But thanks to the restaurant's chef, Blaise Aki, this Japanese joint is turning out impressive versions of island-style eats in addition to sushi, Japanese specialties, and more. Aki's right-hand man is none other than his own 18-year-old son, DJ, and this week we sat down with the two to talk about how they ended up so far from the islands and the three things you have to eat when you go there. And don't forget to come back tomorrow to read part two.
There are a lot of things dads and sons typically share, be it time on couch, in the gym, or on the field. But no matter what your pop's interests are, it's safe to say that butchering fish and blow-torching rolls of sushi doesn't usually fall under the category of "typical father-son bonding."
Except that for Blaise and DJ Aki, it does.
The father-son duo spends afternoons after DJ gets out of school slinging sushi at The Sushi Room. Blaise, a culinary school grad who's been a resort executive chef and a caterer in the past, says his youngest son grew up around the restaurant business. He'd been helping his dad with prep work and catering gigs for years before he ever got behind the sushi bar at this Chandler restaurant.
"He was always my right-hand man," Blaine says.
And it's pretty clear he still is. Watching the two work together is the kind of thing that would make most people smile. Everything from their tones of voice to the subtlest hint of an eye roll oozes familiarity -- in a good way. They both know they've got a pretty sweet deal working together, even teenager DJ, a student at Scottsdale Community College.
"We don't get to hang out a lot at home," he says. "So it's nice."
It's extra sweet since spending more time with the family is part of the reason Blaise ended up in this business at all. Years ago, while still living in Hawaii, he was working two (at times, three) jobs to support his family. During the day, he'd work construction and at night, he'd cook. But with five kids and the extremely high cost of living on the islands, the situation was still far from ideal. In the end, Blaise and his wife decided he should pursue his real passion: cooking.
But to do so meant moving to the mainland.
The Akis ended up in Portland, where Blaise attended Western Culinary Institute (now, Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland).
"But I was working still, so I missed a lot of class. The only way I could pass was by sharing recipes," he says with a smile. "It's amazing what a good adobo recipe will get you."
After graduating, Aki began a catering business, preparing Hawiian-style feasts for anniversary parties, birthdays, and more. He got really good at it, too. Almost too good. The business began to really take off, he says, and he ended up putting together elaborate -- albeit not-so-authentic -- Hawaiian luau parties. But he wanted out. Eventually, the family would come to Arizona, where the bustling economy seemed promising. He got close to opening up his own restaurant before the Great Recession hit. Looking back, Blaise says he got lucky he never went through with the plan.
So how did DJ get thrown into all this? Blaise said it began when he decided to enlist his son's help cleaning up after his shifts. He told DJ he'd give him everything in his tip jar off the sushi bar in exchange for his services cleaning up. From there, he began washing dishes (like his dad, whose first job at the age of 15 was scrubbing pots) for the short-staffed restaurant, eventually earning a spot at the sushi bar. Blaise is currently training three sushi chefs, including DJ, and says his son is about 60 percent trained.
What initially drew you to the kitchen? Blaise - As the oldest in my family, I always had to cook for siblings. The kitchen was someplace I was very comfortable all my life. As I got older, making money in a kitchen didn't even seem like I was working.
One song to describe your personality: DJ - BrunoMars, "The Lazy Song," or R. Kelly, "I'm a Flirt."
If you could travel anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go and why? DJ - New York [because] the city lifestyle is so different from how I grew up in Hawaii. I want to experience the city life.
Your favorite cookbook: Blaise - Sam Choy's The Choy of Cooking
The last thing you watched/read: Blaise and DJ - We watched Riddick last week. We like that story.
The biggest misconception about living in Hawaii: Blaise - That all of Hawaii is the same. It's not. Every island is different, like sisters -- similar but with very different personalities.
The best thing about Gilbert or Chandler: DJ - The best thing about Gilbert is the green. There are more trees and grass than other towns.
What's your favorite food-related memory: DJ - Every Thanksgiving my dad and I bake pumpkin pies and give them to all our neighbors and friends.
The best thing you've ever eaten: Blaise - This will sound odd, but when I went to Mount Hood ski lodge in Oregon, I had this sweet potato soup. It was awesome, at least what I remember because I only had about three spoonfuls. My wife (girlfriend at the time) had a taste and took it from me, and I got stuck with her salad. We had only been dating about six months, so I didn't have the nerve to ask for it back, a regret that I still carry till this day. And that was 19 years ago.
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Three things people should eat while in Hawaii: DJ - Loco moco, laulau, and kalua pig.
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