Sushi is so much more than the act of rolling fish and rice in nori; it is a historic culinary art, honed to perfection by generations of sushi chefs. Its preparation can take on personal meaning, too. For Chef Young Son of TORA, sushi not only allows him to express his creativity, but present the abundant flavors of nature in their purest form. To understand the perspective of a sushi master, we reached out to Chef Young. Here’s what he had to say regarding the art of sushi, as well as his broader culinary philosophy.
Hugh Nutter-Nabert: What first inspired you to pursue a career in cooking?
Young Son: Nature has always been my muse when it comes to cooking, and there is nothing more natural than the act of eating. In South Korea, the landscape is so vast and varied, and offers so many beautiful nourishments. You can forage for interesting ferns in mountainous regions; the sea yields so much abundance, from kelp to fish and crustaceans, and the farms offer really high-quality proteins and produce. All these things around me inspired a desire to create delicious nourishments, while respecting the natural flavors and textures.
HNN: When do you believe you truly came into your own as a chef?
YS: Although I’ve been cooking for as far back as I can remember, I initially felt like I came into my own in South Korea, at one of the restaurants I was heading up. I had a little more creative freedom, but there was still a lot of replicating someone else’s recipes. As I learned and grew within the Aburi Restaurants group in Canada, I ultimately landed at TORA. This is where I truly feel like I’ve had so much license to be creative, and pour my personal food stories and techniques into the dishes.
HNN: What do you consider the most challenging aspect of your job?
YS: As with anything in life, the most challenging aspects are any curveballs that are out of your control. The pandemic proved to be the biggest challenge recently, as it has been for so many, regardless of position or industry. As a leader at TORA, it has been a constant balancing act of trying to keep team spirit high while constantly innovating to try and stay ahead of the volatile COVID-related restrictions. Whether it’s creating fun new DIY home meals like our Temaki Kits, or checking in with staff to make sure they are doing okay, there’s a lot of juggling business and people skills.
HNN: What’s the atmosphere like in TORA’s kitchen?
YS: TORA is built on a foundation of innovation. The concept of fully automated ordering and laneway service in a sleek, ultra-modern environment spills into the culture of our kitchen as well. We are a creative team, and work well together to achieve a harmonious yet cutting edge environment.
HNN: As a chef, which do you value more: tradition or innovation?
YS: I think it’s important to balance both tradition and innovation. In fact, I think Japanese tradition has ironically always been about innovation; to continue improving—finding new and exciting techniques, flavors, and culinary concepts—is actually the tradition.
HNN: Do you have a favorite sort of sushi to prepare?
YS: I love preparing nigiri sushi because there is so much behind what seems so deceptively simple. You can look at it as a piece of raw fish on some rice, but what I see is generations of experimenting with how to make the perfect rice, an infinite number of choices on what kind of fish to crown the rice with, knowing just the right amount of wasabi to place in between, and, of course, assembling it all together with positive energy so it can get passed onto the person eating it.
HNN: How about a favorite sort of sushi to eat?
YS: My favorite sushi to eat is chutoro, which is a cut of bluefin tuna (or Maguro). Akami (the leaner cut) has a more intense flavor, and otoro (the fattier cut) is too rich for me. Chutoro is the perfect balance of richness, flavor intensity, and firmness for me personally.
HNN: There are some foods that aren’t conducive to the home kitchen. Would you say sushi is one of them?
YS: Sushi is actually a lot more conducive to the home kitchen than a lot of people may think. It just requires some basic knowledge on how to make the ideal rice, and some techniques that, once you’ve gotten the hang of them, are super simple. I’m so proud of the YouTube channel that our company just launched, Washoku by ABURI, which will have ongoing tutorials on how to make sushi at home, how to pair Japanese food and drink, and so much more.
HNN: Have you learned anything during your career that you think aspiring chefs should know?
YS: Having the right outlook is everything. Being a chef is a constant balancing act of being creative, having business acumen, and also managing people. Yes, ingredients and kitchen tools are very important, but you should also invest in the well-being and development of people just as much, if not more. Because it is the passion, love, and skills of the people making your food that are the most special ingredient.