On a recent Saturday afternoon, a sushi chef was admiring a portrait of Napoleon hanging in the National Gallery of Art. He was joking that in those white pants and vest, the French emperor looked like a chef. Perhaps he was laughing too loudly, because it caught the attention of a 26-year-old tourist from Dallas, who raced over with a glimmer of recognition and bowed, asking with equal parts reverence and revelry: “Excuse me, but are you Nakazawa?”
The name “Nakazawa” has been ricocheting around Washington’s chattering class since 2016, because it is also the name of a restaurant that is about to open in the Old Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue — a.k.a. the Trump International Hotel.
In 2015, José Andrés pulled out of the hotel when Donald Trump began his presidential campaign by deriding Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists. BLT Prime took over that space, but any restaurateur opening in the hotel could be seen as being tolerant of those slurs, and so the deck was already stacked against the newest tenant, Alessandro Borgognone of New York’s Sushi Nakazawa. But Borgognone, a proud loudmouth New Yorker and a vocal Trump supporter, didn’t make things any easier for himself — especially in an interview with New York magazine that was widely reviled by Washington’s dinnerati, who cherry-picked his description of the capital as “a meat-and-potatoes town.” Esquire headlined a story, “Is Alessandro Borgognone the Most Hated Restaurateur in America?” And Anthony Bourdain told the website Eater about Borgognone: “I will never eat in his restaurant. I have utter contempt for him, utter and complete contempt.”
Nine months later, for a moment, Bourdain seemed to eat his words. In August 2017, Laurie Woolever, his assistant, sent an email to Borgognone’s Sushi Nakazawa asking to be prioritized on the wait list for an Aug. 20 dinner for two at 8 p.m. According to Woolever, who provided emails as evidence, the restaurant confirmed a reservation, then she canceled once she realized her error. But Borgognone provided his own email showing that his reply to her request was the same one he says he gave, on separate occasions, to Sen. Ted Cruz and actress Anne Hathaway: Sorry, no dice. He loves a fight, but his wounds are often self-inflicted.
In December, Borgognone’s year of bad publicity was capped with a class-action lawsuit alleging that the New York restaurant didn’t pay minimum wage and misappropriated tips.
And now, the imminent D.C. satellite is on Vogue’s list of most-anticipated restaurants in the country this year. Even if it’s run by Borgognone and in the Trump hotel.
Such is Nakazawa’s Teflon allure.
Trump and Borgognone and all the hullabaloo aside, Daisuke Nakazawa is a goofy, soft-spoken but sharp-minded 39-year-old acolyte of Jiro Ono, a three-Michelin-starred demigod among sushi lovers since the 2011 release of the cult documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” Nakazawa is, by many measures, the best sushi chef in the United States and perhaps the best outside Japan. Through Seattle and New York and now Washington, he has quietly, deftly, daringly swum upstream in pursuit of his goal of a radical rethinking of fish in his new homeland. Having the best sushi restaurant in the country is just Step One in his plan to bring a Japanese sensibility to Americans’ processing and consumption of seafood.
But first: “Say sushiiiiiiiii,” he said to Taha Rizvi, the Dallas tourist, as they posed for a photo. Amid profuse thanks and praise, Rizvi explained that he has been trying for years, without luck, to visit Nakazawa’s New York restaurant, which has been booked solid since it debuted in 2013. He perked up at the news that a second location was coming to Washington. “I can’t wait to double my chances,” he said.
As Rizvi walked off, Nakazawa beelined to a Van Gogh, and, speaking through an interpreter, began to riff on the connections between his career and the fine art spread before him throughout the gallery.
“This is so much better than a photograph of these roses,” he said of the Van Gogh. “It has feeling. You can feel him feeling it. If you don’t bring feelings to your work — if you don’t share feelings through your work — then what have you done? Why did you even create it?”
On Calder: “This is how all art is, secretly: in motion, changing right in front of your eyes, changing behind your back if you don’t pay attention.”
On Pollock: “It’s messy up close, or if you focus on one part. But if you step back, you realize the mess is what gives it meaning and maybe the word is ‘freedom.’ ”
And, of course, a Noguchi sculpture in the lobby of the East Wing. “I want to leave my fingerprints on fish,” he said, admiring the masterpiece, “the way Noguchi left his fingerprints on stone.”
Twenty years ago, Nakazawa could never have seen himself where he is today. Back then he was a troubled man who “did lots of bad things,” including drinking and gambling. At 19, he was fired from his first sushi job. He tried being a salaryman, working at a start-up selling online domain registrations. Then came a 4:30 a.m. job hauling tuna at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, with a later-in-the-day job making spaghetti in the National Cancer Center hospital cafeteria.
On his 23rd birthday, he got married. (He and his wife now have five children, and Nakazawa wants none of them to be sushi chefs.) In sudden need of more income, he answered a rare want ad to work with Ono. It was four months before he was allowed to touch fish and five years before he was allowed to stand behind the bar. He gained some infamy in the documentary as the apprentice who tried to make tamagoyaki 200 times before Ono approved.
He was recruited to Seattle in 2012 by Shiro Kashiba, another Ono apprentice. While working there, Nakazawa received an unlikely note from Borgognone, who had been watching “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” on Netflix. He found Nakazawa on Facebook and sent him a message using Google Translate that said, in effect, if you ever want to run your own restaurant in New York, let’s talk. Nakazawa ditched Kashiba and Seattle to take one more gamble in New York.
It paid off extravagantly. Far from the ascetic hush associated with sushi shrines, Borgognone debuted in New York with a Trumpian white marble sushi bar, loud art on the walls, and wine or sake pairings served in stemware as opposed to the ceramic shot glasses known as ochoko. Largely ridiculed at the time as naive or gauche, those flourishes have since become trendsetting influences on the sushi restaurant scene. Sushi Nakazawa remains the only sushi restaurant in New York with a four-star review from the New York Times.
In Washington, Nakazawa has reconnoitered by visiting Sushi Taro, the city’s only Michelin-starred sushi restaurant, and the Obama favorite Komi. Nakazawa, for the record, has never had a Michelin star of his own.
Over a recent Taro omakase, he laughed as he poured Kamotsuru Gold sake, spilling a tiny gold-leaf cherry blossom into his cup.
“I ordered this because I am missing Jiro, because of all this talk about my career,” he said, “but then I see it’s written on the menu as ‘Obama’s sake’ because Obama drank it there. It’s the only sake available with Jiro. No other choices. So it’s not like Obama chose it. It’s so silly how people describe things the way they want to. But it is good sake.”
He discussed shopping on Kappabashi Street, the Tokyo strip known for its kitchen supplies. “But Japan feels foreign to me now,” he said, describing everyone in Tokyo as plagued with kurai kao (which literally means “dark face” but might better translate as “resting Tokyo face”).
“I’m quitting smoking,” blurted Borgognone.
“Oh! You’re good at quitting smoking,” joked Nakazawa. “You’ve done it a lot.”
“Three times,” said Borgognone.
“Five,” countered Nakazawa as they laughed.
They discussed a candidate for general manager of the new restaurant and how his being gay would play with the public — acceptance? mockery? — with more concern than calculation. Notably, Borgognone also owns Chumley’s, a century-old, hallowed former speakeasy that he renovated with a trio rare in the restaurant industry — his general manager, bar director and head chef were all women. This pair, the immigrant and the feminist, defy the caricatures associated with all things Trump. As at Jean-Georges, the legendary restaurant in New York’s flagship Trump hotel, the Nakazawa team made sure to mandate a separate entrance to their restaurant .
Asked the burning question on the mind of half the country — how can you help Trump’s hotel become a premier destination? — Nakazawa laughed.
“You know I’m an immigrant, right? I don’t even have voting rights. And yet someone is going to tell me how I should live my life? How I should follow my passion and make my dreams come true? No thanks,” he said. “I’m sorry I don’t work in an Obama hotel. But if you are so angry at the country and at Trump, you can leave. Try being an immigrant somewhere for yourself.”
As a chef and in his personal life, Nakazawa ascribes to twin Japanese philosophies: wabi-sabi and kintsugi. The former is the idea that imperfection is often better than perfection, while the latter is a practice in which cracks in pottery are filled with gold to evoke beauty and reverence instead of revulsion and scorn.
“Sushi is not about perfection,” he said. “The fish is not perfect. But you work with it to bring out as much perfection as you can find.” In a riff on the term wabi-sabi, he called his approach to sushi “Jiro-Shiro,” which he described as an eternal attempt to be “more perfect.”
At the National Gallery, there was a pause after the translator explained the phrase “outliers and vanguard art.” It seemed to bother Nakazawa that this art should be separated from the rest.
“There is something people in restaurants say: ‘New American.’ Or even ‘Classic American.’ Does anybody know what that means? No,” he said. “The same is true in sushi when people say ‘traditional.’ Is it so difficult for Americans to understand that there is no such thing as ‘traditional’ in Japan? There are many ways to be traditional. There are many ways to be Japanese. When people say ‘traditional,’ that is just a polite way of saying that they think the sushi chef should give them a good meal and be quiet. But who ever came to America to be quiet? I came here because I have something to say.”
Morgan is a freelance writer in New York. His website is CharmandRigor.com. Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly said Sushi Nakazawa would be opening in the space vacated when Jose Andres pulled out of plans for a restaurant in the Trump International Hotel. BLT Prime opened in that space, and Nakazawa will open in an unoccupied area at the back of the hotel. The article also quoted Alessandro Borgognone as saying that he refused Anthony Bourdain’s request for special consideration for a reservation. Bourdain’s assistant, Laurie Woolever, provided emails showing that the restaurant confirmed a reservation, which she then canceled. This version has been corrected.
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