“This is America,” acclaimed sushi chef Atsushi “Art” Hayakawa said with emphasis a second time. “This country gave me a life. A wife, a family, a restaurant. I want to give something back.”
I’ll reveal as to what was that gift back to the country he now considers his home because it was one of the many surprises of an unforgettable night in Atlanta, GA. Like the glorious meal of Japanese sushi delights my camera team and I enjoyed with relish and smiles, this chance dinner at a sushi restaurant tucked away in a strip mall off Buford Highway had all ingredients of a dish you never forget.
It was the manner in which Chef Hayakawa said “This is America” that made me listen with such respect. In an era where our elected leaders are determined to dictate as to whom they feel should be deemed an “American,” this accidental meeting nearly brought me to tears. It was that emotional.
Chef Hayakawa’s journey began at the age of 14, when he shared a sushi meal with his father. Like the potent wasabi that burned his nostrils and other senses, he knew sushi would be his life, a culinary art that would be his passion. At 15, he left school to study with a sushi master and for nine years, he studied and refined his craft with commitment and drive. At 24, he left his native Sapporo, Japan for the United States, much to the chagrin of his sushi master, who chose not speak to former student in response to his departure.
In 1991, Chef Hayakawa landed in the southeastern part of the country, beginning a new journey in Atlanta. He paid his dues, earning the sponsorship that would lead him to a green card, that time-honored golden ticket to the American Dream. In 2008, Chef Hayakawa opened his own establishment, Sushi House Hayakawa. In 2017, as the restaurant hones in on its 10th anniversary, the affable Hayakawa, is now considered to oversee one of the 12 most authentic sushi restaurants in the United States. And tonight, several cultures clashed in a communion of conversation, laughter and happy tears brought on by his trademarked wasabi bombs. (For the record, we ate three orders. He gave us one with an extra layer of that potent green goodness as a gift.)
I couldn’t wait to get back to my hotel room tonight to document this evening in some fashion. And while I know this reads like, “Dear Diary, guess what happened to me tonight?” I don’t really care. Today was a good fuckin’ day to be alive, despite the current events on Capitol Hill as we enter a new political era that was only on view on “House of Cards” or “Veep.” I can’t help but burn with anger over a coterie of privileged “leaders” determined to turn their backs on the many men and women from overseas who have contributed mightily to the American Way. How can we disavow what is the true face of the American, a nation built on the backs and with the blood of so many immigrants?
But I digress…
How did we find Hayakawa? It was chance. We had wrapped a great day of interviews on the set of a film in its last days of principal photography. It was nearing dinner time and I declared sushi was in order. My audio tech conferred our digital oracle, The Google, and Sushi House Hayakawa was deemed the closest place. Little did we know we’d be heading for Tokyo, Japan in the process.
Instead of the usual Sapporo-fueled meal of spicy tuna rolls and tempura, we were treated to an experience that has a devout cult of loyalists, from Japan and elsewhere. An intimate dining spot of few tables and modest bar, Sushi House Hayakawa is an expert study of tastes, flavors and a near religious adherence to the art of sushi. Cell phones are not allowed. Reservations are requested. This is meant to be a personal experience to savor and enjoy without distractions or noise.
Photo: Men’s Journal
Chef Hayakawa’s crisp white uniform was punctuated with a red terry cloth slash of read from the towel wrapped around his head. His hands had the delicacy of touch reserved for piano masters or surgeons, so skillful was his preparation of each piece of sushi. Our incredibly knowledgeable waiter, young, precise and absolutely American, treated us with respect and care. Yet, it those damn wasabi bombs he recommended that made us reach out to Hayakawa with a boisterous “Thank you.” His response? In addition to telling us the now-trademarked menu item was borne out or a prank, he gave us one more round with even MORE wasabi. Once dinner was over, I asked our waiter to see if Chef Hayakawa would pose for a picture with us. And this culinary master, who promised not to break my camera phone, posed and laughed and opted to stay with us for nearly an hour after closing time.
I love telling stories for a living, but the narrative Hayakawa shared with us had us wrapt in attention. That wonderful crooked smile. His self-deprecating wit. His not knowing that he was serving Harrison Ford one memorable night. Or the bittersweet encounter with a smiling Paul Walker one week before his untimely death in a car accident. He was a trove of anecdotes, all delivered in a heavily accented, but warm voice that had us in his thrall.
Our meeting Chef Hayakawa reaffirms the incredible fortune one is gifted when they take to the road for work. We see and hear so much as we move from location to location, meeting a gallery of folks that represent all that can be wonderful in this world. Chef Hayakawa’s loyalists go back to his restaurant because he endeavors to give them an experience unlike any other. The demands of populist sushi cuisine were excised nearly two years ago from his menu. Gone are the California Rolls and other Americanized offerings found elsewhere. (And no, the spicy tuna roll is NOT a Japanese tradition.) Tucked into this mini mall, surrounded by Korean-owned establishments in the traditional American south, we found a true Japanese experience. It was a rare chance to be part of a narrative that was spun organically and without expectations.
As we prepared to leave, Chef Hayakawa asked us to offer our support of his new, full-time sushi chef, a southern American named Terry. We noted that we were surprised to see Terry behind the bar. He told us he’s worked with several different Asian apprentices from all over, but Terry was truly unique. He “got it” and after a year and a half, he’d promoted him to full time not too long ago. But it was his saying, “I don’t see race” that caught our attention, too. Because “This is America” and he wanted to give something back. It would be Terry who would now benefit from his teachings, taking his art further into the world in a new way.
What a privilege meeting Chef Hayakawa tonight. I’ll never forget how he ran out to us in the parking lot with cold bottles of water. He was worried since beer was consumed, we would be subjected to the strict DUI laws of the area.
Now, about the sushi master in Japan who refused to talk to Chef Hayakawa for over 20 years? The former student, who makes a point to go back to Sapporo every two years, would call on his master each time to no avail. But five years ago, on one particular trip, master and student were reunited. He showed at the appointed hour and for 45 minutes, no one spoke. They sat in total silence…until the moment the master pulled out a bottle of sake and poured two glasses. “Drink,” he said in a gruff tone. Drink they did. And then he said to his former student, “Good job.” He’d been made aware of Hayakawa’s success in the U.S. The student cried, nose running, tears flowing. He was overjoyed. As for his master, he merely added, “Drink” in the same gruff tone. And drink they did.
I think of my father and mother, Mexican immigrants who also designed and curated their own version of the Dream. far from home and without the resources of family or government assistance. I think of the many immigrants who continue to work their guts out to ensure a better life for those in their care. I think of our often painful history in treating those we have labeled “The Other.” How can we reward these legacies with walls, internment camps and ideological terrorism? All we need to say to those who have made such a difference in so many lives is simply, “Good job, my fellow American.”
None of us know what’s in store as we venture into dark and uncertain territory. But tonight, four disparate lives were brought together in the name of friendship. New loyalists were born and we hope to bring back friends and family to Chef Hayakawa’s restaurant without hesitation. As to those ignorant many who need to be reminded of the beauty of such occurrences, I say:
“This is America.”