Can you tell me about yourself?

Hi my name is Jiro Lin and I am the owner and chef at Hamano Sushi in San Francisco, CA.

How did you get into sushi?

When I was in Japan I was looking around all the people around me and a lot of them were in the sushi industry. People that associated with me, my friends and mutual friends, these people were working in the food industry and some were chefs, some owned restaurants. This is how I connected with these people when I was hanging out. I ate at so many places in Tokyo. At the time I didn’t try high end places yet, I didn’t have enough money so I was eating at cheaper restaurants such as family run sushi restaurants. They were still very good, some of them were doing this their whole life. Some of these were husband and wife restaurants, some were restaurants that were around through generations, some were 40 years old run by the second generation.

One day my friend asked me, “my place needs help”. At the time I was doing a totally different job, I was helping my uncle with his automobile business. Then my friend asked me to help at his restaurant. I was interested since I was interested in sushi. To me it was very interesting. For sushi you have to be very precise with the fish. You have to be very detailed with the ingredients you are handling. You also have to be very detailed when carefully crafting sushi to serve people.

Sushi at Hamano
Sushi from Hamano in San Francisco.

First thing my friend taught me was that he took me to a fish market and at the time I knew nothing about sushi. I went with him to the fish market and we picked up pieces here and there and he explained why he touched the fish. He explained why he looked at the fish in certain ways. It became very interesting to me. In the beginning fish was just fish, there were so many fish boxes stacked, so many sea creatures.

When you look at them, it all looks the same but after I followed my friend who was a head chef at one of the restaurants, I became like wow, so this is how you look at it, how you choose the best, how you judge the fish, how old it is by looking at the eyes, their grill, touching the fish’s body and to see the response back. Also some fish come from different locations. Some locations are regular, some more rich, some with specific tastes. Like Kinmedai (Golden Eye Snapper), you can pay $10 dollars per pound or $40 to $80 dollars per pound. Kinmedai from different locations and seasons all makes the prices different. The texture and taste are slightly different. You get what you pay for.

So how I got into the sushi business was that I started asking my friend to teach me. I told him I wanted to learn it, even though I have been to the fish market quite a few times, it didn’t make any sense, he started teaching me the basics.

Starting a career in Japan is different from the USA, in the USA you go to school and learn the career, subject and graduate into a career. But in Japan, there’s no such thing. The master never says come and learn, you have to watch what he does, you start watching and picking up things and start practicing. When he gives you a chance, that’s how you show him you can handle those things.

In culinary school there are notes on how to do it, there is no sushi school in Japan. If you want to learn you go and start from the bottom and fulfill for your master whatever he asks for. He starts giving you opportunities to start cutting fish. You can’t start cutting expensive fish right away, you start at the bottom. Only the master chef handles the tuna, no one else. When you start, you start with the cheap fish such as the sardine because when they’re in season it’s a very abundant fish, an entry level fish.

How did you get your name?

When I was in Japan and working for sushi restaurants I got my name from the owner. The owner’s name is Aoki Isao and after I worked for him we became very close family. He loved me so much, he gave me the name of Aoki Jiro, Aoki is the family name and Jiro means second son. I’m kind of like his second son, so he gave me that name, he also has an elder son and we are like real brothers. He taught me Japanese, I taught him English, language exchange, we’re very good close friends and brothers.

Do you have a favorite sushi market and why?

The best fish market in the world is Tsukiji fish market. It’s well known and has been around for a very long time, so all the well known chefs go there. Tsukiji has the most variety compared to other small markets in different regions. The advantage is the quality is very high if you want it. There’s all kinds of quality depending on how much you want to spend.

Tsukiji Fish Market:

Photographer: Marka/Universal Images Group Editorial
Photographer: Marka/Universal Images Group Editorial

What kind of tools does a sushi chef need?

There isn’t just one tool to make sushi. You need a simple mind with creativity and love. Without love, not just for sushi, you can’t create anything. You need to love what you are doing. You can't just do it for money, but you need to love it.

Not everyone likes wasabi, some people are left handed, some are right handed, all observations. You have to listen to the people. Let's say a customer has been eating my sushi for many years and doesn’t like some ingredients, I observe first time, second time, third time, I remember most of the clients I serve. I try to remember what these people like, what their preferences are. You have to understand you can’t keep serving one way to everybody. When you sit down you are very pleased, that this restaurant cares and is very detailed. People grab spoons by different hands so I know where to place the spoon, knowing these things and catering to the customer is what makes a pleasant experience.

What are the necessary steps and ingredients to make really good sushi?

Timing, so this comes from aging, some fish you cut and you can’t serve right away. You have to let it sit by curing it to bring out better taste. Also safety of consuming, some fish might contain parasites, so you have to cure it and marinate it, some of the parasites in those fish, if you change the pH level, you can kill the parasites or you can freeze them too. Another important ingredient is the rice seasoning and soy sauce.

Is rice important for good sushi?

Rice is very important. Sushi is part of the combination of different components, not matter how good you make the rice, if the fish is not good, it’s not good sushi. Even if you have the best quality fish, if the rice isn’t good enough, not good sushi. You need to cook in the right way and also you have to buy the best quality ingredients to assemble together to make good sushi.

Is tuna better aged or fresh?

Aged, tuna is such a big fish, typically bluefin Tuna, they are like 400-1000 pounds, such a big fish. The fish has a lot of body fluids so when you filet it, the meat color is still different, not red yet, kind of clear, red translucent color. You have to expose to outside air and then you gradually see the color become a deep red color. Also since the big fish has a lot of body fluids, you have to release those fluids for actual flavor to appear.

Who inspires you and who do you look up to?

First inspiring person in the food industry is Joshua Skenes. He really inspires me because he has never been to Japan until recently like last year, but he utilizes all the Japanese ingredients with his ideas. It’s very amazing to me. Because people that have never been to experience that culture and tradition but knows how to utilize the ingredients in his own creative way, that is a lot. He did it perfectly and in the right way. There’s a reason why they achieved so many Michelin stars.

Another person is a golfer because golf is a self challenge and self discipline. Everyday your body acts differently, but you are trying to manage yourself and achieve to win the game, the tournament. Even though you have the same swing and competition, your body is always acting differently all the time. You use your brain and mental abilities. The golfer I am talking about is doing all those things and winning so many majors and global tournaments which inspired me a lot. He also changed his swing so many times through different swing coaches. I think four different swing coaches. He can adopt different swing techniques and can win 50-60 percent of tournaments every year.

This made me like, you never give up, made me feel no matter how hard the challenge is, I still can get the achievements and get on this level.

Another person is Jason Wang because after I did the popup at Saison and got to know him, I spoke to him quite a few times, I found out how he started Caviar and that made me want to go on a different higher level in my career. I didn’t want to just enjoy the same moment anymore. I wanted to try out all the different possibilities and challenges. All you need is one thought and idea, the imagination of what you want to do, so Jason’s story inspired me.

Being a chef, after I met Josh, the way he thinks and creates dishes, it’s different from other people. A lot of people do what is popular right now. Sushi is popular right now so everybody is opening sushi restaurants. Everybody is doing high end omakases. Everyone is doing the same concept now. One day Josh invited me one time to Saison so I first went there after a golf game in the previous Mission location. I sat in the kitchen counter and could see everyone, how precise they were preparing every single plate. That made me like okay, if I want to be at the next level, this kind of level, everything needs to be detailed and every component you assemble, there must be some meaning, not just the way it looks to make it look good, but has to have meaning.

How did you start Jiro’s sushi popup at Saison?

Six years ago I met Joshua Skenes, the owner and chef of Saison. This was when he was running Saison out of the outer Mission, their old location for Saison. One day he came to Hamano for lunch with his fiancée. He asked for the sushi omakase, maybe they lived nearby or swinged by but I told them at lunch there’s no omakase. A lot of the fish are still under preparation, not ready to serve. He said just serve whatever you have. So I gave him what I did have and he really enjoyed it. I told them if they wanted to come back at night time and try more fish. He came back the next day for omakase, I didn’t want to serve the same items, so I tried something different. At the time he mentioned he was a chef, he had a restaurant in the outer Mission. Since then he has been supporting me until now, every Sunday he would come, sometimes twice a week.

One of the nights he started talking to me to do a popup, a different class of restaurant, not like Hamano type, but more higher level restaurant you can see around in NY or LA. He gave me the idea and I gave him my business strategy I was already thinking of. It was a coincidence since he had an idea and I already had the idea and strategy, we met and started looking for a location. We had four locations in mind and we went down and looked at them. We got restaurant estimates which was way out of budget. At the time no one was doing high end sushi restaurants, no $400-500 sushi yet. I was a bit hesitant if I should invest a few million in a high end restaurant. We still needed to put money in remodeling, some of the places we looked at weren’t restaurants at all. I was a little sad, I wanted to do high end, but the market and timing and the financials, was not balanced at all. I was just thinking, just back off and I won’t be doing a high end restaurant yet. No one was doing it.

One day Josh called me and wanted to show me the space. He had a space next to the Saison dining area. The office space could be converted into a dining area. He did that and we talked about how we were going to run operations and this is how we started the popup.

Press Regarding Jiro's Sushi Popup at Saison:

Eater's Article: Saison Is Hosting a Two-Month Sushi Pop-Up

Zagat's Article: Inside Saison's Hidden Sushi Pop-Up Restaurant

How was the experience like working at Jiro’s sushi popup at Saison?

It was very interesting because I started seeing the high end service. I mean, I’ve seen it before but never worked in it before. I started seeing my own strengths and weaknesses since I never participated in this type of operation. Now I was part of the team which made me nervous. There were so many things to learn about serving in specific ways, the details and the quality.

First of all Saison has 3 Michelin stars, they already had 3 stars when I was there. Since I was working with a 3 Michelin star team, everything I do, I have to be very careful. I didn’t want to effect Saison’s reputation. Saison brought me in to do the popup. I had a lot of pressure, I thought Saison’s clients would look at me, and ask who’s this guy? Why did Saison bring this guy in? I learned a lot.

Do you have a story of hardship and how you overcame it?

I believe everyone has hardships in many ways. Some people don’t realize it. Some have a strong family background. As for me I left my house after high school and went overseas to study in Singapore for University. I didn’t any family members there. I knew only like a handful of people there. When I moved to Japan, same thing. I didn’t speak Japanese at the time, very few people spoke English during that time. If you don’t speak Japanese, it was very hard to communicate, it was necessary for a job in Japan. This sometimes made me depressed and sad.

Sometimes you want to run away, but I always told myself, you know what, if you run away now, you are going to be a loser. If you don’t fight it, the problems will never go away, the problems will come back again. Why don’t you find a way to overcome it, this made me stronger. I never wanted to quit or run away. If a problem comes, I will face the problem. Some people have a strong family background, if a financial hardship happens, the family can support you, you don’t feel you are in trouble.

Also I was trying everything to build on my own, what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go. How I wanted to do it. I think I imagined it and learned from my lessons and learned from my mistakes.

What are some challenges of running a sushi restaurant?

In San Francisco, not just sushi restaurants, there’s a lot of challenges. There is labor and rent costs. Rent is SF is rocket high, extremely unacceptably high. Also the food costs, if you want to sell the best quality, the perfect food, to prepare perfect food you need to get good ingredients which isn’t cheap.

Do you have advice for people wanting to become a sushi chef?

First thing I ask is why do you want to be a sushi chef? Some people just want a job for living and support. They can do other things, other cuisines, other jobs, but if people come to me and say I want to be a chef because I love sushi and want to be a sushi chef and I love eating sushi. My advice is you have to love being a sushi chef.

What’s your favorite fish for sushi?

I will say blowfish because there’s nothing special about blowfish but  because hundreds and hundreds of years ago, people have been trying to find a way to consume blowfish and they try and die. Their friends try and die. Finally someone found a way to enjoy the blowfish, so the people who prepare blowfish they have to be very skilled, the knife plays the main role in preparation of blowfish. I am very appreciative of that type of fish. Some people sacrificed their lives to prepare blowfish.

We’ve been seeing a lot of omakase type restaurants appearing in SF, do you think this will continue or slow down?

Eventually people will get bored of eating omakase, I have my own future vision of running the business. Omakase needs a lot of preparation and good amounts of reservations. Especially if you're an omakase only restaurant you have to buy specific ingredients. If you don’t have enough clients there will be fish left over. Kanburi, where the biggest one is around 30-40 pound range, if you do omakase only, how many can you serve? In this case the fish probably needs to be aged in order to sell it completely over time. Also the business side, if you want to serve the best quality, best service, using high quality ingredients, this isn’t cheap at all. How many people can comfortably enjoy these types of food? How many people spend this type of money at those restaurants? This is from the customer side, if I’m a customer, I want to eat good, good food isn’t cheap. Instead of going out once a week or once a month, maybe every two months. These omakase, high end omakase restaurants, once a customer gets bored, or gets tired of making reservations, eventually they will stop or slow down on coming to the restaurant. That’s why my next vision of my future concept is I want to do this at a very affordable rate. It doesn’t mean bringing down the quality but comfortably enjoying the food. You don’t need 2-3 months advance reservation.

Thanks so much for letting me interview you Jiro!

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