Nobi Kusuhara, an edomae sushi master who founded Sushi Sasabune in West Los Angeles, died Aug. 4 at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
The chef died of B-cell lymphoma, according to his daughter, Ai Kusuhara. He was 66.
Kusuhara never planned on becoming a sushi chef. After graduating from high school, he left Japan and came to the United States in 1971 hoping to become a successful American businessman.
Instead, he landed a job as a busboy at a restaurant in the Mojave Desert, where he commuted from Los Angeles via bus three hours each day. The money he made barely covered his bus fare, but he believed the work experience to be valuable.
Kusuhara later worked at Yamato Japanese Restaurant in Century City, climbing the rungs from busboy to waiter to manager. After that, he worked at a fish company, where he learned about the different types of fish sold to sushi chefs in the U.S.
He opened his first restaurant, Edo Sushi, in Tarzana in 1980; the chef left a week after the restaurant opened, which put Kusuhara behind the counter making sushi himself.
“He made sushi palatable first by experimenting with a variety [of] sauces made with mayonnaise, ponzu, ginger and soy,” Ai said. “My mom came up with Dynamite but at the time, it was called Edo Special #1.”
In 1993, after he’d closed Edo Sushi, Kusuhara opened Sasabune on Sawtelle Boulevard with his wife, Ryoko, managing the front of house.
“When he closed Edo Sushi and started Sasabune, his style completely changed,” Ai said. Instead of making spider rolls, he focused on sourcing the highest-quality fish and serving it simply.
As a sushi chef, Kusuhara was known for perfectly seasoned rice, served warm but not hot, and fish sliced not too big nor too small, ensuring a well-balanced experience where texture, temperature, flavor and bite were in harmony. Soy sauce and wasabi were seldom offered, only when he felt they were needed.
Over the years, Kusuhara opened more branches of Sasabune in Los Angeles as well as in Honolulu and New York City. He received many offers to sell the business, according to his daughter, but he rejected each one of them.
He had planned to retire this month, and decided to transfer each restaurant to a chef who had studied and worked under him.
“I want to pass down to my chefs, so the customers can keep eating the same sushi I made,” Ai said her father told her shortly before his death. “I do not want to inconvenience my loyal customers.”