Sake With Gushi
"Isn't it customary to never pour yourself your own sake?" I ask as I concentrate on filling four small cups up to the brim.
We're on our fourth bottle of sake and it's starting to have an effect on the accuracy of my pouring. Tonight, I'm drinking with Shinji Yamaguchi and his partner - in both life and business - Blessie Maturan.
"Yeah, I didn't like that part of the culture," replies Shinji with a smile, "just drink how you like it." A man after my own heart.
We're midway through a particularly riveting (at least for Shinji and me) conversation on the intricacies of the Japanese just-in-time manufacturing philosophy. But our conversation has seemingly strayed from its original course. We're here to talk about fried chicken; more specifically, Japanese-style fried chicken.
Shinji is the owner and operator of Gushi, perhaps one of the first shops in downtown Toronto dedicated completely to the art of Japanese karaage-style chicken. From its humble beginnings as a popup restaurant, he's grown Gushi into two locations in Toronto alongside summer business at Union Station's Front Street Foods.
Kim and I had the pleasure of first meeting Shinji while preparing for our own festival business, Wabi Sabi Musubis. A veteran of Toronto's summertime food festival circuit, the Japanese-born restauranteur's advice was an invaluable part of how we approached our own operations. Now, more than a year later, Shinji's mentorship has evolved into friendship. Tonight, I'm here to learn Shinji's - and Gushi's - story.
The first bottle I open tonight is an Akashi-Tai Junmai from the Hyōgo Prefecture in Japan. Though I must confess, for a foodie I have little knowledge of the world of sake. This one I picked up for the free sake cup it came with. Instead, I've asked Shinji for help deciding on the order of beverage operations.
"We're going to go from more smooth to strong" he says as he gestures with his hand swooping upwards. Thankfully, the sake at-hand is smooth and slightly floral: a perfect beginning. We have a long tale ahead of us, but plenty of drinks and snacks.
"I wanted to be the number one in the world"
"I wanted to be the number one in the world," said Shinji, "my plan was perfect." In this case, though, Shinji isn't talking about food. Fresh from graduating from a technical college in Japan, he set his sights on becoming an Olympian. Upon learning this I set down my glass for a double-take, trying to discern his chosen sport.
As it turns out, there's an 'Olympics' for most anything. In Shinji's case, he joined his father, a senior manager at a large manufacturing firm. There, he was placed in a management development program, part of which was training to compete in the World Skills competition. Every two years, vocational professions ranging from sewing to masonry and aircraft maintenance converge to compete for the Holy Grail of craftsmanship, known as the Skill Olympics. Shinji was determined to make a name for himself and company in the Machine Assembly category.
"I would ask all of my trainers 'How can I be the best?'," recalls Shinji. Being the best at machine assembly is no small feat. Floating somewhere in cyberspace is a promotional video where an impossibly young Shinji demonstrates how to create a perfectly smooth, perfectly flat metal fitting using a set of calipers, a machine seemingly from the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a hand file. Over the Japanese voiceover of the video, Shinji explains to me that for some processes the heat from machine production would cause metal to warp - hence, human handiwork.
Shinji's determination paid off. Just a couple of years later, Shinji emerged from the Japan's National Skills Competition at the top of the Machine Assembly category. "I remember my dad being so proud of me," says Shinji. And, for a brief moment of time, he enjoyed life as a minor celebrity. Local newspapers called for interviews for the new top craftsman; but it was at this moment that Shinji's world turned upside-down.
Through the barrage of questions came a singularly important one: how do you feel knowing that your category isn't being selected to compete in the upcoming World Skills Competition? That day, he learned that his instructors had known from the beginning that his category wasn't in the running. They'd used his motivation as a retention tool. What, then, of Shinji's desire to become the best in the world if he couldn't prove it on a world stage?
Coming to Canada
It's fitting at this moment that I crack the seal to a bottle distilled from Toronto's only sake distillery, Toronto Spring Water Sake Company. It's an Izumi Genshu Junmai - considerably more complex in flavour than the first few bottles. With sake cup recharged, Shinji continues his story.
Little did Shinji know that this setback would, in fact, be his turning point. To make up for being unable to compete in that year's World Skill Competition, Shinji's company sent him to join the Japanese team as a photographer for the event. As it turns out, the 2009 World Skills Competition was being held in Calgary.
Shinji recalls standing on the sidelines as his peers were cheered through the opening ceremony, "What shocked me was [...] 47 people there had won a gold medal ... and only 45 got to compete in Calgary." Shinji was, in some ways, an outcast.
"I didn't even know how to take photos, anyways," laughs Shinji, "I took a couple photos - as much as I can in an hour - and I then I left and just got to know Calgary."
His experience left an impression: "I was talking to the people in the street, you know, and street magicians. And [I thought] 'wow, this is pretty fun. I wish I knew more English.'"
Two months later, Shinji resigned from his company and called an international school recruiter: "I said, "Hey, I want to move to Canada'. And they were like, 'Do you want to move to Vancouver or Toronto?'".
On the recruiter's promise of more multiculturalism and less Asians (all the better for Shinji to practice his English), he opted for Toronto.
The birth of Gushi
It wouldn't be for another two years that Shinji would open Gushi. First, he needed to brush up on his English.
"When we first met, we'd just communicate through body language," recalls Blessie. The two worked at the same restaurant together; Blessie a server, and Shinji as back of house and barman.
It's hard to tell now, as our sake-fuelled conversational tangents take us to discussions of dopamine and market trends. His training regimen? Daily reading of the Metro newspaper, and - my favourite - drinking with strangers.
"Talking to a total stranger in a bar ... somehow I know that he's not understanding what I'm saying, but I'm not understanding what he's saying. But we're both laughing."
Shinji would arrange regular parties with everyone welcome. Friends would come, and Shinji would provide the food - often Japanese snacks. I'm already looking forward to testing this method for language immersion.
"That became my hobby - you know, drinking with friends. And I always enjoyed talking about business ideas. It's fun to create. 'Oh, what if we do this?' And this one guy, he was a chef, and he was saying 'You know, Shinji, I was thinking it would be nice to open a restaurant.'"
Like all ideas conceived whilst intoxicated, it sounded like a great idea at the time: a small space devoted to preparing yakitori (skewers grilled over specialized charcoal). The business was novel at the time; just before a wave of izakayas like Zakkushi and Guu came to town. They'd be able to own Toronto's Japanese drinking food market.
Things escalated quickly. Just a day after contracting a real estate agent, they found an old sushi shop available in Roncesvalles. Sold. Deposit in hand, they had two months to prepare everything.
"In my mind, I had everything ready."
But, just a month before opening, his partner threw a curveball. "I got a call and it's my chef, and he goes: 'Hey, sorry Shinji, but I am moving back to Japan. I'm opening my own ramen concept."
Now, with no chef and a rent contract still in hand, Shinji needed an alternative to yakitori, and fast. On the surface, yakitori seems simple: just grilled sticks. But to do it right, the charcoal and seasoning need to be precise. Calipers and hand file precise.
"The answer was kushikatsu: panko-breaded skewers on rice. Back in Japan, when I was a bartender, we always would go to a shrine at the end of the month to pray for our business success. [...] And on the way from the parking lot to that shrine there was a kushikatsu stall. And that experience, and eating kushikatsu at seven in the morning after work ... it was fun."
There's a method to eating kushikatsu. First, grab skewers of crisp-fried chicken and proceed to a dipping station. Plunge the steaming chicken into a communcal sauce pot - depending on region, this could be anything from mayo- to soy sauce-based. Do not double-dip. Devour. Repeat. Once you've eaten your fill, call the friendly obachan (grandma) who runs the shop over and hand her your skewers as a sort of running tally.
All Shinji needed to do was develop the recipe. His friends became willing test subjects for his creations, often suggesting tweaks to the recipe. They were ready.
During this time, though, the space where Gushi was meant to be changed ownership. The new owner didn't want another restaurant as a tenant and instead offering a 1-year lease. It was a ridiculous proposal; for any restaurant, success comes over years spent in the same place. The deal was off.
In some ways, it was a blessing in disguise. "We had a budget of ten-grand; that was the only budget we had to open the yakitori place ... which was impossible if we happened to open. We probably needed to do something else, really."
Instead, Shinji pivoted to a different model: pop-ups. With luck, the World Cafe on Harbourfront was accepting applications and providing commercial kitchen space. Armed with a new concept and a three-week event, it was on.
"Because we always invited friends to my house, and we'd do barbeque: that's how we collected all of the volunteers to open the event. We'd have all the friends help me prep, and serve. And someone even gave me a car for a week. We were ready for it. But what happened was we spent the ten-thousand dollars. And in the three weeks, ten-thousand dollars became two. Only friends came."
At the same time, another commercial kitchen, Scadding Court, contacted Shinji. Months earlier, he had applied to be a part of the pod of shipping container restaurants there on the corner of Bathurst and Dundas St. W; only now had they processed his application. The offer was tempting, but Shinji had to make a crucial decision.
"In my head there were options. Maybe I could go start working in a restaurant so I could learn actual cooking. And maybe I can start making money, too, so that I can have a budget to live. Because that two-thousand dollars was more like my living budget, not my project budget!" Shinji recalls, then takes a small sip of sake, "But, this opportunity was so interesting. And I thought, maybe I'll just say yes to this offer, then figure out if we can survive."
Gushi as we know it was born August 3rd, 2012. Five years after that gamble, Gushi's main storefront remains in the same location.
Chicken kaisen: from skewers to karaage
I reach into the cooler by my side for one of the last bottles of the night, another Izumi, this time a Nama Nama. This bottle, however, dwarfs the other in comparison. I had, at some point, hoped to be able to do a comparison of the different styles we're drinking. But now, in my current state, all I can discern is that the taste was 'good'.
I'd also planned a sake night for reasons other than staying thematically true to Shinji's roots. It's a little known fact that sake is one of the key ingredients in Gushi's karaage chicken marinade. Yet here I am, learning that it wasn't karaage, but kushikatsu and Japanese curry that Gushi first started with.
"Gushi also means 'skewers' in Japanese," Shinji explains, "And we really wanted to do skewers in the beginning. We [the storefront] were on the street and we were doing Japanese street-food; I really wanted to diversify my recipes. I wanted to learn more. Anything I learned, I wanted to do at Gushi. So I started doing teriyaki chicken, and I started doing karaage chicken [...] That kitchen was my experimental kitchen."
"One day, we started to get a lot of chicken karaage orders, and I was joking with my friends that one day karaage was going to take over my store. Then after a month we decided to do karaage 100%."
That inflection point came during a small Queen West theatre festival. Shinji had adorned his 10' x 10' tent with a huge banner that read "Teriyaki vs. Karaage!". Which cuisine would reign supreme? After that event, Shinji noticed that customers would come to the main store asking for karaage chicken despite it not being officially on the menu at the time.
Having had Gushi's chicken on multiple occasions, I understand the addictive qualities of their particular version of karaage. Shinji confides in me that, unlike most fried chicken in the city, Gushi's doesn't use flour in their batter. Instead, they use a Japanese potato starch called katakuriko. The ingredient requires that you change fryer oil frequently - hence why many restaurants don't use it - but the end product is worth it. The resulting crust is fluffier - and less oily - than a standard fried chicken's yet still manages to retain a crunch capable of withstanding liberal applications of sauce.
It's also the marinade that sets Gushi's chicken apart. Shinji uses it to permeate the meat with flavour before frying, rather than applying spice to the top layer of breading. "I believe in juiciness. Juiciness is my value point. But, you don't want to just taste chicken. You know, in roast chicken [...] I love eating the skin part because it's so crispy and caramelized, but the meat it needs sauce. That's why I marinate the chicken."
The result can only be described as moreish, with each crispy bite blending harmoniously together. There's a delicate restraint in his dishes that can only be characterized as Japanese.
Five years later
I sit back and reflect on his story - more than a decade of events that somehow converge to be Gushi. Through the sake haze, I realize that Shinji's first life as a Japanese salaryman and machine assembly expert isn't just backstory; it's the backbone of Gushi's kitchen philosophy.
Nearly a decade ago, I learned of kanban (lean manufacturing) and kaisen (continuous improvement) - two manufacturing principles ushered into the mainstream during Japan's industrial boom in the early '80s. Could it be that Shinji is using these in the kitchen? Am I just projecting my own experiences on his story? I ask how his past life has influenced his work.
"It's hard to see that because he always does it," explains Blessie ruefully, "Even when you [Shinji] were starting Gushi ... I've never worked in [another] a place where kaisen was a thing. [...] In his creative process, he always draws up a floor plan, thinks about how many physical movements it takes, and tries to minimize so that it's less repetitive. I've never worked in a place more ergonomical."
The result is a workplace that's easy to get around in despite first starting with just an 8' x 8' container (since launch, Gushi's Dundas storefront has expanded to include neighbouring container - a little container Megazord of fried chicken).
At the same time, as much as Shinji thrives on systematic problem solving, Gushi's story is a reflection on the best laid plans of mice and men. Nothing in life goes as planned; but sometimes that's what makes it all the sweeter. Gushi isn't just a Japanese streetfood stall. Secretly, its menu is a link to Shinji's past. Of determination in the face of adversity - all of which makes for some damn fine chicken.
There's one last bottle in the cooler, one that Shinji knows well. It's a Geikkikan Junmai-Shu, a brand ubiquitous in Japanese restaurants across Toronto - and one Shinji would often bring to late-night drinks with friends all those years ago. This bottle we share with the recorder off and the notepad tucked safely aside.
Words by Nicholas Wong. Photos by Abhishek Dekate.
Special thanks to Shinji & all of the staff at Gushi for making this article possible. Join Gushi from July 30 - August 3 and help them celebrate their 5th anniversary.
707 Dundas St West
238 Queen St West