Five years ago when Dante Boccuzzi opened Ginko he picked Taishi Noma as the head chef of what would quickly be recognized as the best sushi restaurant in Cleveland. These days Noma is still making sushi, just not in a restaurant. He now makes his living running a private chef and catering business, Kyo No En, with his wife, Asami. The name translates roughly to “Kyoto Connection,” which is appropriate for Noma. Kyoto is his home city — he still visits once a year — and the city’s emphasis on traditional Japanese cuisine was a major influence on him as a chef.
Though sushi isn’t the main fare in Kyoto, Noma has absolute mastery over it. His tenure at Ginko was universally lauded. Writeups from that time refer to his work as “artistry” and to him as a “master.” “Sit in front of Noma, if possible,” urges one review, “to watch [him] at work.”
Which, this past weekend, is exactly what I was able to do. And it was a wonder to behold.
It began, in my case, with three exquisitely-prepared, tiny dishes: Yaki-Nasu (eggplant), Ankimo (monkfish liver) and tettupai (squid, green onions, and a sake-based sauce). Every ingredient was painstakingly arranged and incredibly picturesque.
After a hearty bowl of miso soup and the freshest, cleanest prawn I’ve ever tasted, Chef Noma moved into the nigiri sushi. His preparation of the salmon, unagi, and other fish and meats for consumption was ballet in motion. With one hand, he scoops the rice for the next rolls. With the other, he wipes the surface and grabs his knife to tenderize the fish. Not a single movement was wasted.
Watching Noma, I felt like I did seeing Paul Simon play “The Sounds of Silence.” The world around him blurred until only he and his craft were in focus.
It was the feeling of watching genius at work.
Noma's culinary path started early. His parents, now deceased, were restaurant owners. When he first came to America 25 years ago, he got a job in a hibachi restaurant in Myrtle Beach. Within six months, he had established a sushi operation alongside the restaurant’s hibachi fare.
It was the early nineties and the place wasn’t an immediate success. “Not a lot of people eating sushi,” says Noma. But after six months, people were “waiting in line every day.”
Noma is a well-traveled chef. He worked in Jacksonville and in Columbus (including a stint at the now-closed Haiku in the Short North arts district). “I do good business anywhere I go,” he says.
That certainly held true during his tenure at Ginko, and it's true now. He enjoys taking care of just the customer and providing high-quality hospitality. And though he’s moved around a fair amount, Noma seems content to make Northeast Ohio his home for a while. “Cleveland is very nice,” he says. Plus, he believes it has the clientele he needs to keep a private sushi chef business running.
The next person to sit in front of Noma as he practices his art, dear reader, could be you. He can be booked through his website, chefnoma.com
. It won’t be cheap. But it’s a chance not just to enjoy an excellent meal, but to witness, as a friend put it, the rare event of “seeing someone doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Or as Noma says, grinning: “Nobody can do it like this.”