Mikuni Chef Taro Arai’s Happiness Reflected In His New Memoir

Published Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010

By Chris Macias

The face of Sacramento sushi has served up a new book. “Abundance: Finding the American Dream in a Japanese Kitchen” (Bluefig, $27.50, 115 pages) is the memoir of Taro Arai, executive chef of the Mikuni Japanese Restaurant Group.

Along with recipes and how-to guides for making sushi, “Abundance” recounts Arai’s stories of growing up poor in Japan and struggling with culture shock when he and his family moved to Sacramento.

Now you’ll see Arai’s smiling face beaming from billboards and the side of Mikuni’s “sushi bus.” What started as a struggling family business on Hazel Avenue has grown into a restaurant group that in 2008 grossed $30 million and now has eight locations including one in Denver.

So, what’s fueled all of this success with sushi in Sacramento? Here’s what Arai had to say about “Abundance” and his career in a recent interview, by phone from Denver:

Between all of your traveling and slicing sushi, what prompted you to write a book?

I feel like I’ve been writing this book for the last 40 years. I had so many ideas for the book and wanted to give some history, and had maybe three times as much material as the book needed. The editor said, “That’s too crazy, that’s too wild!” So he kept cutting, cutting, cutting.

Back when Mikuni started in the late 1980s, sushi bars were fairly rare in Sacramento. How hard was it to sell sushi at first?

Every time I tried to serve sushi people would say, “Yuck, how can we eat raw?” I couldn’t make this one friend from high school try sushi back then, and now he comes in all the time and says, “Hey, Taro!”

My first idea with tuna was to try and make it as close to steak as possible. I soaked it in beef oil for half a day and then put butter on it. I was trying to figure how to cover the taste of fish, and people would say, “Wow, this tastes like steak.”

Traditionally, sushi has been treated more like a snack in Japan than the center of a meal. But you’re known for creating these rich and flamboyant sushi rolls.

People from Japan would eat (my sushi) and say, “What is it?” It was very different in Japan back then. But once they eat it, they say it’s so good, and when I go back to Japan, they ask me to bring our sushi to them.

The concept’s changed in Japan, too. At big department stores in Japan, they’re now making a lot of different kinds of rolls. Last time I was there, I ordered a California roll and it was $28! Crab and avocado is so expensive there.

Just about every strip mall around Sacramento has a sushi spot. How do you stay ahead of the competition?

If we think we’re good, we’re done. If we don’t keep improving, we’re done. We’ve got to improve every day, every year.

You talk in the book about how you got a little caught up in your celebrity at one point and success got to your head. How do you try to stay humble now?

One of my best friends came to Denver three months ago and we had the greatest time – and now he has leukemia. So I go and pray for him, and he tells me the same thing my dad says: “Nothing matters anymore. It’s all a gift from above.”

I go to church every Sunday with my whole family. I forget about the business and get back to basics. We’re born naked and we die naked. But I have so many goals and I want to give back to the community, to other people and God.

Speaking of humble, you write in the book that you were too poor to afford sushi while growing up. Is that part of what’s captivated you about sushi after all these years?

I just love fishing, and (growing up) whatever I would catch I would sell to neighbors or slice and eat it. My own dream was to open a sushi bar, but my parents could never afford it. Now I get to serve it and can eat it every day. It’s magical. Right now I’m getting a sustainable bluefin tuna from my hometown. It’s about $2,500 (per fish) but so worth it.

So what’s the best time to catch you behind the sushi bar?

Tuesday at Hazel and Wednesday at Taro’s. Whenever I’m behind the bar, it’s like my day off. I love people. It’s a miracle and that’s why I can’t stop smiling every day.

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