It's been half a decade since Chef Hajime Sato--to much media ado--converted his West Seattle sushi bar Mashiko into what he believes is (still) the only fully sustainable sushi restaurant in the city. The challenges he faced during that time were plenty: The sustainability switch, which swiftly ushered the chef and his eatery into the limelight, caused the restaurant's sales to plummet. And then there's that "open letter to bigot diners" Sato wrote in 2013 in response to negative comments about his staff's race and gender.
But the eco-friendly change has also included other interesting surprises. For one, sales came back and are now better than ever. Below we trace Sato from his sushi start to his 2009 conversion and on to what has changed at Mashiko--and in the sustainable seafood landscape--these five-plus years.
Raised in Utsunomiya, Japan (Tochigi Prefecture), Sato was not always a sustainability advocate: he started Mashiko in West Seattle in 1994 as a classic sushi joint. When the eatery’s guests asked where his seafood came from, he was embarrassed to admit he didn’t know, and started to learn about endangered fish species and the murky sourcing and widespread mislabeling of much seafood on the market.
Still, the chef took time to convert. While teaching cooking lessons around the city, Sato says, “I was telling people not to eat something because it’s endangered, then coming back and serving it at my restaurant.” His tipping point came when he learned about San Francisco’s Tataki sustainable sushi restaurant and decided he wanted he wanted Mashiko to assume similar standards.
“When I first changed it, no one thought it was possible,” Sato says. Many of his employees hated it, some regulars left, his parents still fear he might receive death threats from traditional sushi diehards.
“Sushi has become more and more like McDonald’s,” Sato says. He explains: “people want to eat every single thing the same [at sushi bars]. If they don’t see what they’re used to ordering, they freak out.”
When Mashiko completed its transition in 2009, sales dropped 20 percent right away, and didn’t bounce back until a year and a half later. "I felt like Seattle betrayed me,” he says. When profits returned, it was thanks to a lot of visiting diners from San Francisco, New York and elsewhere who supported his stand for sustainability.
Sato changed the criteria for the fish Mashiko serves and as a result, the menu changed, too. Now, all fish must:
- be traceable (Sato has to be able to determine where it came from)
- be caught without excessive environmental damage or bycatch (in some fishing methods such as trowling, many “extra” fish are caught along with the target catch, then disposed of)
- not be endangered
- have a positive pound-to-pound ratio between amount of the fish required to feed a growing farmed fish to the weight of that fish when mature.
These new standards eliminated major sellers like eel, bluefin tuna and yellowtail from the Mashiko menu, and introduced more albacore, catfish and small, but abundant local varieties like sardines and other plankton feeders. While many guests couldn’t stomach the changes initially, five years later—Mashiko is “crazy busy,” says Sato, and has even regained some old regulars. He estimates that about one third of the restaurant guests come for the sustainability focus, one third for the flavors and one third just because they just think it’s a hip joint—which the smartphone-less, doesn’t-follow-the-Seahawks Sato finds laughable, but he’ll take it.
The change has also brought a range of new challenges for Sato, from learning how to cook catfish better (which he bakes and serves with a sweet sauce, like he used to serve the highly endangered eel) to figuring out how to source sustainable octopus (it took two years) to responding to diners who claim he only uses sustainability as a marketing tool. (Concerning the latter, he invites all to ask him and the Mashiko staff where any of their fish comes from, which he says is the best approach in any sushi bar or grocery store for determining veritable sustainability. Hint: from a certain market is not a good answer. "Fish doesn't grow there," Sato says.)
Furthermore, as the frontrunner in the sustainable sushi movement in Seattle, Sato has pressure to make it work and convince diners. "I have to survive. The longer I survive, people can see me as a business model that can work, which is really important. I was very humbled because it was a really busy restaurant, then sales went way down, so I've had to figure out how to be really nice to people."
Sato has consulted with various other interested sushi chefs in the city, but the threat of dropping some of their major traditional sellers (again, bluefin, yellowtail, eel) has ultimately proved too much of a deterrent for anyone to take the level of sustainable plunge he has. The casual diner might think differently because an increasing number of local restaurants and grocery stores advertise sustainable seafood, but Sato warns there are no criteria for sustainable labeling, so it usually means little or nothing (think "natural" with beef and other foods). In addition to simply asking questions about source, he advises that the best way to start to learn about sustainable seafood is to consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch list, now available as an app, then continue to study.
In addition to San Francisco’s Tataki, Sato has heard about 10 or so genuinely sustainable sushi bars in the U.S. following criteria similar to Mashiko, including Bamboo Sushi in Portland. Globally, he imagines there are countless cooks who share his approach to sushi because serving the daily catch is “the oldest way of doing sushi in the world.” In Japan and elsewhere today, however, the model is much more typical in smaller, less urban operations.
Though it is encouraging to see his business boom, Sato is deeply concerned about the future of seafood and feels it warrants much more attention--just as he did in 2009 when he went sustainable.
“People should be talking about [sustainable seafood] period and I should not have to explain why,” he says. “A lot of studies have come out that say by 2048*, we’re not going to have any fish left. None at all. Just study. Come on, man. Even an egocentric [chef] should study this because in five or 10 years, there won’t be many fish left [if people don’t change their behavior now]."
*In 2006, Boris Worm, PhD, of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia released a widely publicized study with colleagues in the UK, US, Sweden, and Panama that anticipated a complete disappearance of saltwater fish by 2048 due to overfishing, pollution, habitat loss and climate change.