Following the Mayanoki Example
I wonder sometimes how often we can utilize common sense practices but never do. Single-use materials, fast fashion and vacant spaces that can be used to feed the community are all things that come to my mind when thinking about common sense through a sustainable lens. I’m not the only one who sees these sorts of things happen and call people out on it. Package-free shops are sprouting up from the ground, people are thrifting their clothes and in entire cities there are initiatives that convert unused plots of land to grow fruits, vegetables and grains for the neighborhood.
When it comes to food, cuisine and the restaurant industry, it feels like we choose to see these common sense practices only in certain areas. A chef wouldn’t dare put a sea turtle soup or a seared snow leopard steak on the menu (though that would take some serious balls). For most restaurants, extra food at the end of the night gets passed along to either employees, customers or those who go hungry rather than discard and waste it all. Common sense, right? Then why don’t we think about this when it comes to the global delicacy of sushi?
Chef Jeff Miller of the 8-seat, East Village omakase sushi restaurant Mayanoki is making it his mission to serve up delicious fish not considered to be traditional sushi material. In doing so he’s slowly changing the way we think about how we view this Japanese cuisine. According to Jeff, “I don’t view myself on a huge sustainability mission or crusade or anything like that, I just want to make sushi the right way...It’s strange that you have to promote being a sustainable restaurant, which means that there are so many sushi restaurants that don’t put that thought into what they’re sourcing.”
The globalization of sushi combined with its strict adherence to Japanese tradition has caused overconsumption of certain species of fish to the point of endangered status, most notably bluefin tuna and unagi (Japanese eel). For Pacific bluefin tuna, 97% of their wild populations have diminished. Yet, it’s still consumed and placed on menus across the world by sushi chefs without question. Some sushi chefs will say it just isn’t sushi if the “right” fish aren’t used while others will claim that nothing tastes better than a bluefin tuna. If you mention the idea of using an abundant, local, non-traditional fish as a substitute they won’t consider it. It’s almost as if other interpretations of the cuisine, other ingredients or other styles aren’t even recognized as legitimate.
To draw comparisons, perhaps it’s the same as a Chinese chef saying that anything other than jiaozi are the dumpling. Have that chef try saying that to any dumpling maker in Tibet, Shanghai or Japan with their momo, xiao long bao and gyoza and they will be seen as stubborn. Or what if a pizza maker in Naples were to say that Roman, New York, Detroit and Chicago style pizza just isn’t pizza? Some might agree with the Neapolitan pizzaiolo with his accusation against Chicago...but I digress, you get my point. Maybe a cuisine should be a template to express creative adaptations rather than a strict set of rules.
Hailing his origins from Grass Valley, California, chef Jeff started making sushi in 2007 while he was in college in Florida as a way to earn extra cash while studying. He told me it was the first restaurant job he took seriously. Like a lot of people who suddenly find themselves in the culinary world, he loved it more than I thought he would. The first sushi restaurants he found himself working for were sourcing farmed salmon, farmed yellowtail and bluefin tuna, all of which are species viewed as staples of Japanese sushi but are incredibly damaging to their populations. “When you’re working at high volume sushi restaurant you’re not receiving whole fish. You have one menu and it’s consistent every day and when you’re receiving fish fillets, fish starts to seem like substance more than an animal. So you’re receiving these blocks of meat and you’re not thinking about the entire creature, where they came from and how to handle them.” Once he took note of this it was almost of a conscious awakening while working on the line. He did some research on what exactly he was serving customers and got more involved into sustainability practices. “It didn’t feel right to do anything else,” he told me. “Sustainability should be assumed.”
Mayanoki didn’t start with Jeff. It was actually a pop-up before his arrival with previous chefs at the helm. The original owners of Mayanoki, Josh Arak and David Torchiano, were looking for a new chef in the summer of 2016 to which they got in touch with Jeff. Once at Mayanoki, he then helped Segway the restaurant from a pop-up to a brick & mortar. With two seatings a night at 6:30 and 9:00 with a max capacity of 8 guests, this omakase experience becomes incredibly intimate. Throughout the dinner it’s fairly easy to talk to Jeff while he’s preparing the next dish as well as the other guests sitting around. Overhearing conversations going on and can’t help but chime in. Chef Jeff is joined every night by one other staff member, Briana Provenzano, Mayanoki’s beverage director.
Dinner started with the grinding of wasabi on a sharkskin paddle, a warm towel given to us by Briana and drink orders. Hip-hop played in the background, putting us all into a state of comfort with full confidence in the journey chef Jeff was about to take us down. First course was a Prince Edward Island oyster with grapefruit and coriander flower, prepared beautifully. Rhode Island fluke sashimi with orange mint followed, and right after was the Arctic charr from Iceland, one of my favorite fish from that evening. Course number four was a New Jersey porgy (or scup), an abundant fish in the area that’s not seen as a delicacy whatsoever. That’s the real talent with Jeff and a sign of a true chef, he has the able to make anything taste amazing no matter what it is.
I was sipping on a cider when course five came to our plates: salmon roe from Washington wrapped in dried seaweed. Washington state and the Pacific Northwest is great when it comes to keeping the salmon populations flourishing with their salmon hatcheries. Course six was a black sea bass from Long Island followed by course seven, which is a fish known as Blue Runner. The southeastern fish was sourced from Florida as by-catch, or being caught by fishermen by mistake. Earlier that day, Jeff told me he knows nobody else serving the fish and it’s his personal favorite on the menu currently. In no way is Blue Runner seen as a “good fish” to eat, ironic because tastes similar to mackerel (aji), a staple of traditional sushi. Course eight was a New Jersey blue fish smoked by walnut wood. Course nine brought out all of the phones, farmed shrimp from Newburgh, New York. It laid raw until he whipped out his blowtorch and when the flame hit the crustacean it curls upwards.
Briana came by and topped me off with a surprise wine addition, a 2018 petillant naturel gewürztraminer white made by Channing Daughters, Long Island. I then turned my head to see chef Jeff place a small cube of Maine monkfish liver on my plate, also a surprise. It was the saltiest thing he fed me that night and it has stuck to me ever since, and I can thank both of them for that moment.
He kept coming at us with scallops from Martha’s Vineyard and another well prepared smoked fish, this time with applewood and steelhead trout from the Hudson. Lastly, Jeff went back with the blue runner and made us a soup with a Malaysian broth and shiitakes. Early Marches in New York can decide to give you a snowstorm, and let’s just say that was the perfect dish to leave on.
For a high-end sushi dinner with beverage pairings, it’s comparably very affordable considering that other New York City establishments such as Masa, Sushi Nakazawa and Shoji at 69 Leonard can cost a patron between $200 and $400 per person. Mayanoki’s base price: $95. I thought about this and my assumption was that it’s due to the fact that chef Jeff is sourcing local and abundant fish, which he assured me wasn’t entirely true. “Our price point comes from a desire to be approachable,” so that they could reach a larger audience and increase their sustainable impact.
I truly believe that what chef Jeff Miller and those who started Mayanoki are doing with fish needs to start becoming the standard for sushi. He told me that, “Sushi is behind on other cuisines due to it’s early evolution,” which makes sense when you look at all of the adaptations of Italian, French and Chinese cuisines. They’ve been around for a long time and from a creativity standpoint it gets less and less interesting if you’re prepared the same interpretation of a cuisine for centuries. With sushi, you’re having the same version of a meal just prepared by a different chef that’s overly bound by Japanese tradition. Once this stops being engrained in chefs’ and diners’ minds we can continue to enjoy these creatures of the sea in a healthy, safe and delicious way.