Credit: Dan Epstein
By: Laura Kathleen Maize
There are several reasons why I consider myself lucky to live in Toronto, and the opportunity to eat food from all over the world for reasonable prices is at the top of the list. But sometimes even a $10 dinner out can be a luxury–I know I’m not the only one–and it’s us thrifty people who need to get creative in order to consume the food we love. I’ve been spending some time in Detroit lately, a city that has nowhere near the cultural food chops that we’ve got, and I’ve learned that a lack of tasty or affordable options can result in some very cool things.
In the Corktown neighbourhood of Detroit, Dr. Sushi runs a pop-up sushi restaurant from his apartment. Last Wednesday was his first day of business–he took email orders all week for an intense 12-hour shift that he’ll continue every Wednesday for as long as he can. I was skeptical. I’ve eaten homemade sushi before, but after I tasted a few different rolls I started paying attention. Dr. Sushi’s maki rolls were better than anything I’d tasted in Toronto, and for a fraction of the price.
Are you wondering why I am referring to him as Dr. Sushi? It’s because what he is doing is illegal. In America it’s against the law to sell perishable goods from your home without a license. But that often doesn’t stop people, and nor should it. Dr. Sushi’s kitchen is as clean as any restaurant kitchen, and not working in a restaurant setting gives him the opportunity to learn, grow, and try new things. And isn’t that kind of the point?Credit: Dan Epstein
He started working at a sushi bar when he was a sophomore in high school, an experience that taught him the basics of sushi making, and the acceptable health standards to work within. More recently, he’s been teaching sushi rolling to middle-aged food enthusiasts. “After one of my classes I had a ton of leftover ingredients because a bunch of people didn’t show up. I was rolling up stuff for my assistants to take home when I started wondering if I could sell any of these to my friends on the way home. I thought about this other lady in Detroit who was selling noodles out of her house last year,” he said, “and a bunch of people freaked out about it and there were lines out her door every week.”
So far it’s looking like he’ll get the same reception. Despite just starting his company, the word of cheap-n’-delicious food has already spread–friends of friends, hip 20-somethings, neighbours, coworkers, families, and the like all flocked to his apartment on the first day. When I talked to Dr. Sushi about why his first day went so well, he was pretty straightforward. He thinks it has a lot to do with the sushi choices in Detroit.
“The only place to get sushi in the city is Wasabi and that place sucks. It seems just like the sushi you can buy in grocery stores and everything tastes the same,” he said. “The Metro Detroit area has some good spots, but a lot of people can’t really afford to eat sushi at a restaurant right now. Noble Fish is the cheapest and best place, so I modeled my prices by rounding down everything on their menu.”
Though Dr. Sushi has been making sushi for about eight years, if you know anything about sushi, you’ll know that’s barely a drop in the bucket–and he knows it, too. He admits to making what he calls Americanized sushi–maki rolls with the basic avocado, cucumber, salmon, and tuna combinations, and he makes specials each week, like the Green Dream, asparagus, avocado, cucumber, and basil and the Leap Roll, with sautéed shitake mushroom and baked Japanese yam. “I know I’m a poser since I’m most likely not going to go through a rigorous Itamae apprenticeship where I’m not allowed to make rice for five years or whatever, but I think sushi is pretty delicious even if I’m eating and making totally Americanized style sushi. That being said, you’ll figure out what works for you through trial and error eventually.”Credit: Dan Epstein
When I asked him about what he sees for the future, he replied: “I figure if I can make the cheapest sushi in town, offer people an affordable healthy meal that didn’t exist before, and make enough to keep me afloat, I’ll be satisfied. But I’d like to see where I can go with it, maybe I’ll be able to expand somewhere down the line.” But expanding means finding a commercial kitchen that he can work in, which takes money, contacts, and time. For now, he’s happy working from home, “listening to tapes and hanging out.”
“There’s underground food all over the place, but people in Detroit generally have less money and fewer affordable food options,” he said. Toronto’s underground food scene (which you can look into here) is vast but doesn’t vary much from fine dining, and if we have any Dr. Sushi’s among us, then they’re hiding themselves well. I’d like to raise a challenge to all Toronto-based amateur foodies, to feed all the over-worked and underpaid food lovers among us. Open your kitchens to us, and we will come.