Archive for July, 2010

This is the final installment of the 3-part series “How We Met Our Chef” , see Parts I and II to catch-up..

It was time to deliver.

We disagreed over how to seal the deal with Phillip. Another call or email seemed redundant. Luckily, we had a meeting that week with Richard Brodhead, the President of Duke University. Although it seemed that a meeting to talk sushi would be a waste of his precious time…he loved it! He laughed that it’s moments like this that make him happy to do his job, (“I’ll quit the day I lose touch with the randomness of college life”). Upon hearing our predicament, he said the solution was simple. Wine and Dine him. Buy him a plane ticket, a hotel, court-side seats to the Duke basketball game, give him the full repertoire.

We laughed politely, unsure if he was serious.

Then we followed his advice.

We scraped together $320 bucks between the three of us and bought Phillip a flight from LAX to Durham. Our friend working in the apartment complex agreed to risk her job and let us use the “Model Room” to host Phillip for free (thanks Ashley!), and we were all set.

Of course, things never really work out how you plan them. We wanted to pace ourselves, get a good nights rest, discuss business in the coming two days. Well all that went to hell around 2 a.m when Phillip called my cell phone:

Phillip: “Hey you guys still up? I’m still on west coast time, so I can’t sleep. Bring down some beer and lets hangout.”

We didn’t even have beer in our apartment (What kind of college guys are we? I blame Dan, come’on Fratstar!), so we scrambled to make things work.

This was one of the most important “meetings” we have ever had. Even when all the business terms work out, if you can’t genuinely enjoy each other’s company, you’re doomed to fail in the restaurant business.

We ended up joking around until around 5 a.m. before calling it a night.  We traded stories and made fun of each other, and by the end of the night, I felt like Phillip had been part of the group for years.

We spent the next two days introducing Phillip to the amazing people that had gotten us where we are today. Whether it was talking management with the Director of Duke Dining Jim Wulforst, bonding with our mentor Laura Hall over her delicious Vegan Chili recipe, or talking Indian culture with our design expert Vandana Dake, Phillip showed us his amazing ability to connect with people. I’ve never seen anyone able to establish a genuine rapport with strangers as Phillip did that day on campus.

We felt the momentum building as Phillip learned that this venture was bigger than the three of us. Bigger than any amount of money. It was a grassroots venture that was built out of collaboration from the brightest and nicest people we’ve encountered at Duke, taking the time to lend their talents to something new and real.

The last night we took Phillip to the best local sushi restaurant in North Carolina, so he could get a feel for what the sushi quality is like outside of California. Our plan to “wine and dine” him had been going great. Although it was breaking the bank, he was our guest and we were happy to treat him after he traveled so far to meet us.

However, that didn’t stop my heart (and account balance) from sinking when I heard him look over the sushi menu and say to the waitress:

Phillip: “We’ll take two of everything.”

I think he must have noticed me ‘carrying the one’ in my head trying to figure out what that order just cost us, because he interrupted:

Phillip: “Tonight…Mange a me”.

Now I don’t know French. Or Italian. Or what-ever language Phillip was speaking, but the message was clear, step aside children, Daddy’s got this one.

He quickly began ordering things that weren’t even on the menu, letting us know that if we were going to be in business with him, it as gut-check time (literally). We took shots of Monkfish Liver and Sea Urchin, washed it down with some Salmon eggs and their finest Sake.

Phillip could not be stopped. One crazy order after another.

As we would anxiously await the next plate, Phillip would fill our shot glasses with Sake and say “Kompai”, a Japanese word that translates to “Cheers”. It’s a bit different than the jolly aussie version of Cheers. Drinking shot after shot of straight and cold sake can be difficult. This is why you raise your glass in the air, stating firmly and resolutely, “Kompai”, a commitment to doing the shot. It’s a commitment to each other. No hesitation. No flinching.

The night was just beginning, we had arranged courtside seats at the Duke Basketball game for us, but the momentum was undeniable.

All of a sudden it hit us. Here we were sitting across from me was Phillip Yi. Food Network Favorite. Throwdown With Bobby Flay Winner. Owner of Sushi Central in LA. Director of the California Sushi Academy.

The Challenge. The Story.  Partnering with renown Chef Phillip Yi had overtaken us. We got caught up in the excitement, wining and dining, eating exotic sushi and fine sake with the master. Watching him dissect and re-roll sushi we ordered. Teaching us the flavors and techniques right there, live at the dinner table.

We had become too absorbed in the excitement. This can’t just be fun and games, at the end of the day, this is business…right?

Phillip put down the sake bottle and became suddenly serious.

Are you guys ready to do this?”

We were stunned that the person we had been hustling for, the one person we had tried to convince everyone else was possible to partner with. Was there. He was ready, and now we were questioning ourselves.  Was this the right move? How could we afford to compensate him for his time and talents? What would become of his restaurant in LA? How could he travel away from his family? What was plan B? Hell, what was plan A?

All along, people have questioned our experience. They usually refer to restaurant expereince, but its times like this where you need life experience. To trust your gut instinct and make the right move. A leader. It was at this time when I started to compare Phillip to Barack Obama.

Hope. Change. Sushi. Yes. We. Can.

It sounds silly, but what Barack  and Phillip have the ability to do is to communicate powerful messages in simple phrases.  Many people can firmly say hollow words to convey empty sentiments.  True leaders use their words as anchors to echo confidence and reassurance that the tough decisions that we must make, are the right ones.

That with clear eyes and a full heart, you can’t lose.

As we sat in silence, glancing at each other searching for the right answer. Phillip quietly poured us each a shot of sake. We each raised our glass in the air, leaving doubts below. His voice was firm as he looked each one of us in the eye, unwavering.



PS. To reward you for sticking with the story, here’s some bonus material:

A clip from our conversation with Phillip where he explains the “Only reason I decided to talk to you guys”: (*Click below to listen)

Phillip Yi – Telecon


There we were, fall semester of our senior year, three handsome, young and cocky undergrads. The idea of Sabi was about 6 months old and we decided that it was time to stop talking about “bringing sushi to the masses” and actually see if we could roll some up for a group of friends. At this point our collective sushi making experience was absolutely zero. We had never made rice, never cut the veggies, never handled fish and sure as hell never tried to roll everything up into the perfect pieces you see on TV.

But hey…how hard could it be?  We turned to the place we go for whenever we don’t know what we’re doing…YouTube. After a couple of how-to videos we figured we had the gist of things. And set out to gather the supplies.

A few hours later the rice was on the stove, cucumbers and avocados were sliced and in the fridge, crab was ready and the salmon was finishing up in the pan. Our friends started to arrive, we had the music pumping, we had it all under control acting like we knew what we were doing.

Attempt #1, Trev:

“So at this point we had 5-6 people over all sitting around waiting so I decided it was time to go for this and make something that they could snack on. I wet my hands just as I saw on the Youtube video, then grabbed a big handful of the hottest rice in the history of the world. It was burning my hand so bad I had to throw it into the sink…Ends up you’re supposed to let it cool”

Trevor's first try.

Damn, we can’t just sit here and wait for this rice to cool while our friends are here waiting and expecting the sushi experience of a lifetime! So, we stuck the bowl of rice in freezer for a few minutes which in turned transformed our delicious fluffy rice into a hard and crusty substance that would stick to anything like super glue. Perfect…

Attempt #2, Shaan:

“The rice was now absolutely destroyed but we still had sushi to roll and mouths to feed. I decided that I was going to go for it anyways, I knew I couldn’t look worse than Trevor who ended up throwing his rice all over the kitchen. I placed my sheet of seaweed on the cutting board, had the ingredients laid out in front of me, wet my hands, scooped up some too cold to be edible rice and tried to spread it on the seaweed. It might as well have been peanut butter. It just stuck all over my hands. 8 grains at most made it on to the actual seaweed. I headed for the sink to rinse off failure #2…”

Shaan working his magic

Well… this wasn’t going to be as easy as we thought, but we’re not quitters. It was desperation time and like Kobe in crunch time Dan saved the day. It ends up that when he realized that the rice batch was most likely destroyed he called up a local sushi restaurant and ordered a couple of to-go boxes of rice. Legendary move.

Attempt #3, Dan:

“I could tell as soon as the rice went into the freezer that we were doomed so I had to take matters into my own hands and provide a little back up. Once the new rice arrived we were in business. And it was about time because at this point our friends Mike, Liz, Jen and Stacy had been waiting for the big moment far too long. With the new rice rolling was easy, we felt like professionals.”

The 1st Roll

Shocked that it worked.

The proud father.

In the end it was a success. We worked out the kinks and made it happen. Little did we know that this would become a common theme on our journey of opening Sabi. Many times we will jump into things not knowing what to do or what to expect, but every single time someone will find a way to make it work. Sometimes it’s Dan calling in for backup rice, sometimes its Shaan knowing exactly what to say during intense negotiations or sometimes its Trevor who will stay up all night to get any job done. But that’s all we want to say about us for now…

We want to dedicate this post to all of our friends back at Duke that helped us make it to where we are today. They were the ones that would put up with our “sushi nights.” They were the ones that would help us out when we couldn’t figure out how to print posters, do html, what to say in our elevator pitch or the thousand other things we had no idea about. We are so grateful for everything you did and for putting up with us for 4 years.

Michala, Minette, Tawfiq, Mike, Liz, Stacy and Jen, thanks for everything.

The Fam


This is part II of the series  “How We Met Our Chef”,

see part I here


So now where were we…ah yes…

“I need to talk to Phillip Yi…how do I make that happen.”

Stage 1: Sabi gets its 1st date.

The importance of that phrase “how do I make that happen” went unnoticed for months.  But first, I should explain what happened in the rest of our first conversation with Phillip. We spoke briefly, explaining that we were seniors at Duke, and wanted a chance to talk with him about a business venture. He was busy at the restaurant that day, but he said he’d give us “five minutes” the next day around 4pm. 

Stage 2: Sabi gets its 1st crush.

We couldn’t sit still. We were beaming. It’s hard to put the feeling into words, but it’s one of the rare times you know everything just changed. We’ve been searching for that same feeling, a level of certainty that can only be verified in your gut, whether the subject is hiring a new team member, or finding the ideal first location, when you know, you know.

Stage 3: Sabi gets to 1st base.

The high of that moment began to wear off once we realized that it was now time to deliver.  Our conversation the next day was brief.  We offered to send him some materials in writing that would give him a better idea of what Sabi is all about, and we exchanged email addresses.

We created an executive summary, a two page document explaining the essentials of our venture. We were proud of it, and eagerly awaited his reply or phone call just moments after we pushed send.


A week passed.

…still nothing…

Stage 4 : Sabi gets clingy.

Trevor tried to call back multiple times, each time Phillip was “unavailable”.  We began to question if  Phillip was avoiding us, screening our calls.

Stage 5: Sabi gets blown off.

On the way home, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I called Phillip’s restaurant Sushi Central  and asked if he was… “available”, and to my surprise, he was.  I asked if he had a chance to look over our Executive Summary.

Phillip: Oh..yea, I did..


Phillip: I get it, so you guys are just making the Subway of sushi.

The way he phrased it so non-chalantly, just the Subway of Sushi.

It’s always been tough to describe what Sabi Sushi is. Analogies are dangerous, because people take them too literally. We want the style and simplicity of Apple. The freshness and healthiness of Subway. The  service and speed of Starbucks. The taste of Phillip Yi’s recipes… I had confidence we could accomplish the other pieces, but with Phillip blowing us off, we were in for a rough ride.
We finally conceded. A month had passed. We had gone five straight emails without a reply from Phillip. He had been nice enough to speak with us, entertain the idea of working with us, but in the end. He was 3000 miles away, and light years out of our league. We decided to stop emailing. In our last email, we played it coy, saying that we would send him our full business plan the next day, but never did.

Then one day, just when our lives were filled with tests and papers, I checked my mail in between classes and saw it.  One sentence.

Stage 7 : Sabi gets its groove back.


(Part III coming Friday..)

Since Shaan isn’t giving you Part 2 of How Being a Stalker Saved Sabi Sushi until Wednesday, I guess I’ll have to break up his story with an update from LA…

While I expected to move on from scraping fish, it turns out this will be a staple of my time here in LA. Fortunately, it gets easier the more you do it (on the positive side I am getting to know my way around yellowtail, tuna and salmon pretty well) but ultimately it’s a very boring job.

Luckily, yesterday Phil decided it was time for me to learn how to cut….let me recreate the scene for you:

Phillip: Dan, you are a much better scraper than Trevor.

Dan: Why thanks, Phil.

I mean…

Phillip: Alright Dan, it’s finally time for you to learn how to use these knives and practice cutting…

Dan (thinking): Awesome, I can finally stop scraping fish and practice making sushi!

Phillip (pulls out a bucket): Here you go…

Dan (realizing this is not a bucket of fish but instead a bucket of chicken): (silence)

Phillip: Did you think I was going to let you destroy my fish?

So I spent the next hour or so sharpening my knife skills (sorry for the pun) by removing the fat from chicken and then filleting it for teriyaki (don’t worry, the story is about to get relevant)…

Anyway, the restaurant was pretty dead, so most of the other employees were just standing around. Once they saw the mountain of chicken in front of me however, they grabbed cutting boards and knives and joined the cause.

I bring up this story because it shows the type of working environment Phillip has created at Sushi Central – no one else was told to help me, no one was even supposed to help me (sorry Phil) but they did because they wanted to when they saw I could use some help.

Even having only been there 5 days, I can see how close of a family Phillip has created at Sushi Central. Since the restaurant industry has such tough hours, it’s not unreasonable to say that sometimes you are in the restaurant more than you are even at home (including sleeping!). But in order to not go crazy you have to enjoy yourself while at work.

For the past few days I have spent 13+ hours/day at Sushi Central, and honestly I have enjoyed every minute of it. I once wondered how some employees could work such demanding hours day after day, year after year – but Phil’s approach to the workplace has allowed me to see myself doing this.

When I asked Phil about how he treats his employees, he immediately told me that if I was to remember one thing from my trip to LA, it wouldn’t be how to make sushi or how to even run a restaurant…instead, it would be how to treat your employees so that they’re always happy, and that in return they will help you operate a successful business.

Whether it’s making everyone sushi and having a ‘family’ meal right before the dinner crowd arrives, or yelling for everyone to come watch Pulp Fiction on TV in the middle of the day, you always have to create an environment that is both inviting and fun for everyone. True there is a ton of work to be done, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to make it enjoyable.

I’ve never seen a workplace quite like Sushi Central, and I think that adds to the charm of the place. While the food is awesome, I think Sushi Central has so many regulars (literally, some people come 2+ times a day just to hang out) because the customers sense the relaxed atmosphere of the place.

I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to find a crew of people quite like the Sushi Central staff, but using Phil’s philosophy as inspiration we can emulate most of the positive aspects I found at Sushi Central.


We started with good intentions, I promise.

Trev and I were sitting in our apartment, fresh off of deciding to skip class for no good reason. To keep with the trend of uselessness, we flipped around in our Tivo Suggestions menu to see what our little black box thought we might like. In between a Spanish soap opera (Los dias de nos Vidas!) and a Sports Center re-run was a Food Network show called “Throwdown! With Bobby Flay”. I had never seen the show before, but the host (Bobby Flay) travels around the country challenging premier chef’s in their specialty cuisine. Once I realized that man’s best friend (Tivo) had suggested a Sushi Throwdown, I felt the wheels of fate turning. We laid back and watched Bobby challenge a Sushi Chef named Phillip Yi from an obscure restaurant called Sushi Central out in L.A.

The idea of Sabi had been floating around for a few months already, but it wasn’t “real” yet.

We had been searching locally for a chef, interviewing the top chefs in the Raleigh-Durham area (ie. the cream of the crap) and had found either traditional chefs with no imagination, or greedy chefs, ready to sell out and sacrifice quality at the prospects of our national chain. The process was getting frustrating, so it was refreshing to see a funny, passionate chef like Phillip on TV.

Phillip’s behavior reminded us of ourselves: confident and borderline cocky, unfazed by the famous Bobby Flay, he subtly mocked Bobby’s sushi sauces (“Mmm that will taste great…on chicken”) and interacted with the customers rather than preening for the cameras to seize his fifteen minutes of fame.

Most importantly, instead of playing up the mystique of a Sushi Chef, he taught the customers about the flavors and fish, methods of eating, and in the end won the crowd over by making sushi simple, accessible, and delicious. We later found out that he did the entire show against doctors orders with a broken wrist. They cut off his cast so he could roll just before the camera’s started recording, making Phillip Yi the Kerri Strug of Sushi ).

By the end of the show, I looked at Trev:

Shaan: “We need someone like that.”

Before I could even explain why, Trev swivled his computer around and I saw that he had already been asking Jeeves (just kidding, he Googled it…)

“Phillip Yi phone number L.A.”

Moments like this are what Sabi is all about.

You see, after being randomly assigned Trevor as a roommate freshman year, we kept the living arrangement for 4 straight years.  It wasn’t always easy…Trev had a legendary stint sleeping in the dining room in Australia, and spent his  senior year tenure living in my walk-in closet. Even Anne Frank tipped her hat to him after those efforts.

Now, you know how hostages lose track of time and reality and get Stockholm Syndrome after being captive for days on end? Well the same thing happens after you live with someone for four years and on two different continents.  So when Trevor proudly showed his Google-Stalking of a Food Network Chef 3000 miles across the country, I found it perfectly normal.

I nodded reassuringly at him as if this action wouldn’t result in a restraining order, so he picked up the phone and started dialing.

Now we’ve cold-called people before. If you do it enough times, you become numb to the process. At first it was exciting to try to contact the heads of Chipotle, Subway, Starbucks etc…but 99% of the time you just get the run-around. By now, I’ve got “On Hold” and “Thanks I’ll try back later” in my Fave Five.

I sat up in my chair a bit as I heard:

Trev: “I need to talk to Phillip Yi…how do I make that happen?”

But I didn’t sit up until I heard a familiar voice on the other end,

“This is Phil. Talk to me”.

Trevor froze. Eyes blazing with excitement. Sabi Sushi just became very real.  (Don’t even blink, Part II is coming on Weds..)


After hearing so much about Sushi Central from Trevor, I finally set out for Los Angeles bright and early on Thursday morning. Phillip picked me up at the airport around 11am and I got to his restaurant, Sushi Central, a little before the lunch crowd arrived.

Since Trevor was thrown behind the sushi counter on day 1, I was expecting to be rolling in no time. However, soon after I got there Phil informed me that Trevor just got lucky since he was short staffed when he got to LA. Instead, I would have to work my way up to sushi rolling – learn the basics before I get behind the sushi bar.

“Welcome to Sushi Bootcamp” is what Phil said to me as he tossed me my Sushi Central uniform: an official sushi central shirt and hat along with a black apron. I laughed at this idea, but as it turns out, he wasn’t joking. I felt like the Karate Kid for the past few days – Phil has become Mr. Miyagi…

Phillip v. Mr. Miyagi

The first thing Phil had me do was to scrape some salmon and tuna. In order to make really good spicy tuna/salmon mixes, you have to scrape the fish in order to get rid of the fibers. This is a VERY time consuming process, but makes the spicy mixes taste amazing. Most sushi restaurants don’t bother to do this, but I guess that is why Phil’s sushi tastes so good – the more work you put into preparing the sushi the better it will ultimately taste.

After a few hours of that my hands were caked with tuna (and I’m pretty sure the smell is never going to go away) but I could now see some of the work that goes into making good sushi. I knew things weren’t going to be easy, but I think I am finally starting to see how this is all going to work out for Sabi.

For lunch I tasted some of Phil’s sushi, and he did not disappoint. I had his famous spicy tuna and crunchy rolls – the two rolls he sells the most of. I am pretty sure Trevor already said this, but if we can serve anything close to Phil’s sushi at Sabi we will be golden…the sushi here was without a doubt the best I have ever tasted.

The rest of the day Phil had me prepare some shrimp for tempura – this is another time consuming process that involves peeling and cutting endless amounts of shrimp. Phil is slowly showing me what goes into prepping all aspects of his restaurant, the things that go on behind the scenes – I am coming to learn things aren’t as glamorous as they seem.

So far I am surviving Sushi Bootcamp, but we’ll see what Phil has in store for me over the weekend. The experience has been amazing so far and I am still really excited to see what’s in store once things really get rolling…

Duke Alum Stephanie Shyu did a news story on our team. Check out the video and hear what the Duke Community has to say about our mission: