How We Met Our Chef – Part III – “Phillip Yi Comes to Duke”

Posted: July 30, 2010 in The Sabi Story
Tags: , , , , , ,

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

  1. Priyanka Chaurasia says:

    Wow. I am so moved.
    A couple things:
    1) I am so impressed with how you all just took a chance. That’s what I find most memorable about this whole story– that you all had opportunities to go down the traditional Duke student path but just went for a dream. How many Duke students take chances after graduation?
    2) Congratulations on such a big win. I truly believe that luck is just when opportunity meets preparation, and it sounds like you guys all worked really hard to get where you did.
    3) It’s pretty amazing that you are all friends, roommates, and business partners. The fact that you aren’t driving each other up the wall is a huge feat, and probably a testament to your commitment and easy-going nature.

    Good luck! I am so excited to see how you all do, and can’t wait til the day that I can have delicious and fast sushi!

  2. sabisushi says:


    We appreciate the love. It may look like we tell our story to entertain, but it feels great to inspire. We don’t have much experience, so we had to be fearless. Just like you said on your blog, we’re all told growing up that “the sky’s the limit”, but hey, there’s footsteps on the moon right?

    Thanks again for the support! Keep us updated on what you’re doing, and let us know if there’s any way we can help!


  3. […] 3. No Alcohol – There’s no beating around the bush here, booze is a great form of social lube, and getting hammered together can be a great bonding experience. In fact, we went from being in awe of Phillip the Food Network Chef to really believing he would teach and work with three 21-year olds over a couple of bottles of sake on the first night we met. […]

  4. […] Start-Up Challenge), about when we hit rock bottom (living in a basement in Greeley, CO), about meeting and training with our Chef/Big brother Phillip Yi, about the big change in our concept, and about […]

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