Shaan in LA – Dr. Phil

Posted: August 17, 2010 in Hall of Fame Posts

– Dr. Phil –

This blog post was supposed to be an update. A story of all the sushi skills I’m learning, or a funny story about rolling sushi for the celebrities that visit the restaurant here in LA (Hurley from LOST!) But after what happened today, things have changed.

For me, this blog has been just another way to promote ourselves. Tell our story. Expand our fanbase. I spent less time thinking about what to write, and more time counting our growing number of website hits.

Today? I want that number to be high. Today, I’ve got a story to tell. Today, I saw a car salesman walk in to sell a car, and leave with a new lease on life.

Onto the story…

It’s Monday, and things were slow, just a few customers dropping in during the lunch hour, and then a long break until a scattered dinner. As a restaurant owner, this is your biggest fear. You’re Nocustomerphobic. After you order fresh food, and have your whole staff waiting behind the counter ready to go…no customers.

Imagine sitting in your living room with a goofy cone hat on, balloons all filled with helium, and a huge cake on the table…but nobody shows up for your party.

You watch the clock. You wipe tables and re-organize utensils…the only cure for your anxiety.

Now the business side of me fears this outcome for Sabi. Becoming just an average Joe. Taking our great idea, and all of our excitement and energy, and having it turn out to be a dud.

But today I saw that its not all about the numbers and dollars.

The day started off with our waitress smiling cheerfully as she brought donuts to work. She was really excited that her night of heavy drinking didn’t cause her to be hungover today…

(fast forward about 15 minutes) ….we realized that she was just still drunk,

(1 hour later) Hangover kicks in.

Her pain was compounded due to a recent breakup with her longtime boyfriend.

Now Sushi Central is less of a sushi restaurant and more of a laundry mat inside an airport…I’ll explain.

The employees and customers all bring in their dirty laundry and emotional baggage to this tiny Sushi sanctuary in West L.A.  In just one slow Monday shift, Phillip coached our waitress, our chef, myself, our intern’s mother, and now a man named James, through all of our emotional distress. He wasn’t just Chef Phillip Yi. He’s the boss, Dr. Phil.  And apparently there’s no shoulder like a chef’s to cry on. (I bet its because of the delicious comfort food).

As I sat in the corner of the restaurant, jotting down notes on my journal while the dinner rush was slow, a Korean man walked through the door.

The day before, Phillip had gone to visit his sister in Orange County, who then dragged him car shopping with her. In the end, he helped her with the actual purchase of the car. However, due to a typo, the car salesman had made a 1-hour drive to the restaurant to get Phillip to re-sign the corrected papers. As Phil welcomed the stranger, he noticed that something was weighing heavily on the salesman’s mind. He offered him a seat and began talking with him. Phillip thanked him for driving all the way to the restaurant for the signatures, and asked a simple question about the car he was driving.

This is Phillip’s art. Asking questions and giving people space to open themselves up to him. The salesman immediately broke down, talking about how he had to borrow the car from a friend to drive here because he had lost his in his divorce. He soon revealed that he had hit rock bottom. He had no car, no money, 3 kids, a crappy job, and he was over 40 years old with nothing to show for it. He asked what he should do. Why was god punishing him over and over again?

When he was younger he had a good job (selling semi-conductors), getting a fat salary with bonuses, and a beautiful girlfriend. He loved her, tried to do a noble deed, paying for her entire college education for 4 years straight. As soon as she graduated, and had depleted all of his savings, she dumped him.

He was 30 years old, broke, single, and depressed. He attempted to hang himself twice and failed. He couldn’t even kill himself properly.

Now here he was, 40 years old, and in the same situation, expect with 3 kids to support.

Phillip listened. And I mean, really listened. Not the type of nodding and smiling and spending all your time thinking of what your response is going to be as soon as the other person shuts up. But really absorbing it. Listening.

He then gave the man some advice. That his happiness in life can’t depend on money. Or his job. Or his car. Or his girlfriend. Or anyone else but himself. He had to be a man, understand that things might be tough for a while, but to have courage, strength, and above all else: have hope.

“as long as there is hope. Hope. There is life.”- Dr. Phil(lip Yi)

You stay alive. You stay young. You maintain energy. Energy to turn your life around. To take responsibility for yourself and understand that your current state is a result of your past actions. Phillip’s then amended this Buddhist principle to connect with our Christian car salesman. He told him, “James. If you believe in God. Then this path he’s creating for you, is for the purpose of giving you the courage, and the strength, to do God’s work….Now, in order for you to help others, as I’m helping you today, you must have these trials, these experiences…Without experiencing difficulties and overcoming them, how can you help others? To truly guide them based on your own experiences, otherwise advice is just talk. Hot Air.

James repeated intently, “hot….air” his english was good, but he had never heard this phrase. Still he was grasping to every syllable Phillip was saying. He continued listening to Dr. Phillip: “There’s no meaning behind it. So if your path is to help others, then you must rise to this challenge and overcome it. Experience it fully.”

James sat and listened. He nodded. His English was poor, but his need for advice was so great that it transcended language. He understood the message. To stop asking God or the universe “why??” and start asking How can I change. What can I do. Where can I go. Who can help me.  And use rock bottom as a solid foundation to build an empire upon.

James tried to explain how he could feel his life change in that moment. From the time when he walked into Sushi Central, to the time that he would leave, he had changed his outlook on life.  He came in down, but not out. He was searching for help somewhere and Phillip was there to offer not just a helping hand, but also the tools for James to rejuvenate his life. He had given him hope.

James mentioned how he had hoped today would be a better day, but it started off by him losing two big car commissions. Now he may have lost two commissions, but he gained two friends in myself and Phillip.

I asked Phillip if it was draining. Being Dr. Phil, giving advice to our waitress in the morning, our chef in the afternoon, an employee’s mother during dinner, myself in our break time, and now James just before we closed, but he shook his head. He said it gave him energy. This is his gift, understanding human nature, connecting with people, penetrating their hearts. Whether he’s wearing the Sushi Central hat, being a father to his three kids, or adopting Me/Trev/Dan to go on this crazy sushi adventure, it’s his ability to connect with people that allows him to be successful. It’s the same reason that the Food Network picked him over the thousands of sushi chefs in America, and the same reason that we felt compelled to call Phillip after seeing him just once on TV.

As for me? Today was a new life lesson. That even though we’re starting a business, it’s not about the food, it’s about the people. The people you employ that feel like your family, and the people you serve, who make time in their crazy schedule of their crazy day, in their crazier lives to come eat at your restaurant.

You work for them. You can affect them.

I used to want to be a doctor so that I could save lives.

Tomorrow night, James is coming in for dinner. And I bet he’ll be standing a little taller, walking a little prouder, and living. Because we gave him hope.

Maybe I don’t have to be a doctor to save lives.

This is the best god damn Monday I’ve ever had.


  1. Fabian Friede says:

    “it’s about the people” – made me think of this article

  2. […] Had life changing conversations with Chef Phillip Yi at our L.A. […]

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