N.Y.'s Most Controversial Chef: I'm a Japanese Man Trapped in the Body of a White Jew

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A dish at Sushi by Bou. 'People ask me what good sushi is, and I tell them that good sushi costs $200.'
A dish at Sushi by Bou. 'People ask me what good sushi is, and I tell them that good sushi costs $200.' Credit: Sushi By Bou
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked

Sitting at the bar of one of his New York sushi restaurants, David Bouhadana has every reason in the world to be self-content. At 31, he is the owner of 'Sushi By Bou,' two highly regarded sushi restaurants in prime spots in Manhattan — one on 47th Street in midtown, in the theater district, and another on West 14th Street, in trendy bohemian Chelsea. But Bouhadana is also one of the city’s most provocative chefs who has faced some harsh reviews over his conduct.

'For my entire professional life, people have laughed at me for how I look. When I welcome my customers in Japanese, people don’t understand why a white guy like me is talking like that.'

“NYC’s most controversial sushi chef is putting diners on a 30-minute clock,” reads the headline of a recent story about Bouhadana on the travel and entertainment website Thrillist. An article on Eater New York, meanwhile, declared: “David Bouhadana has a problem, and we need to talk about it.”

On the Huffington Post news website, under the title “A white sushi chef is mocking Japanese accents. Here’s why it matters,” Carla Herreria wrote, in connection with reports that Bouhadana has affected a Japanese accent when speaking with diners, that when he “mocks the very same people who taught him his craft, especially in front of his customers, he gives people the impression that it’s OK to insult Japanese people. It’s a signal to his customers that being Asian is still a joke, even if you do appreciate the food.”

Despite his young age, Bouhadana has racked up exceptional culinary mileage, including considerable success in a city with the most competitive food culture in the world. At 19, he was head chef at a successful sushi restaurant in Florida, where he grew up. At 21, he went to Japan and studied for three years with one of that country’s most highly regarded chefs. He then went to New York, where he became head chef at a new restaurant, Sushi IO. At 26, he was a partner in another new restaurant, Sushi Dojo. Since then, he has managed to open two restaurants of his own, to attract raves from leading food magazines and to be included in the Zagat guide’s list of the 30 most promising young chefs in the United States.

David Bouhadana in Sushi by Bou. 'I want my sushi to be accessible to everyone.'Credit: Sushi by Bou

It 3:30 P.M. His restaurant’s staff are getting ready to open at 5. The place is small, by choice, with just eight seats at the bar. His customers don’t get a menu, he says with pride. He demands that they trust his judgment, and his culinary skills. The deal is straightforward: 12 pieces of nigiri, thin slices of raw fish served over rice. The pieces are served in succession.

When Bouhadana talks about Japanese culture, his eyes light up. “My heart is in Japan,” he says again and again. “It’s clear to me that one day I will get up and move there. It’s only there that I really feel at home.”

A box of Sushi by Bou.Credit: Sushi by Bou

Listening to Bouhadana’s expressions of pride in and passion for Japan, it’s easy to momentarily forget that his father is a Moroccan Jew who immigrated to Israel and his mother a French Catholic, and that he grew up in Boca Raton, Florida, where until recently there were more kosher restaurants than sushi places.

Ikura sushi.Credit: Sushi by Bou

“I grew up in a home with all the Jewish holidays, with meals at Chabad. During Passover, I would bring matza to school,” he says. His father immigrated to Israel from Morocco in the mid-1960s, served in the Israeli army and then wandered through Europe before opening a night club and several restaurants in Germany. It was in Germany that he met the woman who was to become Bouhadana’s mother, the daughter of a French army man.

Nigiri salmon.Credit: Sushi by Bou

“In 1986, my parents fled from Germany over anti-Semitic harassment,” Bouhadana says. “One day a group of neo-Nazis entered [my father’s] club, made a mess and threatened to kill him and the family just because we were Jewish. On the spot, he decided to sell everything and move to the United States.”

When it comes to Bouhadana’s affinity for Japanese culture, there are those who think he has taken it a bit too far by using Japanese with diners, a gesture not everyone has appreciated. The Huffington Post’s Herreria wrote that Bouhadana has also been accused of insulting Japanese people with a “mocking” accent.

“As a celebrated chef in New York, Bouhadana has a responsibility to present Japanese culture to other Americans in a respectful way. He has a responsibility to present Japanese people in a respectful way. Mocking their accents is the opposite of that,” Herreria wrote.

Can you understand why people have been offended?

“No. I am a shy type. I love my customers. For my entire professional life, people have laughed at me for how I look. When I welcome my customers in Japanese, people don’t understand why a white guy like me is talking like that. They don’t understand that I’m not putting on a Japanese accent. I’m just speaking Japanese, and I will keep on doing so. That’s who I am. Deep inside, I feel Japanese, just as a woman can feel like a man and a white person can feel black. My heart is in Japan, and it doesn’t matter what my face looks like.”

The entrance to Sushi by Bou.Credit: Sushi by Bou
Sushi by Bou. There are only eight places at the bar.Credit: Courtesy of Sushi by Bou

Is it true that you limit your diners to a 30-minute seating?

“Yes. I want my sushi to be accessible to everyone, and at a reasonable price. I’ve also made $200 and $300 sushi. People ask me what good sushi is, and I tell them that good sushi costs $200. And then when they say that’s expensive, I tell them to try my $50 sushi, and they’ll see that it’s the best sushi they’ve ever eaten. On the other hand, if I want to meet that price, they can’t sit for more than 30 minutes at my place. There’s a timer. When they sit down, I turn the timer on and after 30 minutes, they have to get up and go, and they understand this. I had a customer who wanted to stay a little longer and I let him stay another few minutes. It’s because of this that I only have eight places at the bar, and that’s it. You come to me to eat good sushi and go on your way, not to sit all evening. Someone who wants to sit for two hours has to pay $200 for such a meal, not $50.”

Despite all the fuss surrounding Bouhadana, he has not hesitated to push the boundaries. Around two years ago, when he was head chief at the successful sushi restaurant Sushi Dojo, he decided to risk everything and launched a well-publicized fight with the New York City Health Department. Bouhadana, who at the time had failed a number of inspections after being caught preparing sushi without wearing gloves, refused to comply with the city’s strict requirement in this regard, which hundreds of other more well-connected and powerful chefs had learned to accept.

Uni.Credit: Sushi by Bou
Unagi.Credit: Sushi by Bou

He organized a petition campaign, sent out letters and launched a fight to repeal the rule. The campaign not only ended in failure. His restaurant was shut down for several weeks and he sold his stake in it.

“For me, it involves an entire culture,” he explained. “I studied in Japan for three years. I busted my butt without earning a salary, and the first thing you learn there is to be clean. You have to be super clean all the time. At sushi restaurants, customers see how you prepare the food. They see everything. If I wasn’t clean, they wouldn’t eat at my restaurant. That’s why I wash my hands a thousand times. That’s why I never touch my face with my hands. My hands are clean. They’re perfect. On days when I don’t work, I get a manicure. They have to be clean.”

And now, after they shut down your restaurant, do you use gloves?

“I don’t want to get into this too much, but I don’t use gloves. They’ve come. They’ve seen, and tried unsuccessfully to shut me down. It’s a big deal from my standpoint, fundamental. I don’t know how to change it. All of the other chefs are afraid to talk because they don’t want to end up like me, but I’m not prepared to remain silent. In Japan, I worked 14 hours a day. I learned their work ethic, their discipline, what it means to be clean, and I have no intention to give everything up now.”