a friendship in conversation
In Japanese, “omakase” means that a sushi chef has taken full responsibility for their diner’s experience of a meal. They have chosen the highest quality fish, the most seasonal ingredients, the type of dishes they will serve, and the order in which they will serve them. For diners, “omakase” means that they put their full faith in the hands of the chef. They relinquish any tendencies toward fussy orders and modifications and trust that there has been unimaginable care put into what they are about to taste.
When Chef Kazunori Nozawa first opened Sugarfish in 2008, a restaurant which now has 10 locations dotted across California and one opening in New York City, he fashioned his menu around the omakase style. He said, “Trust Me.” And we all did.
In the beginning:
On the first day of the New Year, 2018, at 5:12 p.m. I was in my backyard playing fetch with my newly rescued, hyperactive American bulldog and wondering how much Xanax you can give a dog before it’s considered animal abuse when my phone buzzed. It was my childhood best friend, Alex, born in the same hospital as me 20 years ago, a mere five days separating our births.
Alex, 5:12 p.m. “Let’s get dinner!!!”
Emerson, 5:15 p.m. “Yes!!!”
“Where do you want to go??”
I’d moved inside by then and was watching the sun set between the eucalyptus trees that framed my kitchen window. A soft breeze blew in through its cracked pane reminding me of the gentleness of winter in Southern California. I was back on winter holiday from school in Rhode Island and had been expecting Alex’s text for a few days now. Ever since we’d gone off to college two years ago it had become a tradition that at least once during each of our respective breaks back in LA we would meet for dinner and fill each other in on everything that had been happening in our lives since our last meal. I already knew where we would go, so I’m not entirely sure why I even asked.
8:39 p.m. “Anywhere you want babe! I’m biased and
will say Sugarfish, but anything you want!”
Sugarfish. There it was.
It was where we went the night before I moved to Providence. It was where we went the day I came back for my first Thanksgiving break and, subsequently, where we went every break following. Now don’t get me wrong, Sugarfish is pretty flawless. For its price point it’s some of the best sushi you can find in Los Angeles, and there are many a day I wake up on the East Coast craving the unctuous chew of their blue crab cut roll. But for some reason, this time when Alex mentioned Sugarfish something inside me snapped. It was a small, brittle thing I hadn’t known was there in the first place, and its snapping sounded like years of resentment toward the cookie-cutter California lifestyle reaching a pinnacle.
8:41 p.m. “Sugarfish is always great but I’ve
also wanted to try that new sushi place on Abbot Kinny”
It was so predictable. I knew her suggestion even before she typed it. And maybe it upset me so much because it spoke to the predictability of Alex at large. After we graduated high school, Alex matriculated to UCLA for its dance program. As I packed my bags and moved 3,000 miles across the country, Alex left her electric car charging in her family’s garage and moved a quarter of a mile up the street from her house. Our first month apart I was jealous. I distinctly remember crying to my mom over the phone about how unfair it was that Alex still got to go out to eat at all our favorite restaurants, that when she had a stressful day in class she could walk home and bake cookies with her mom and little sisters and talk about it.
However, as those initial months turned into semesters, the convenience of Alex’s life started to irk me for a different reason. I was learning to navigate a new city, grappling with weather I’d never before faced, and creating a sense of self-reliance I never before needed. I loved it. The world was expansive and fresh and mine. How did she not also want that? Why was she happy with being so safe?
I waited about an hour before following up my previous text with further pushback:
9:30 p.m. “There’s also a sushi place called
King’s Burgers/Got Sushi? that is supposed to be amazing but it’s
in the valley so I get if you don’t want to make the drive”
In 2011 Chef Jun Y. Cha, an alum of Sushi Roku and a few other high-profile sushi oases, opened Got Sushi? in the back of a tired fast-food burger joint in Northridge. Freed from the expectations of a glitzy Hollywood dining experience, Cha took the liberties to let his culinary imagination run wild. Seven years later he is still serving up some of the most innovative Japanese cuisine in the city. I had never been. I knew this was a long shot.
9:43 p.m. “I’m seriously fine with anything you want to try!!!”
During a phone call home in early December, Alex had told me she’d decided to study abroad this summer in Florence. I was genuinely surprised. Alex, who had never once traveled alone, not even to sleepaway camp. Perhaps a new hope really was on the horizon—a hope for forging new paths and eating mounds of barely-seared albacore smothered in charred enoki mushrooms and drizzled with creamy pepper sauce.
9:57 p.m. “It says it’s a 35 min drive no traffic
for me I’m totally down to go but do u know of anywhere closer?!”
In 1940, Los Angeles opened its first freeway, the 8.9 mile, six-lane Arroyo Seco Parkway that later came to be known as the Pasadena Freeway. Construction continued throughout the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, tearing through mountains and fracturing communities. The master plan was to create a 527-mile long freeway system across the city and California as a whole. Efforts petered out in the early ’70s leaving pockets of LA in traffic traps. This halt was due, in large part, to protests from affluent homeowners who were too busy living their posh lifestyles on the Westside to be bothered with unsightly construction. To this day the Westside serves as a weekday wasteland between the hours of 3 and 8 p.m. Cars toil away for brutal hours in order to inch forward the insurmountable 15 miles from office to home. If you live west of the 405, one of LA’s three primary freeways that did make it through the construction process, it’s a safe bet that you’ll be staying west Monday through Friday.
Alex doesn’t drive on the freeways, a fact that has baffled me since we turned 16. My mom lives in East LA, and growing up I was accustomed to the fact that if I wanted to see Alex, I was going to have to come to her. So her next text was nothing short of shocking.
11:27 p.m. “But I’m literally down for anything!”
“I could meet you at your house & we could drive together!!”
2:24 a.m. “My house in Studio City?”
“If you meet me there I can just drive us to Northridge”
2:29 a.m. “Sounds good to me!! What time?!”
2:30 a.m. “Anytime after 3:30 or 4! If you want to beat traffic
you can get here at 4 ish and we can hang before we go out
2:52 a.m. “4ish should be ok!!”
Things were settled.
Tuesday, Jan. 2, 12:33 p.m.
“Ok I forgot I’m meeting with people around 2:30
and won’t be done til 5 which I know is bad for traffic
but I will leave at like 5:15? And head towards u!
When I was eight years old, I was tasked with creating a “planet report” on Saturn, and I made a model to go along with my research. The model was the most exciting part. I planned it all out—I hot glued half of a Styrofoam sphere and half of a foam arc to a folding poster board. Then I covered the foam pieces in blue and red crystals I’d found at a local bead shop. Halfway through construction, it became evident that the crystals were going to be too heavy. They were pulling the foam off the poster board, but I couldn’t stop. It was going to be so beautiful if only I could force it to be what I had envisioned. “Trust me,” I said to the board. “Just stay together and trust me that this is going to end up being incredible.” The board stayed together that night for the remainder of my hot gluing, but when I came downstairs in the morning it had completely fallen apart. It lay, fractured, in a pool of crystal shards.
Looking down at the glowing phone in my hand, I saw that old poster board and the Styrofoam slowly peeling. Why was I forcing it so much anyway?
12:42 p.m. “You’ll be dying! How about I
just meet you at Sugarfish around 5:30?”
12:49 p.m. “Ok!”
“5:30 is perfect!”