Born in Kyoto, Japan, Chef Mitsunori Kusakabe came to food through an interesting path. He graduated from Kinki University with a degree in architecture. Chef Kusakabe feels that there can be a connection between cooking, food presentation, and architecture, “in the way we design and in how we build our flavors,” he says.
“I started training in restaurants when I was 18,” he shares. “At the same time my father passed away, so I had to work. I learned lessons from an older chef who asked me to operate the kitchen. The chef really liked me, and I started getting more serious. I studied more, a lot more. Then one day, I took a professional cooking Japanese test and I passed.”
Chef Kusakabe’s early culinary experiences captured his heart and helped shape his path moving forward.
“My grandfather lived in the U.S. for a little while, so when I was little, he told me about the U.S. I still remembered it, so I decided I wanted to come, but I didn’t have a job or a visa. I was looking for a job in Los Angeles. Then I found a job working in a restaurant in San Francisco. One day, I met a guy, he’s from my hometown, he had a restaurant and told me I could work there,” explains Chef Kusakabe.
“I was 22 when I started working in the U.S. Not many people liked raw fish. But in Japan, there are so many different types of fish. I tried to use different Japanese cooking techniques to introduce Japanese food and culture.”
His namesake restaurant Kusakabe opened in Jackson Square in 2014. Chef Kusakabe would go on to earn a Michelin Star, rise to international fame for his food, and serve sushi to President Barack Obama.
To this day, Kusakabe is all about proudly representing culture and introducing new items to its patron’s palates, such as Shirako, which is the milt or sperm sacs of male codfish. Shirako is served in both raw and cooked form in restaurants throughout Japan.
Though dishes like these may seem outlandish to the average American, Chef Kusakabe is all about exploration and allowing diners to try something new that they may find delicious. He also serves fish more familiar to Americans such as fresh BBQ white eel, lobster omelets, salmon, and snapper. Meticulously hand-crafted meals can be paired with wine or sake.
As the world weathered COVID-19 and San Francisco’s eateries were ravaged by the pandemic, Kusakabe kept safety as their number one priority. They closed for about three months without any service but continued to support their staff. Kusakabe also sent out an email to a loyal customer list offering free sushi, as a show of support for guests.
They’ve since explored different dining options, such as outdoor dining and takeout, ultimately deciding to do takeout only. They wanted to keep their connections with diners, and this was a way to maintain an organic relationship. Kusakabe initially started with offering takeout services one day a week, since their aim was not business for profit, but to offer incredible food and human connection. As COVID safety measures have allowed and demand increased, Kusakabe expanded its menu and operating hours.
Their website provides a loose Japanese translation of the concept of takeout, called “Omiyagi.” This term has a deeper meaning of care and giving food as a show of gratitude and support. It, “implies a gift to thank your beloved family members, dear friends, and those who support you, or to give them happiness,” explains Chef Kusakabe. In uncertain times, this warmth is a welcome balm and along with phenomenal food, an enduring part of Japanese hospitality and culture.
Address: 584 Washington St., San Francisco, CA 94111
Contact: 415-757-0155 / Kusakabe’s website