By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Apr 15, 2011 at 9:02 AM

Lydia Chicoine says when she goes a day without making sushi, she misses it.

"No matter what kind of day I have, when I make sushi, it gets better," says Chicoine (pronounced "She-quin"). "It's a meditation for me. It helps me to stay focused."

But Chicoine does not only wear the chef's hat at the East Side Japanese eatery, Ichiban. She is also the owner and regularly waits tables. Chicoine bought the business seven years ago and started what she calls her "third career," which quickly became more a way of life than a job. What made you decide to buy a Japanese restaurant? Did you love making sushi?

Lydia Chicoine: I wanted to try something different and new. I had been a manufacturer's rep for 20 years in the outdoor industry and we ate a lot of sushi for lunch, mostly in strip malls like this one. When this opportunity came up, to buy this restaurant, I was really interested. I thought it was the challenge and change that I was looking for. And it was. The first year was insane, but it became easier, until it became tranquil.

OMC: Did you know how to make sushi / maki when you bought the business?

LC: No. I had never made it before. But I was a great cook -- my daughters and I do a lot of cooking -- and I knew how to run a business. So I handled it the way I handled my life in the past: I figured it out by doing it. I read, I looked at pictures, I practiced, I watched the staff. I was completely committed to learning.

I learned how to climb mountains by climbing Mt. Ranier and going to India and climbing in the Himalayas. It was the same with Japanese food.

OMC: What about making Japanese food is so appealing to you?

LC: I am a really picky eater and I want fresh food. Almost all of our fish here is fresh. The food is just so fresh.

Also, the tranquility of the environment. The music, the lighting, the work. I love all of it. It has led me to yoga and meditation -- a whole new lifestyle. I even listen to this music at home now.

And I love our customers. I know most business owners say that, but it's really true. We really have the nicest customers on earth. I always tell new staff this. I think it's the energy here. If people aren't nice, they stop coming here.

OMC: What are some of your favorite interactions with your customers?

LC: Recently, I accidentally dropped a little piece of seaweed in a guy's beer and we both laughed and joked about it for the rest of the night.

Once I married two customers right over there. They had been in for dinner a couple of nights earlier and they talked about finding someone to marry them, and I told them just to ask a friend. I also mentioned that I had (officiated weddings) before. They sent me an e-mail the next day, asking if I would marry them, and so we did it right there, during lunch.

OMC: Did you close the restaurant?

LC: No. We just moved a few tables. It was really fun.

Other customers photographed me with their children, and then when they had a new baby, they came in to take a photo of me with the baby. It was touching.

OMC: So is sushi kid-friendly food?

LC: So many children come in here for their birthdays. They pick this for their birthday dinner. It's great; a little kid ordering salmon rolls.

OMC: What is your favorite kind of sushi /maki to make?

LC: I personally eat mostly sashimi (cuts of raw fish) but I love to invent new specialty rolls. I pay close attention to what our customers eat and seem to like and I incorporate that into what I make. The servers here are really critical of our food -- and I'm really critical of our food -- and it's good, because we work until we get it right.

OMC: So what's the specialty roll tonight?

LC: Matsuri rolls. "Matsuri" means festival in Japanese, and this roll has red and green on the top, like a holiday, so that's where it gets the name. I was actually trying to invent something else when I created this; it just popped into my head. And now this is our most popular specialty roll. It has shrimp tempura and a crab mixture on the inside, then it's rolled and covered in bluefin tuna and avocado and drizzled in sweet sauce. Do you want to try it?

OMC: Absolutely. How many different rolls / sushi options do you have?

LC: Over 100. And people can custom order anything. We'll make it up.

OMC: Tell me about your Asian Bloody Mary.

LC: Oh, that was fun to invent. It's made with Japanese rice vodka, ponzu sauce (a citrus-based sauce) -- we mix all of our own sauces -- and Asian spices. It's garnished with oshinko pickles and shrimp.

OMC: Are customers ever intimidated by or unsure of the menu?

LC: Yes, and I love it. They'll say, "I've never had sushi before" and I'm like, "Yes!" The servers are trained to find out what the customer likes to eat in general and then make suggestions or customize something that will work for them. People are different. Some can eat raw fish right off the bat, but others need to start with California rolls for a while before moving on.

We educate people on the terminology, too. People say they're going out for sushi, but sushi is really a ball of rice with something on top of it and a lot of people eat maki rolls or sashimi when they go out for "sushi." And we have great kitchen food here, too. The tempura is really good. The Chilean sea bass is really good, too.

OMC: Do you think sushi is a fad food?

LC: No. People have been eating sushi for many, many years. It feels good to eat sushi. I eat here on my days off and I haven't gained any weight since I started this business.

OMC: You said this was your third career. What else did you do besides work in the outdoor industry and own a sushi bar?

LC: I was in the Army for three years. That was a long time ago. Things were different then and because I wanted to have kids, I left. I also worked for Jog Bra for more than six years. Remember "Jog Bras?" They are owned by Champion now but I was their operations director before it was sold.

OMC: I do remember Jog Bras! How are sushi chefs allowed to make food without gloves?

LC: We have a variance in order to not wear gloves. It's actually, in my opinion, cleaner not to wear gloves. They can get pretty gross. We have a very strict system and chefs learn what to touch, what not to touch, how often to wash and how to wash. The health department visits us a lot, and that's good. They should. They keep everyone on their toes.

OMC: You also serve food, right?

LC: Yes. I helps me stay on top of what's going on. It allows me to interact with our nice customers. Serving is a great experience for me. I believe that every experience is good -- even the bad ones end up good in some way. If you just keep working hard and doing the right thing, you find yourself with something beautiful.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.