By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Nov 19, 2014 at 11:07 AM

Sometimes serendipity leads us in directions we might not expect. And doors open that we never thought possible.

Such is the case for Jason Morimoto, executive chef at Screaming Tuna, whose entry into the service industry was about as nontraditional as they come.

Morimoto, who is Puerto Rican and Japanese, lived in Puerto Rico until he was nine years old. At that point, he moved with his parents to West Allis, where Morimoto grew up. When he graduated from high school, Morimoto took a job as a machinist, and later a pharmacy technician. 

But, on the side, his obsession was sushi.

"I was always surrounded by delicious Puerto Rican food," he says. "My mother was a great cook, and Puerto Rican food was always there. The Japanese side, on the other hand, was always more fusion cuisine, since my dad was born in Hawaii."

So, when Morimoto moved out of his parents’ house, he started going to as many Japanese restaurants as he could, trying more and more of the food he’d missed during his childhood.

"I wanted to explore the cuisine," he says. "I started making sushi in 2003 as a personal hobby. At that time, finding the ingredients was a struggle. But, that’s where it all started."

I sat down with Morimoto earlier this week to learn more about his journey from casual experimenter to professional sushi chef.

OnMilwaukee: What was your relationship to food like when you were growing up?

Jason Morimoto: My mother was a good cook. Even the basics, like Puerto Rican rice, were great. To this day, I still think she makes the best traditional Puerto Rican rice in the world. We also ate a lot of tostones and plantain dishes. And in Puerto Rico, there was lots of great street food.

My ability to cook Puerto Rican food doesn’t compare with what I can do with Japanese. My mother was always there to make it. And for me, I’d come home after school. I mostly cooked by myself.

OMC: So, you learned to make sushi on your own?

JM: Yes. When I started working with sushi, I looked online. I went to the bookstore. And I was having trouble finding recipes that were true to it. I did come up with some resources for food that I trusted, but it was a struggle.

I started with rice and rice vinegar recipes. Traditionally the vinegar is a closely guarded secret. So, that was one of the things I started with. I tried a ton of sushi rice recipes. And some were horrible. In fact, the majority were horrible. And it really led me to develop a hatred for recipes. So, I started experimenting. I’d take a number of recipes and mix them up.

My grandmother also sent me her recipe for sushi rice and I used that.  It ended up to come down to the quality of vinegar.

OMC: What made you take the step to get a job at Screaming Tuna?

JM: When Screaming Tuna opened, they gave invitations to friends and family. I happened to have a connection with someone who had a friend who worked in the kitchen. So, I was invited.

While I was there, I met Justin Chan, who later went on to open Juto. And I mentioned that I was interested in having having a mentor to teach me more about sushi.  One thing led to another and they hired me as a cook on the sushi line.

Now that I’ve been doing it for three years, it’s hard to believe. I feel like I knew nothing. And now I have such a new collection of skills, including some techniques I’d never practiced -- like nigiri sushi -- which I’ve learned over the past few years.

OMC: Would you do it all over again?

JM: You know, when I look back, I wish I had started sooner in a kitchen. I feel like I would have progressed so much more. And having a mentor all along would have been really helpful.

OMC: Did you have any idea you’d end up in the industry?

JM: I’d always kind of dreamed of it – having a position in a kitchen like that. But, I never thought it would be possible. The traditional approach to sushi in Japan takes such a long time. So, I’m grateful that I could get in here and prove myself quickly.

OMC: How tough was it, starting with no experience in the industry?

JM: Those first few days on the job, it was interesting. I had my own techniques for doing things, and the guys would always look over my shoulder and remark that I had such a very different style. I was confident, so it wasn’t too bad. But, it was a little scary.

I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know what really laid ahead of me. I didn’t know how long it would take me to learn what I needed. But, as I started going, I learned a lot. When I was working at home, there was no pressure. Here, I had the pressure of performing. So, it made me faster and more precise.

OMC: How long before you were promoted to your current position?

JM: I’ve been executive for almost two years now. It was pretty awesome. They turned to me and thought I had the ability. So, it was really nice to be approached and to have that dream come true.

OMC: What people have had an impact on you over the years?

I’m grateful for people like Chef Justin Chan. He was a great inspiration for me, and taught me a lot.

Right now, I’m in love with Cajun and creole. I just got back from New Orleans on Friday. I was there for four days and went to like nine restaurants.  The food was so amazing. Chef Donald Link, Susan Speiser. They don’t cook Asian food, but the amount of love and heart that they put into their food, it inspires me and makes me want to bring that love to my kitchen.

OMC: What will you bring back to Screaming Tuna from that trip?

JM: There was one dish that really stood out insofar as fusion and French style went. It was beef cheek with sticky rice and house kimchee collard greens. And the au jus in the bowl was the most luxurious thing. It reminded me of really good ramen.

There were little things that were inspiring, and that I’d like to bring back to the kitchen. I love ramen, and I like the idea of making it into something that’s not a soup. I want to introduce it as something that’s so good, inspired by ramen, but just isn’t.

OMC: What’s occupying your time lately at the restaurant? What are you learning these days?

JM: Trying to remain sustainable is really a focus. That’s been difficult.  Working with vendors and trying to be sure that what we’re using is truly sustainable is a challenge. But, we’ve dedicated the restaurant to sustainability.

OMC: What have you learned from that?
JM: I’ve learned a ton. To be in this business of seafood and sushi… if you want to be successful, you need to be sustainable. The change is going to be inevitable for everyone, so we’re trying to get a head start.

But, it’s been challenging. I had gotten accustomed to certain types of salmon, eel. And some types of sustainably raised fish that are available don’t work for sushi. . We’ve had successes and failures.

We use King Crab; but it’s difficult to get, so we’re limited in when we can offer it. There are also adjustments we’ve had to make. For example, the salmon we preferred before had a higher oil content, and now it’s difficult to find an equivalent. Same with fatty tuna, which is usually Bluefin. 

OMC: What do you enjoy most about your craft?

JM: Getting a response from people. I did an event last Thursday. It was a  twelves person party. The person who threw the party wanted to do a tequila pairing. I was hesitant, but I worked to incorporate flavors and elements that would work.

I did pork belly with hoisin, which had some Chinese influence. We grilled some fish we’d normally use for sushi. We incorporated Kobe beef. I did five courses and we got Roca Patron in and they did the pairings. So, I worked with Deanna Saiki, our bar manager on those.

OMC: Screaming Tuna operates a bit outside of the box, doesn’t it?
JM: Oh, yes. What we use would never ever be used in a traditional environment. We are breaking 100% of the rules. You don’t put mayonnaise or deep fried things in rolls. You don’t use garlic, bacon, kimchi.

But, since we’ve moved to use more sustainable fish, we’ve also moved to some fish that are actually more traditional. Unago – salt water eel – is actually more traditional than unagi. And it’s more sustainable, so we use it.

I always had this wont to remain traditional as well. Traditional techniques and set-up. But, we’ve had good luck with less traditional approaches.

OMC: You serve Omakase here. But, that’s not exactly traditional either. What is it like?

JM: We give you a platter with various cuts of sashimi and nigiri. It’s what available, what’s most fresh, and what we want to showcase or create. So, you get the entire plate at once.

That’s not traditional, in that we don’t serve individual courses very intentionally.

A while back, some guys from Los Angeles who were in Milwaukee from L.A. stopped in.  They asked if we did omakase.  They were, of course, familiar with the more traditional way of serving it. So, I did it for them. I took them through 15-20 courses. We started with familiar fish like tuna, salmon and shrimp and then moved into milder fish, then more oily fish and more powerfully flavored fish and then something sweeter.

They loved it. They told me that if I came back to L.A., I could start a restaurant and have a line down the block. It was a great feeling. It was obviously not their first experience with it, but they were happy with the quality of the fish and what I did.

OMC: What is your favorite kitchen gadget, and why?

JM: It’s definitely knives. The different types of knives that have different purposes for different techniques. That’s how the Japanese do it. They have different knives for different things. The sushi knife is longer. But, if you want to cut cucumbers, you’re going to use a different knife.

OMC: What are some common mistakes people make while eating sushi?

JM: Well, we aren’t traditional here, so there really are no mistakes.

But, there are a few things. For instance, adding too much soy sauce or wasabi to sushi or rolls. I’ll often give people what they need for each piece. I like to set them up so they don’t need to do anything to it.

OMC: What is the most important ingredient in a piece of sushi?

JM: The rice. It’s all about the seasoning. Because sushi is all about how it ends up feeling in your mouth. You need to be able to appreciate it. It shouldn’t’ be mush, and you shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the seasoning. If the right seasoning isn’t there, you’ll notice. So, you want the balance.

Also the nori. The quality can really change things. Lower quality nori doesn’t break down as you’re eating it. And you don’t want that.

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.