By: John Sugimura
My life is a celebration of everything Japanese. I cook to make Japan easier to understand, keep Japanese Americans socially relevant, and promote Japanese urbanity. I tell my story.
I am a second-generation chef, third-generation Japanese American and professionally trained sushi chef. I have advanced my culinary practice through my continuing study and travel to Japan. I celebrate and guard the values of traditional Japanese cuisine and highlight often overlooked traditional nuances in my preparations. My food is the ultimate expression of flavors, colors and cooking methods coming together in an authentic experience that is one of a kind.
I am inspired by my widowed grandmother’s resiliency. Following the loss of my grandfather after immigrating to the U.S., my grandmother saw food as a way of providing for her young family. She opened a restaurant in Sacramento, California, in the 1930s to support her family during a time when few women ran or owned successful businesses.
By the spring of 1942, 120,000 American citizens of Japanese descent were “sent to” hastily built assembly centers. My family was unjustly incarcerated during World War II, being forced into the Tule Lake Segregation Center. They experienced detention behind barbed wire while living in barracks. Four and a half years later, my family left the war camp with five pieces of luggage. I share in the history of the incarceration experience. I am part of a resurgence of passion and ownership in a telling of the story, primarily as a descendant. My elders have left me with many unanswered questions. Retelling stories provides invaluable lessons for us today. They let us see through the lens of human nature, both good and evil. With the current rise in anti-Asian violence, fueled again by scapegoating and a perpetual foreigner mentality, it is painfully clear that the struggle for recognition of legitimacy and inclusion is still relevant.
Two generations and three quarters of a century later, I am picking up where my grandmother left off. I grew up in a mixed-race family. For many years, I had a sense of cultural limbo that characterized my life. But even after many years of visiting Japan, a semester of Japanese at college and countless questions to my father, I still didn’t feel like I was getting the answers I needed.
With Japanese Americans, there’s a term called Gaman, referring to the Japanese Buddhist phrase translating as “to endure the unbearable with patience and grace.” Gaman means you’re in the war camps, you lost everything, you lost people … but then World War II is over; you’re not a victim. Smile. Move on. This stoic nature adopted by my family meant that much of the history I wanted to engage with was either lost or hidden from memory. However, one aspect of my family life stood out above everything else. I didn’t look Japanese, and I didn’t act Japanese. Food was the one thing that outed me.
I began to delve deeper and deeper into the history of Japanese Americans through the heritage of food. In 2008, I enrolled in the Sushi Institute of America, now known as the Miyako Sushi and Washoku School in Little Tokyo, the heart of the largest Japanese American population in North America. The school is affiliated with the Japan Culinary Arts institute in Tokyo. I specialized in sushi, and when I graduated as a Silver-certified chef, I returned to Minneapolis ready to share my food. Now a fully trained Japanese chef, I began to see my world open up. As more and more stories started to rise to the surface, my grandmother’s memories and the war deeply intertwined with food. At the end of the day, I get pleasure from seeing the support I have gained from challenging stereotypes through cuisine. People in the world want to eat food that has a story!
Eating my food is like eating in my grandmother’s restaurant in the 1930s. So, in homage to the grandmother I love but never met, I serve my Japanese-roots signature items on her platter as a hug and nod to my true inspiration. I find comfort in exploring the thing we have in common and strive to create great food that would make my grandmother proud. That’s always the measure!
John Sugimura is the executive chef at his brainchild restaurant, PinKU Japanese Street Food in Northeast Minneapolis and at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. On July 27, 2021, John livestreamed his first class featuring Karaage fried chicken for Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Cooking School.