Rocky Mountain seafood
Aspen Times Weekly
High-grade raw fish on the plate at your favorite Aspen sushi bar doesn’t just get there by accident.
Local sushi chefs work hard to ensure that only the freshest makes the cut, and local health officials hold them to the highest standards.
Local sushi experts aren’t quick to give away their secrets ” a sushi chef at Takah Sushi refused to comment for this story ” but a handful of Aspen sushi purveyors stressed that “quality” is more than a buzzword; their reputation and survival depend on it.
Kiyomi Sano flashes a wry grin from behind the sushi bar at Kenichi in Aspen.
Sano, longtime executive sushi chef at Kenichi, offers a seat with a gracious wave of his arm and is quick to talk about the craft he’s practiced for more than 30 years ” some 17 years in Aspen.
“I’m an American sushi chef,” Sano said. “It’s a new generation of sushi.”
Sano has his own evolving style that deviates from traditional Japanese fare to include innovative sauces and new techniques, and he said that being a sushi chef has as much to do with interacting with customers and putting on a show as it does with making his meticulously crafted creations.
Sano brings in fresh ” not frozen ” fish from a handful of sources, he said, mostly straight from the fishing docks of Hawaii.
“I have to guarantee the highest quality,” he said, and buys from just a few dealers who are only as good to him as their last delivery.
Sano pays top dollar for fish, which means high cost to the consumer ” the Kenichi menu lists sushi rolls starting from $7.50 ” and the sushi chef warned that lower menu price means cheaper fish and lower quality.
He keeps his fish in refrigerated glass containers behind the sushi bar and says any hint that the fish is bad would be easily detected by counter patrons, holding up a fresh filet of deep red tuna as proof. The fish had no trace of smell.
Also a native of Japan, Hide Hisa has been in the Roaring Fork Valley for more than 12 years, first as a chef at Aspen restaurants, and for the last seven years as owner of Sushi Ya Go-Go in El Jebel.
“Cheap fish are dangerous to eat,” Hisa said. “That’s why we pay for flights and shipment.”
Like Sano, Hisa has fish flown in from all over the world, he said, anything from Mexican Tilapia to tuna from Vietnam or top-grade sushi fish from Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.
“Sushi is getting popular, so sometime you get low prices,” Hisa said. “But it’s low-grade, so it’s sometimes dangerous.”
“To get the right stuff, you have to be up early in the morning and on the phone,” said Phil Tanaka, head sushi chef at Matsuhisa in Aspen.
Tanaka, who trained in Japan before coming to Aspen, said he spends the bulk of his time ordering through a few select wholesalers, and regularly brings in live seafood to stock his sushi bar.
Eels arriving on ice from Japan sometimes jump off the preparation table, in fact.
“They get a little crazy sometimes,” Tanaka said.
He has scallops sent by courier from fish markets on the East Coast, or tuna trucked and flown from markets on the West Coast in as many as six deliveries per week.
“We pay a lot of money in freight charges,” Tanaka said ” a cost that translates to safe, high-quality fare at admittedly higher prices.
Tanaka said he’s always happy to answer questions from restaurant guests about where the fish comes from and how long it takes from sea to table (usually less than two days), and said he is careful to train his staff on proper handling techniques.
“The handling and the care and the preparation goes a long way too,” Tanaka said.
It’s not just up to restaurant owners to maintain the high standards.
City of Aspen environmental health officials keep a watchful eye on area sushi outlets ” mostly with a mind to careful handling of ready-to-eat foods.
C.J. Oliver, senior environmental health specialist with the city of Aspen, said it’s very safe to eat sushi in Aspen because area sushi outlets are meticulous about cleanliness. They have to be, he said.
Oliver said that Pitkin County is a “contract county” and employs local health officials like himself to uphold the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment code (some jurisdictions keep their own standards).
In many regards, sushi restaurants are held to the same standards as other restaurants, Oliver said. But sushi restaurants must apply for a special exemption to allow staff to handle ready-to-eat foods with bare hands (no gloves).
It’s a new code and the exemption requires washing hands twice and using anti-bacterial hand sanitizer before handling food. The restaurants must also train their staff members and promise that any sick employee will avoid touching food. In fact, they must sign a written agreement to that effect, Oliver said.
Sushi restaurants aren’t the only ones held to a high standard; many other local restaurants also apply for the bare-hand exemption for certain preparation techniques.
“There’s a lot that goes into sushi preparation,” Oliver said. “And it definitely is safe.”
Oliver should know; he’s the one that makes unannounced visits to local restaurants to check for sanitation standards.
For years, food-borne illnesses came mostly from undercooked meats, Oliver said, but more recent pathogens, such as the Norovirus, are spread from humans to food.
Many viruses are “exceptionally easy to pass along,” Oliver said, even with good hand-washing, and that is why the state follows even more strict bare-hand-contact regulations.
All fish shipments, whether fresh or frozen, follow strict temperature guidelines from the boat to the plate, Oliver said.
Any fish that has been frozen for transport must be kept frozen for a certain period of time depending on the type of fish.
Some seafood producers can “flash freeze” fish at minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit and restaurateurs can use the product just 15 hours later, Oliver said.
But more standard freeze temperatures (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit), require a wait of from four to seven days to ensure food safety, Oliver said.
Seafood transported fresh must also be kept at low temperatures, which vary with different fish species, Oliver said.
“In some sense it’s a lot of extra work,” Oliver said of the bare-hand exemption process, adding that it requires education to ensure restaurant staff members are fastidious.
It’s something he looks for on biannual inspections. Oliver said he regularly hands out violations at restaurants where workers touch ready-to-eat food, but not at the sushi restaurants.
“The places we’ve got here do an outstanding job,” Oliver said.
Oliver has never had to close down or issue a violation to any sushi restaurant, he said, adding that because raw fish is an expensive, “high-risk product” that most store owners do a lot to protect their customers.
“Nobody hardly blinks when we walk in,” Oliver said of regular inspections at sushi restaurants. “It’s part of the deal.”
Oliver is quick to add that he himself enjoys what he called an increasingly popular “hip and trendy” meal at local sushi bars. And his advice on visiting Aspen sushi restaurants is simple: Don’t even think twice about it; it’s safe.
The Buddy Program rang in the holiday spirit with their annual Gingerbread House Workshops in Aspen and Carbondale.