what shi said: Huey Cheng, owner of Kura and all around BAMF

KuraFINALLY! I’m so excited to share the first of many what shi said interviews that I will be doing with all the food industry BAMFs. To start the whole shebang, we have Huey Cheng, owner of the very loved Kura restaurant in East Village. Kura was recently written up in the NYTimes, and if you haven’t read it, you need to right now. It profiles Chef Ishizuka (above) so very well, accurately depicting his joyfulness and candid style of making sushi. What the NYTimes article does lack is a profile of the man who started it all: Huey. (Huey is camera shy, so here is a photo of the amazing chirashi bowl Kura offers in place of him.)

KuraI hung out with Huey one afternoon before he started prepping for dinner and got to ask him some questions. Huey and I actually went to school together in Beijing. It’s crazy and amazing to see someone my age already kicking ass with his own restaurant. Pretty damn inspiring!

Why the hell did you decide to open a restaurant? I never remember you being into food!

Well, I believe the opportunity actually came to me. I have always been passionate about business and being an entrepreneur. Growing up, my internships were all over the place. I worked at a strategy consulting firm, an advertising agency, an executive headhunting firm, sales… I’ve been all over. But in college, when I was in Michigan, I started working as a waiter at a restaurant. Chef Ishizuka was there. His lease was up so he was going to close shop and retire with his wife in Japan. But we also used to also joke about opening a restaurant someday. Ultimately, I guess he saw me as his gateway to stay in the U.S. and realized a good investment opportunity. I always wanted to open up a business. So I was in good company. Everything sort of fell into place.

What is your favorite part about running your own restaurant?

My most favorite thing is running into customers who have knowledge or appreciate what I’m doing. We’re not looking for a huge amount of customers. We want the right ones. Just think about New York. There are a million sushi restaurants, and most of them are surviving! There’s space for everybody. We’re all targeting different people.

Least favorite?

Sort of similar. The worst is when you disappoint a good customer. It’s different if they expect fusion sushi and don’t get it. But when the customer comes for great authentic sushi and is unsatisfied, it makes me feel like shit.

So what kind of customers are you after then?

We want the ones who come in for real, authentic sushi. We want the travellers who are willing to come to us to eat, who don’t care about proximity. That being said, there are people in the East Village who are our target customers, they just happen to live in the East Village. If your food is good enough, people are willing to travel.

Who else do you think is after the same customers?

Ushiwakamaru, and Sushi Azabu keep it authentic. Yasuda and Sasabune also keep it authentic, but in their own style. Even within authentic, there are different kinds.

How did you concept Kura?

When I was young, I always went to this Japanese restaurant in Taiwan. They had a small counter and three to four tables. You could always see what the chef was doing. There was no filter, no blockage, and no menu. Just like how it is in Japan. You talk to the chef and pay for what you get. When I came to scout the scene in New York, I didn’t find a place that had a completely open counter. Even at Yasuda, you can’t really see. At Ushiwakamaru, you can sort of see, but it’s not completely eye-level. You have to make a little effort. I always knew Chef Ishizuka had a restaurant like this in Japan. You’re meant to see everything without people fixing up stuff in the back. You’re meant to see the little mistakes and pieces of fish that you don’t eat. A lot of chefs aren’t able to do this. You have to be able to do it all with a smile on your face. Otherwise it makes customers uncomfortable.

You’ve done so well and from my understanding, you don’t have a PR firm helping you out.

Of course we don’t have a PR firm. We don’t need it. It’s small enough and enough of a niche that we don’t have to use a PR firm. This way it also helps us attract better customers. We’re not trying to hit everyone’s tastes. Actually, there are probably more people who appreciate fusion sushi because they haven’t grown up with the traditional. And actually, word-of-mouth is very important for us. Hairstylists, I’ve learned, are probably the most important. Japanese hairstylists bring in a lot of customers because their clients always ask for good Japanese places to eat.

Alright, the more personal stuff. Do you fight with Chef Ishizuka ever?

We fought once. A long time ago. But that’s it.

What about?

Haha well… I was misbehaving, that’s it. He runs the restaurant and I run the business.

What happens when he gets sick?

If he gets sick, we close. He never gets sick. In the last 17 years, he probably only missed one day of work. We work six days a week. We’re off for major holidays, like Christmas and Thanksgiving, but only for one day.

What do you eat when you guys are working?

Trash. Haha. I usually don’t have breakfast. I eat leftovers. Mostly the stuff you can’t use or serve people. My stomach is apparently strong enough to handle it! Sometimes we go to Xi’an Famous Foods. Sometimes we’ll get some fried chicken. Sometimes pizza. South Brooklyn Pizza is great. A lot of times we’ll go out to Chinatown for dimsum or wonton noodles, mainly because he likes it. It’s his favorite stuff. So whenever we have the chance to leave the restaurant, we go to Chinatown. At night, he waits to go home to eat. He gets home after midnight and his wife waits for him so they can eat together.

What do you eat on your day off?

That’s a special day. I give back. I go to restaurants. A lot of restaurants are closed when we are open (on Mondays) so we get a lot of restaurant people coming in. Therefore, on our day off, I try to go to their restaurants.

Favorite restaurants?

I rarely go back to restaurants in New York because there are just so many to try. But just at the top of my head, Dieci is good. I’ve been to Marea a couple times. They have this two-course lunch menu for $48 that is great. Esca has an amazing uni pasta that I love. I also love grub food.

Steak or fish?

Ah, this is hard. If raw fish, then fish. If cooked fish, then definitely steak. I hate Western fish. It’s dry and doesn’t taste good. Miso black cod or Chinese steamed fish are definitely winners over steak. But Western cooked fish just is not good to me.

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