We interview the Umezushi founder on his move towards sushi classes on YouTube
You’ve heard the old adage: take a man to Umezushi and he will eat the finest sushi for one day, give a man the tools (via Umezushi’s YouTube channel and online sushi shop) to create his own sushi and he will eat the finest sushi for a lifetime.
A lot of people were gutted when Manchester seafood restaurant Umezushi closed its doors in 2019, none more so than owner Terry Huang himself.
Terry transitioned the business to the short-lived tempura chippy Chish and Fips as, he told us back then, Umezushi was basically haemorrhaging money. Then, like many, he took a long hard look at himself, his business and his hopes for the future during the downtime that the pandemic provided for hospitality.
Each omakase served is supplemented. I'm doing it because I enjoy cooking.
When whispers that Umezushi had been relaunched as a restaurant during lockdown fluttered around Manchester’s foodie fraternity, a lot of people got their hopes up. Then they had them cruelly dashed when Gordo visited to review the new Umezushi Omakase experience and lifted the lid on its frustratingly exclusive nature.
At the time, the only way to get a table was to be a paying member of Terry’s Umezushi “club” but membership was closed due to Terry being at capacity. A restaurant as members-only club? Pah! Some grumbled. I sat down with the man himself over one of his omakase meals to get some answers.
I ask Terry if he got some stick for the membership model.
“No, actually. People who were willing to subscribe would subscribe - and people who were not willing to subscribe? It's okay.
“People did find the idea quite strange at the beginning but now, everyone is asking, do you have any more memberships available? How do I pay? In the beginning, I released about 250 memberships but I realised, given the capacity and how much I can do here - I have about 80 members now and that's more than enough. I can potentially sit 12 guests. And if I do three nights a month, that's 36. If you look at most sushi restaurants in Japan, usually there's about one chef per three people. It's just not scalable.”
An exclusive, members-only dining experience
People can still become members, says Terry, but there’s a catch:
“They can only join after they dine here with another member - or if they know me and have my number - so they know exactly what to expect. With this kind of cooking, it's so risky. If people are not used to it, like general punters, they'll come into it like, what's this about? People still don't know what omakase is.”
This will be frustrating for some, but Terry is very clear.
“Each omakase served is supplemented. I'm doing it because I enjoy cooking. I have to put money in every month myself. It’s my hobby and I'm perfectly willing to pay for it. In this situation, I'm free to do most things I want.
“It's not easy to explain to people. People will not get it. I started cutting back so I could save time for myself.”
I feel like I'm having this sort of mad, exclusive experience and actually, he should be charging loads more for it but Terry isn't planning to change the price for now:
“I charge enough so that I'm not losing too much," he says, "but also not to offend people. But actually, now, you don't need to come here because we share all our secrets.”
From worktop to laptop
Terry wants to make it crystal clear that Umezushi is no longer a restaurant. He is juggling his full-time job as a data scientist with cooking. He prefers to keep cooking just as an enjoyable hobby rather than a commitment. The former restaurant space serves as a home office and a hub for his latest project: teaching the world to make sushi.
“The focus now is trying to put together everything that we’ve done in Umezushi and release it as a piece of content online so people can make sushi at home.”
Is this a magician giving away his tricks? Terry is humble:
“There are no tricks. Nothing we do is original anyway, it's all learned from others. We just try to share it with people.”
Via Umezushi’s online shop, home cooks can buy all the ingredients to make their own high-quality sushi. On the YouTube channel, you’ll find detailed video tutorials on sushi making from Terry. And once a month, a lucky subscriber wins a meal at Umezushi to try the Omakase experience for themselves.
“We're trying to make everyone capable - if they want to be," he says, "If they're lucky, they can taste it as part of the experience. It’s more like an enthusiast’s project rather than a restaurant."
What is omakase?
I am one of the lucky ones that got to try Terry’s omakase. It’s like going round to your mate's house who just happens to be a brilliant chef. Omakase is essentially “you get what you’re given” - a chance for chefs to cook whatever the hell they like. For someone like me, whose food FOMO is so severe that menus with above 10 items bring them out in hives, this is ideal. I try sea urchin, nattō, raw squid "noodles" and aged sea bream. The wasabi Terry grates to serve alongside is fresh, grown in Cornwall. There aren’t many places in Manchester where you’ll find all of the above - not least in one long meal.
Terry tells me that it’s only since he got a full-time job and allowed cooking to be a hobby again - instead of trying to maintain a profitable restaurant business - that he could afford to experiment with ingredients and cooking styles as much as he wanted to. As far as I know, he’s the only person ageing fresh fish in Manchester. He’s converted an airgun into a water jet that he uses to clean the blood from wild local sea bass. He then wraps it tightly to keep out moisture and external bacteria, allowing the natural bacteria to develop inside, resulting in a creamy, complex, aged flavour. A similar process to ageing beef.
“You won't get much more Japanese than this." says Terry, "This is even obscure for Japanese people, really. Sushi is premium food in Japan. Not for most people.
“A piece of Dover sole nigiri in Japan will cost you probably £20-£40. The reason people pay that price is because of the training required to serve them safely. Dover sole is very prone to a parasite called Anisakis. Most of these seaborne parasites after cooking are safe. In fact, we eat it every day without knowing, but if you eat it raw it can make people quite sick. It requires a lot of training to understand the fish, how to spot the parasite in the fish. So what people pay for, is not the actual skill, it's that experience. They spend years understanding that ingredient. At home, most common fish should be safe.”
Sushi for everyone
Terry says, “I think the most valuable thing about Umezushi was all the mistakes we made, and all the ways we could experiment. If we serve physical food, we are limited to the two or three miles radius around Manchester, but if we can share the knowledge we potentially appeal to the rest of the world.
“Right now our mission is to make everyone’s kitchen a sushi kitchen."
Are people are scared of approaching sushi at home? Terry thinks they shouldn't be:
“We talk about the health and safety side of things in the videos - there are some pretty scary things that people should watch out for but otherwise it will be fairly safe.
“Mostly, it's in the preparation. It's quite cumbersome because you need to do a lot of little things properly.
“Hopefully our videos will break down everything that needs to be done for someone to make sushi at home and make it less scary or alienating."
Terry is originally from Taiwan which he says has lots in culinary common with Japan because the country was under Japanese occupation for years after the first world war. He confirms my understanding that there isn’t much Taiwanese food here in Manchester unless you speak Chinese and can use the Hungry Panda app. Bao is a popular dish in Taiwan but the version you’ll find in places like the Northern Quarter has little in common with the Taiwanese one.
Terry explains: “In fact in Taiwan, you only get one flavour. Stewed pork belly with kind of sauerkraut with chilli and then, peanut powder, icing sugar, and coriander, lots of it. I used to make them when I had time in Umezushi and people loved them.”
Where does Terry Huang like to eat in Manchester?
“There are a few places I really enjoy," he says, "La Bandera. The food is good and the hospitality is great. I know that I can be myself and just relax there. There's another place called Live Seafood on Ashton Old Road. They started as our supplier, and then they expanded to have their own restaurant. They still supply our fish and a lot of live seafood but on the side, they cook some really authentic, really good Chinese fish dishes. I would recommend the king crab when they have it. It's quite expensive because usually, you have to order a whole one. One crab is somewhere between two to four kilos and it's around £100 a kilo. So, to get a whole crab is like £200-500.
"It's a lot of money, but the yield is really high. So really when you go there, you want to go with a few people. When you split that up, it's not that bad. I would order a whole king crab plus three or four other dishes and that would make a good meal for six people. You will end up spending £60-£70 per person but it's some of the best seafood you will get in town and the chefs cook it really carefully. Their chef has trained very well not to overcook the fish and seafood. Whenever we have guests or occasions, that's the go-to place. For dim sum? Yang Sing. I'm partial to the Yang Sing. They are the best for dim sum.”
Want a taste of Umezushi or fancy yourself an at-home maki master? Subscribe to the Umezushi YouTube channel to learn Terry’s tricks and be in with a chance of winning your own omakase experience.
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