Alessandro Borgognone Talks Sushi Nakazawa and What's Next
Arthur Bovino chats about Sushi Nakazawa with co-owner Alessandro Borgognone
Today on The Daily Meal
Quick, what restaurant documentaries have come out since Jiro Dreams of Sushi? New York City’s next four-star chef may have played a bit part in it.
While Alessandro Borgognone couldn’t divulge many details about his next project, the co-owner of one only six of New York City’s four-star New York Times-reviewed restaurants, has a new restaurant in the works. As you probably know, Borgognone found his four-star sushi chef Daisuke Nakazawa after seeing him apprentice in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It was a shrewd, visionary idea, and the restaurateur-cum-culinary scout says he followed a similar strategy to find the right chef for his next restaurant.
“It’s going to be another project which I believe is going to be great,” noted Borgognone during a recent sit-down interview in his West Village restaurant, Sushi Nakazawa. “I don’t know if it’s going to be Sushi Nakazawa, I don’t know if it’s going to be four stars. But I’m going to try to make it as best as I can possibly make it. I’m bringing in another great chef. I think he’s amazingly talented and hopefully everything will work out.”
Who is it? What kind of food will it serve?
“I’m really passionate about fish and seafood and I really enjoy eating seafood,” he hinted. “I promise you that it’s going to be a great all-around restaurant. It’s going to be a restaurant that once again, like Sushi Nakazawa, is not going to be pretentious. I hate anything pretentious by the way. I’m a regular guy. I promise you, it will be great and you’ll hear about it in a few weeks.”
Based on his success with Sushi Nakazawa, you can put good money on the project being followed closely and on this being a tough reservation as soon as it opens. Why? Borgognone’s reputation for success. As any chef, restaurateur, and public relations professional will tell you, it’s not every day that a restaurant gets built in just three months. For a restaurant to be built in three months, and to be given a four-star rating just five months later is even more unlikely. But that’s exactly what happened.
It will be interesting to see if Borgognone can repeat the formula. But he has other upcoming plans too, including a two-week trip with Daisuke to Japan (his first). Does he intend to visit Jiro? You bet. Watch the video, or read on for more details about the trip, the most difficult part about opening Sushi Nakazawa, what it was like to get four stars, and to hear Alessandro's picks for some of the best restaurants in New York City.
How did we get here? You have a four-star New York Times-reviewed sushi restaurant, it’s a broad question but how did we end up in this situation?
It was a long time ago, in 2012 when I was working for Patricia’s as you know, in the Bronx, my other restaurant. And I get home really late at night, it was about one a.m. in the morning and I decided to watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi on Netflix.
Were you a big sushi guy before this?
I was. I was. But I didn’t know half of what I know now about sushi. But it was about one o’clock in the morning, I saw the whole movie and it was fantastic. I woke up the next morning still thinking about it, I went to work, and I googled Mr. Nakazawa’s name. I couldn’t find him on Google I actually found it in the credits when I was watching and I copied it down. I found him on Facebook. I wrote him an email with Google Translate. I told him what I did, what I wanted to do and I left my number beneath it.
And this is within what, a day?
Within the 24 hours of watching the movie.
So you’re just sitting there watching the movie and all of a sudden you’re like, “I have to do a sushi restaurant.”
And, “I need this guy, and we’re going to do this...”
Absolutely. Well I said, “It would be great to do a sushi restaurant with this guy.” So I put it out there and it was a longshot. I wrote him and email and he called me back after two weeks. So, it was pretty cool.
When you started out to build this restaurant did you say, “I want to have a four-star restaurant?” What was your motivation?
No. Absolutely not. I just said that I wanted to have a great sushi restaurant. We weren’t really thinking about the stars at the time. Then once we opened and the hype started, we knew that The New York Times was about to review us, that’s when we started being concerned about it. But we never thought that we would go for four. And we never shot for four. We just did what we thought was best.
How did you find out that The Times was going to review you?
Well, I think it’s obvious. At that point we were probably one of the hardest restaurants to get into and we just had that expectation. We knew.
Is there anything about the restaurant and getting it off the ground that people don’t know about?
Well before the restaurant started there was the construction. I think just getting the deal done with Mr. Nakazawa was probably one of the most difficult parts about creating Sushi Nakazawa.
And why was that?
We have two different cultures, we do business in a totally different way, he had no clue who I was. I had to basically get his trust. It took a lot.
And the construction?
The construction was easy, It took me three months to build this space. We pretty much knew what we wanted. We were thinking out of the box. We didn’t want to be like any other Japanese restaurant. So when you walk into the restaurant it has a totally different feel. It’s very minimalistic. It does have that modern approach to it. Things that a Japanese restaurant doesn’t usually have. There’s no washed wood. And we wanted to be different and I think we’ve achieved that.
Were you over the moon? What was the celebration like?
I didn’t believe it. It was 4:45 p.m. December 11, it was a Tuesday. A friend of mine texted me. It just said “Boom,” so I knew the review came out. I didn’t know what he meant by that. We all went out and everyone just started screaming “Four stars!” The feeling was absolutely fantastic. But you really don’t know how to act. I didn’t drink that night. I didn’t celebrate by having a bottle of Champagne. I actually went to a little room we have in my house. Pitch black. Quiet. I looked at the ceiling for about two hours and said, “What the hell happened?”
How has life changed since the review?
It’s really, really tough. After the review I think the expectations are so high, so it brings a lot of stress on us to keep that expectation high. You know, Sushi Nakazawa is not for everyone — everyone has mixed reviews. But out of 100 percent of the people who come to Sushi Nakazawa we try to make 99.9 percent happy. We shoot for 100 but we’re happy with 99.A friend of mine texted me. It just said 'Boom,' so I knew the review came out. I didn’t know what he meant by that. We all went out and everyone just started screaming 'Four stars!' The feeling was absolutely fantastic. But you really don’t know how to act. I didn’t drink that night. I didn’t celebrate by having a bottle of Champagne. I actually went to a little room we have in my house. Pitch black. Quiet. I looked at the ceiling for about two hours and said, 'What the hell happened?'
Do you have feelings about other reviews you’ve gotten about the restaurant?
Every review matters, but what I really think is that The Times was really important. The Times was probably one of the most important ones, but we strive to make everyone happy and we look forward to great reviews.
How has Daisuke transitioned to the States?
Before he came to New York City he was at Shiro's for a year or so and that helped him really understand the American palate. If he came here straight from Jiro it would be a totally different story. But that year that he spent in Seattle at Shiro’s really did him well. He started understanding. He basically knew what the American palate wanted. He didn’t know what a California roll was until he went there. We don’t do California rolls here, but he started to understand how to be playful and take “the old way” that he learned from Jiro and to incorporate that with what he learned at Shiro’s and he created his own way with that.
How many seats does the restaurant have? And do you find people are clamoring for the sushi bar?
The dining room has 30 seats, the sushi bar has 10, and then we have a little table in the window for two. There are mixed feelings about the bar and the dining room. The bar is great but you also have to remember that the bar is a communal table. So if you’re looking to have a private meeting of two people or you’re looking to do something more formal, we definitely recommend going into the dining room. So what we strive to do is the people who are sitting in the dining room having dinner, we want them to look at the bar and say, “You know what? I’d like to have dinner at the bar.” And the people who are having dinner at the bar, we want them to say, “You know what, I definitely want to try the dining room the next time.”
How did you end up in the West Village?
Everything aligned for us. The stars really did align. Everything was by accident. Things happened that nobody ever expected to happen. We went to look at a space in Midtown. We had set to put Sushi Nakazawa in Midtown and the space that we were looking at had a couple of issues and it wasn’t really right for us, and at that point the landlord didn’t want to lose us and he turned around and said, “I have another space and it’s Downtown. It’s in the West Village and I want you to look at it. It’s fantastic. Tell me what you think.” So we looked at it. There was nothing to lose and we fell in love with it. It was just perfect.
Do you have interest in other ventures?
I’d be lying to you if I said no to you now. We’re definitely working on a new project. I can’t really tell you everything about it, but it’s going to be another project which I believe is going to be great. I don’t know if it’s going to be Sushi Nakazawa, I don’t know if it’s going to be four stars. But I’m going to try to make it as best as I can possibly make it. I’m bringing in another great chef. I think he’s amazingly talented and hopefully everything will work out.
So you’re kind of following the same model that you followed in the past with this chef, is there any kind of hint — if you can’t talk about it you can’t talk about it, I get that, but is there a hint in terms of cuisine or where it might be in the city?
I’d like to stay with seafood. I love seafood. I’m really passionate about fish and seafood and I really enjoy eating seafood. I promise you that it’s going to be a great all-around restaurant. It’s going to be a restaurant that once again, like Sushi Nakazawa It’s not going to be pretentious. I hate anything pretentious, by the way. I’m a regular person. I’m a regular guy. I go out to dinner at a place down the block and I have pasta almost every night. Seriously. A plate of pasta, I go home, I have a glass of wine and I’m cool.
Okay, we’ll be looking forward to that.
I promise you it will be great and you’ll hear about it in a few weeks.
This is a city that you’re obviously passionate about, for people coming in from out of town, do you have a couple of places that are your favorites or some undiscovered gems?
The majority of the restaurants that I do go to are restaurants that almost everyone knows about already, especially people who live in New York City. I tend to frequent Momofuku Ssäm Bar. I love all of David Chang’s restaurants. If I’m looking for Italian and I want a throwback restaurant, you know I grew up in Brooklyn back in the '80s, I’ll go to Carbone. I think Carbone does a really really good job recreating those dishes, but once again, my favorite restaurant — and I went to it Wednesday — is Le Bernardin.
What makes that restaurant so special to you?
It’s simple. It’s minimalistic. The flavors are amazingly light, but they are… ah! The restaurant itself is an experience. But instead of me saying it, they have to go try it.
Have you ever been to Japan?
I haven’t been to Japan, funny to say. But I am going with Nakazawa this coming year. I tend to go to Europe.
For how long are you going to be in Japan?
I’ll probably be there two three weeks.
And in terms of Europe?
I’m Italian. I’m first-generation Italian. My mother is Neapolitan and my dad is Sicilian so it’s pretty interesting. And I married a Neapolitan.
Do you get to go back?
Not as much as I’d like now. I’m really caught up with work, especially with Sushi Nakazawa. It’s been taking up most of my time. But I look forward to traveling. At the moment I don’t have the time to go but within the next couple of months I’m going to start getting out there again.
Is it your plan to go to Jiro when you go to Japan?
Oh I’d love to go to Jiro. I’d love to go to Jiro and see exactly where Mr. Nakazawa came from.
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