Rachelle Liu and Kathleen Chen
Sukiyuki LA: A Sushi Chef's Journey to Truffle, Wagyu, and Childhood Nostalgia
Amidst the blooming bento business fueled by the pandemic, there is one bento box that stands out in particular. It is an Italian black truffle and A5 Japanese wagyu sukiyaki bento box accompanied by assorted side dishes and topped with a delectable cured egg yolk and a delicate sprinkle of gold leaf. The box is beautiful, but what is more amazing is that this pop up bento business holds a story richer than the contents of the box itself. This week we are excited to introduce you to Yuki Johnson, former chef at n/naka and founder of Sukiyuki LA.
Yuki Johnson is a Japanese sushi chef who hails from Japan. Before moving to Los Angeles Yuki trained in Osaka, Japan, working hard to master the art of sushi while also obtaining a food license. It was rare for her to become a female sushi chef in a male dominated space and the path was not easy. Yuki says, “I went to a lot of restaurants in Japan because I really wanted to be a sushi chef but they were always like, ‘Oh you can be a server.’” When she told them of her desires to become a sushi chef, she was met with scoffing and strong opposition. They denied that a woman could become a sushi chef and even stopped her from being in the kitchen. Luckily, Yuki finally found one restaurant owner who looked past the traditional stereotypes and helped Yuki train. She says, “He even had a little tank with fugu fish and he taught me everything. I think I was very lucky.”
Yuki eventually brought her skills over to Los Angeles and impressively worked as both a sushi chef for a hotel and chef at n/naka. She was doing well, but when the pandemic hit in March, Yuki’s career came crashing down. Because her son is only seven years old, she made the difficult decision to step out from the restaurant industry to be at home while he took Zoom classes. Yuki remembers the exact day her world changed and shares, “It was my son’s birthday and I remember that day I got a phone call from Niki from n/naka and also from my other job at the hotel, and even the governor announced that restaurants had to start doing only takeout. That was March 15th. Because it was my son’s birthday I didn’t want to show him a sad face, but I was very sad and I didn’t know what I was going to do. It was very crazy. I still remember how I felt that day, I really thought I lost everything.” For months Yuki did not work and devoted her time to caring for her son who could no longer go to school, daycare, or even baseball with his beloved Japanese team. But all the while she was scared to not work and knew in her head that she had to do something. That was when she created Sukiyuki.
Yuki started Sukiyuki last December, and when she first began she was only serving two bentos a day. She says, “It was very hard because I had to buy 40 pounds of wagyu every time. So I was like, ‘What am I going to do? I only sold two bentos, what am I going to do with a bunch of wagyu?’” Back then Yuki was not turning much of a profit, but she remained motivated by two things. Because of the pandemic she had to pull her son out from the activity he loved the most, baseball, because she could no longer afford the $200 monthly fee. Although Yuki watched countless videos and tried to train him herself, she was determined to make enough to allow him to rejoin the team. She was also comforted by the hope of making a name for herself in the food industry. Yuki told herself, “Okay, maybe one day people will know me and will eat more, and then I'll make money” and pressed on bravely.
Things started to take a turn when Yuki created her Instagram and people started eating and posting. Her following grew, and so did the demand for her unique bentos. She also is very thankful to Niki and Carole from n/naka for all the help they have given her throughout the process, from offering her boxes to use for bentos to encouraging her with kind words of support. The manager of n/naka Jeffry also owns Iki Ramen located in Koreatown. Wanting to help Yuki increase her customer base, Jeffry encouraged her to sell bentos in LA and offered her the space at Iki Ramen, where she now regularly does a Sunday popup. From there, the interest in Yuki’s special wagyu truffle bentos skyrocketed, and so did Yuki’s ability to reach customers in the SGV, Koreatown, West LA, and more.
But what inspired Yuki, a sushi chef, to create truffle wagyu bentos? At first Yuki was also considering doing chirashi and sushi bentos, but after seeing how many places were offering it she felt she could not compete against restaurants when people could easily place orders and pick up at establishments. To stand out, she knew she had to create something completely different. Something no one else was doing. Yuki got to work recipe testing. She is a huge truffle lover, and because people love to have truffle with steak she thought about the possibility of pairing truffle with one of her favorite meat dishes: sukiyaki. Sukiyaki is meaningful to Yuki for a number of reasons. Yuki says, “I love my dad’s sukiyaki, and it’s very special to me and my sisters because he never cooked, but he only cooked sukiyaki and it was so good. So it’s like my childhood memories. Sometimes I feel like I miss my home and I miss my family in Japan. And then every time I make sukiyaki with my dad’s recipe, I feel like I’m home. Every time I go back to Japan and they ask me what I want for my last meal, I always tell them, ‘Sukiyaki, Dad’s sukiyaki. We don’t have to go to a restaurant, I want sukiyaki.’” Yuki tried pairing the truffle with her dad’s sukiyaki recipe and it was an instant hit. In addition to sharing a taste of her dad’s recipe and childhood favorite, Yuki is also introducing many to a key Japanese dish. In Japan sukiyaki is very popular, but here people mostly know of sushi and not sukiyaki. One of Yuki’s goals is also to make a sukiyaki sauce and sell it. That way people can easily cook sukiyaki at home, and she feels that it would be nice if more people can get to know the wonderful dish.
When reflecting on how far she has come, Yuki shares, “I was always thinking one day I want to do something, but at the same time LA is very hard. Even just the living cost is so expensive, and raising a child is also very expensive. I had two jobs at n/naka and at the hotel as a sushi chef, and even though I had two jobs I still felt that just living here is so hard. So in my head I was like, ‘Maybe I have to move somewhere else.” But now I finally started thinking about my future more and I can tell my younger self, ‘Just keep going, keep going, keep going. You’re going to have opportunities if you don’t quit.'” Yuki is incredibly grateful for the warm reception her bentos have received and wants to thank all her customers for the support they have shown. She says, “I want to tell my customers I appreciate them very, very much. When I started doing this, my goal was to put [my son] back on the baseball team. It was like, $200 a month but I really couldn’t afford it, so I told my son I know how much you love baseball and I’m going to be your coach. Now, he’s back on the Japanese team. So I really appreciate that.”
Because of the pandemic, Yuki went from feeling like she lost everything to being a small business owner, creating something totally unique, and dreaming bigger and brighter for her future ahead. We are so inspired by Yuki’s story and hope you will have a taste of it for yourself.
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Order via Instagram @sukiyukila
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K-town pick up/pop up at Iki Ramen
Iki Ramen Address: 740 S Western Ave #116, Los Angeles, CA 90005
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