Known as the edible art, sushi takes time, creativity and a delicate touch to create. So when 18-year-old Yosemite High School graduate Alex Luna was promoted to sushi chef two years ago it was completely normal for him to feel a bit under the pressure.
With a little help from his father Jose Luna, who works as a Tapenyaki Chef at Oka Japanese Restaurant, Luna learned of a dishwasher job opening at the Japanese cuisine restaurant.
Being the eldest of four children, Luna was looking for a way to help supplement his growing needs without continually begging his parents for money. Motivated to create his own path and help pay for the extras in life he wished to have Luna began working as a dishwasher at the age of 15.
Within six months of working as a dishwasher Oka general manger, Shawn Kim, said Luna was so effective that he asked if the young 17 year-old would like to try his best as a sushi chef. Lacking confidence and the overall understanding of the customer service Luna initially turned down the job.
However, six months later Luna jumped on the opportunity and rose from the shadows of the back kitchen to become Oka’s newest sushi chef.
As the origins of sushi continue to be widely debated, today the internationally know version of sushi was known as “Edomae.” Created by Hanaya Yohei (1799 - 1858) the delicacy was named after Edo Bay - modern day Tokyo - where the fresh fish was caught daily.
Originally invented as an early form of fast food sushi was made to be eaten by hand.
Traditionally made using vinegar sushi rice, sushi requires an acute knowledge of fresh fish and different ingredients and it was not until the mid-1960s that sushi was introduced on a large scale to the United States in a small Tokyo based neighborhood in Los Angeles.
Since its introduction to the western world sushi quickly caught on in the U.S. and has quickly become an American favorite. Sushi’s main ingredients, rice and raw fish, are naturally low in fat, high in protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals and omega-3 fatty acids, which have a variety of health benefits.
The memorization of specific ingredients in each roll requires good memory and the ability to work on the fly. A bit of improvisation and creativity becomes necessary when customers order something off the menu or ask for special items.
Kim, who said he likes to hire from within his established group of employees, commends Luna for his skills and sushi making abilities at such a young age.
“We usually try to use in house people when looking for a sushi chef. Alex worked here and we needed another hand so he stepped up and we are happy with his abilities,” Kim said. “For his age, he is really good.”
Luna, who had no prior experience as a chef, said the most difficult part of becoming a sushi chef was learning the difference between sushi grade fish versus edible ingredients.
“My dad would test me and ask if I thought certain fish was still usable for sushi. I would smell the fish and think to myself, it’s good, but my dad would later inform me that the fish was no longer sushi grade,” Luna said.
With more than 30 rolls for customers to choose from Luna said the memorization of each roll was something that also took significant time.
Different fish used to make sushi ranges from Salmon to Sea Urchin (Uni) and Luna said certain ingredients are easier to work with than others. Luna said he prefers not to work with scallops because they tend to be delicate a very unforgiving while ingredients such as Octopus are much tougher.
“Scallops are so delicate and fall apart rather easily when I am preparing them,” Luna said.
Luna said the most enjoyable part of his job is when he’s asked to make custom rolls requiring him to tap into his creative side.
“People ask me to make custom rolls and that really intrigues my creativity,” Luna said. “Sometimes they give interesting ideas and it’s always fun to see what I can do.”
Despite spending much of his free time at work Luna continues to work on his general education at Oakhurst Community College.
“I am not sure what I want to be or what I want to study so I am working on my general education in the meantime,” Luna said.
Luna said he has passed up a lot of opportunity to play sports while working but feels there is no substitution for experience and confidence.
Customers at Okas keep Kim and Luna very busy producing anywhere from 75 to 150 rolls a day and going through as much as 150 pounds of fish a week.
The fish is ordered fresh weekly with Salmon coming from the Sierra Seafood and the other more unavailable fish coming from a vendor in San Francisco.
With roll prices ranging from $6 to $15 some of the more commonly ordered rolls include the “Let’s Do It” made with fried shrimp, jalapenos, cream cheese on the inside and yellowtail (tuna) and masago (smelt eggs) on the outside. Another customer favorite is the “Godzilla” which is baked with spicy sauce, snapper, crab meat, eel, avocado and shrimp. Other rolls include the Las Vegas, Mexican Roll, Rainbow Roll, Red Bull and King Tiger.
For those who do not like fish or prefer their fish cooked Oka offers countless options for patrons who wish to enjoy a traditional Japanese cooked meal including teriyaki chicken and rice, fresh fish, and tempura.
Oka Japanese Restuarant is open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and for dinner from 5 to 9:30 p.m. The restaurant closes for lunch on weekends but is open from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m.