No Fish Wasted: A Conversation with Yuji Haraguchi

Image by Lucky Peach

Trim and athletic, Yuji Haraguchi was on track for a career in baseball but he ditched it for one in fish. By day, his restaurant goes by the name Okonomi, and serves up Japanese-style breakfast built around that day’s catch; at night, it turns into YUJI Ramen, which first gained attention in 2012 as popular pop-up that showcased a fish-based mazemen.

Osakana, his new fish shop, is just a few blocks away. It is a tiny operation. Two thirds of the space is given up to a kitchen, which Haraguchi spec’d with sushi-grade butchery in mind. With a no-waste ethos and an emphasis on kitchen empowerment through education — Osakana offers intimate classes fives days a week — Haraguchi hopes to get New Yorkers to embrace cooking local fish at home.

There are no mounds of ice piled with lines of fillets here. The front refrigerator case, only just arrived from Italy, displays the day’s offerings on a few handmade ceramic dishes. Today there is king mackerel, Boston mackerel, striped bass, bluefish, triggerfish, and black sea bass collar and sashimi. A few options are marinated, cured, or pre-baked and ready to eat. But most are raw, offered up to cook or eat as sashimi. I spoke with Haraguchi about his latest endeavor and the challenges he faces there.

How did you get into fish?

Fish was just something that happened by accident. I was cooking as a hobby, and dreamed that I would open my own restaurant. I had no experience with fish prior to coming to Boston, but in 2007 or so I found a Japanese fish company. I interviewed and said, “I want to sell fish because I want to open a restaurant.” I started as a fish salesperson and started distributing fish to chefs.

I was so excited about going to the other side of the restaurant business, the side that people don’t see. I learned by selling fish and watching my customers, who were chefs. Whenever I saw something new, I always went to eat it at the restaurant, and then I’d buy the fish and try to do it at home.

In the beginning I was terrible at cooking fish. I remember the first fish that I bought: I completely destroyed it. But I always tried to make friends with customers, and I always went to visit and ask questions, like why do you do this process? I had a lot of Japanese customers at that point, and they taught me a lot of the steps.

Image by Lucky Peach

We don’t usually see “sushi grade” fish at fish counters in New York, unless it’s tuna. What defines sashimi quality, or “sushi grade,” exactly, and why can you offer it?

Fish in Japan and fish in the U.S., when they’re swimming in the ocean, are both sushi grade. People sometimes misunderstand and think that fish from Japan is automatically way better quality. What makes Japanese fish so much better is the way of handling — in terms of cleaning the fish, how you scale it, how you sharpen the knife, how you clean the blood, all the steps that are not always necessary if you’re going to cook it. It is much more time consuming.

I was in Montauk two weeks ago, and I was on a very small boat that takes trips to the ocean to catch fish. They caught a beautiful tuna. You get off the boat and there’s a counter outside under the sun, with a guy filleting the fish with the scales and guts all getting together, putting them all in a ziplock. The fish is right off the boat — sushi quality freshness — but because of the way he did it, it became not sushi-grade.

When I thought about selling fish in my own market in New York, I thought if I just apply the Japanese ideas, philosophies, and ways of handling fish to the domestic fish here, then the fish here will be just as good as the ones from Japan — actually, maybe even better, because it’s coming from much closer.

How do you source the fish that you’re selling here?

We work with the Fulton Fish Market. The Tsukiji Market in Tokyo works just as the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx does. There is no actual boat coming to that market. The fish are delivered from all over the world. If you go there, you have no idea what is what, where they’re from, whether it’s wild, whether it came in frozen. It’s all mixed up. Based on my experience as a fish distributor, I know which ones are local, which ones are from Europe, farm-raised, which ones are freshwater farm-raised in Texas, that kind of thing.

So when it comes to sourcing, the important things we think about are the freshness, the variety, if it’s local, and if it’s delivered by truck as much as possible. We try to get enough variety: white meat, red meat, shiny skin, darker meat. Each color represents different types of nutrition. I want variety. If it looks beautiful and it’s appealing to people, that means people need it. The body needs it; that’s why it looks appealing.

When we receive them, we decide as we break it down if they should be sashimi or cooked. This part is sashimi, this part is for marinating, this is for making broth. One fish can be used for many things.

This brings up the idea of selling the whole fish. You sell fillets, but you also sell the head and bones in the form of stock.

The most important thing is to eat everything. That is called mottainai in Japanese. We don’t have such translations for “sustainability” — that’s a very different concept we don’t have in Japan. But we have this term mottainai: no waste, or “what a waste.”

A lot of the fish that people get in New York are already filleted. You have no idea what happened to the rest of the body, which is like thirty percent of the entire body weight. People are paying for that waste with the fillet that they’re getting. So you are wasting a lot of your money. You’re also wasting the opportunity to enjoy the parts that have been wasted. You can get so much enjoyment out of the bones when you make broth.`

I am against the word “sustainability” because it’s very misleading. It’s an important idea, but people talk about it without thinking about how much is actually being wasted. To me it is more important to promote a mottainaiseafood culture. If you eat every single fish as one live thing and enjoy the whole fish, you will catch less.

Americans think about green, red, yellow [the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch provides a color-coded consumer guide, which Whole Foods uses]. That’s very judgmental and very political. That discussion can easily blind people’s minds and can make people feel too good about choosing a certain option, without thinking about the waste that was actually made. They are not thinking about the whole process. Right now the only thing that’s being wasted is the guts and the gills. I’d like to figure out a system where we could actually make the fish guts into fertilizer. Some factories actually do it in Portland, Maine. Farmers actually come and buy the waste from the sea urchins.

That’s why I always stay away from the whole “sustainable” idea. What I want to promote is to support American fisheries by eating everything in the most respectful way, one fish at a time.

That’s why I thought Osakana isn’t possible without the classes. The classes are the most important thing of this whole project. I’m not here to just sell fish, I’m here to sell this whole new culture of enjoying local fish, even for sashimi, and supporting American fisheries. American fisheries are struggling because of this foreign farm-raised fish trend.

Image by Lucky Peach

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned through opening Osakana?

I have actually been having a very interesting experience with Japanese customers, because this is so authentic that it’s not available in Japan anymore. People come in and say there is no other place where I can learn how to butcher a whole fish — even in Japan. Because now, in Japan, people are eating fish at home but not cooking because everything is already available prepared. My friend tells me that kids today don’t even know what the fish looks like. People think fish is swimming around as sashimi!

So people are not cooking fish at home in Japan just as much as people in the U.S. are not cooking fish at home — but for completely different reasons, right? In the U.S., it’s rare because not enough variety is available. But the consequence is the same.

That’s why I thought the first thing to do is to make the fish market in the U.S. as convenient as it is in Japan and also to offer education about the whole fish. I think this whole CSA movement for fish is way too advanced for the home cook. I don’t even feel comfortable breaking down a whole fish at home, because the sink is not set up properly, I don’t have enough counter space or room in the refrigerator. This is New York!

Why is changing fish culture so important to you?

Because finally fish is cool! If there is one destination for fishermen, I want Osakana to be it.

I had one discussion with an American bluefin tuna fisherman. People talk shit about bluefin nowadays, but my stance is that bluefin tuna is probably the most sustainably caught and treated with care in this country. They have so much respect for it, the way they catch it, the way they bleed it, the way they package it. They do probably the best job.

He was telling me, “I really appreciate Japanese fishermen coming to America. They taught me hands-on how to catch tuna fish one by one, not with a big net.” To catch big tuna with a net, everything dies and the quality is ruined. No one is happy.

It made me feel good about being Japanese, and about selling fish in this country. That’s why I thought I could be promoting the environmental philosophy of fish handling and supporting local fishermen.

This interview was originally published in September 2016 in Lucky Peach.