He doesn’t like to talk much. He certainly doesn’t like to talk much to the press. And, he shrugs about the moniker that some of the press has given him—“The Sushi Nazi.”
He’s not German, he’s Japanese, he points out with a smirk.
“Sometimes, people come in and they have bad manners,” he says. “I tell them to go out.”
Kazunomi Nozawa is closing his shop in Studio City on Feb. 29 after more than a quarter of a century.
That may not sound like a big deal along that strip of Ventura Boulevard where there are dozens of sushi bars, but this tiny shop of a few hundred square feet has often been called by critics as the place to get some of the best sushi in the world.
Nozawa has earned top Zagat survey ratings for the past two decades. The New York Times calls the fish “the freshest from the world’s waters,” but it’s Chef Nozawa’s gruff demeanor that makes him legendary. The Los Angeles Times describes him as “imperious,” the LA Weekly calls him “a sushi tyrant.”
Of course, it’s the overbearing “Soup Nazi” from the Seinfeld TV series (which was taped for most of the 1990s down the street at the lot), that earned Nozawa his nickname, for kicking out disrespectful customers and telling people what they should order, much like the Russian soup chef.
“Americans have to understand my style and my country’s people,” he says, not looking up as he sliced up the fresh fish of the day. “I’m Japanese.”
Then he looks up with the sharp knife wagging like a finger. “And sometimes people have very bad manners, OK?”
So why is he closing shop? He answered that after Studio City Patch tapped at the window a few hours before the lunch crowd just after it was announced he was closing. He hesitatingly unlocks the door and agrees to an interview. He is good about recognizing people who have come to his place for a long time.
“has come to visit me for 26 years,” Nozawa smirks. “Before he was famous, he comes here. Tom Hanks, too. Mel Gibson.”
It’s a rare night that someone notable from TV or film isn’t at Nozawa. (Personally, we’ve seen Drew Barrymore, Jodie Foster, Rebecca Romijn, , , and many others seated nearby in the close tables.)
A sign above his head behind the sushi bar says “Trust Me,” and when you arrive, he sizes up your table and your appetite, figures out what is best suited for you, and then sends a bill—it could be near three figures per person.
You could order off the menu, but it’s frowned upon—and it defeats the purpose of the experience.
“The customers understand,” the chef says. “They figure out how it works.”
The “Trust Me” model started early in his career. A customer once told him he didn’t like toro. It was stringy at another restaurant.
“In Japan, ‘toro’ means like butter, it melts in your mouth,” and so, that’s what Nozawa shows his customers. He only serves yellow fin and big eye tuna. The loyal customer trusted him from then on, and now many more do, too.
He looks around at his modest tables. He knows people stand outside and wait for a tables. He takes no reservations.
“No decorations, nothing fancy, no talk,” he points out. “Every day I have 100 people come through here.”
So why call it quits now?
“It’s hard work. For 26 years every morning I go to the fish market, I pick the fish,” he sighs heavily and looks up. “I am 66 years old now.”
(See the series of videos in the gallery above of how he picks his fish and an average day of work.)
It’s been a long time since he recalls throwing someone out—another sign of his aging, he smiles. Take out your cell phone, that can get you kicked out. Signs warn that the whole place is a “cell-free zone.”
Ask for a California roll? That could get you kicked out. There’s no such cute-named Caterpillar roll or anything like that here. The sushi is done in traditional Japanese style.
“I love Studio City,” Nozawa proclaims. “I have the number one customers in Studio City, I am very happy. They were very high class.”
Over the years he had many chances to expand in the modest mini-mall to a bigger space—in fact a much larger Japanese restaurant is two doors down, but he turned down the offers.
“There is one chef, that is me, that is OK,” he says. “Too many is no good.”
He has 47 years of experience as a sushi chef, and always loved food. He came from Japan to California in 1977, and worked for a friend who opened a sushi bar in Encino in 1980. Six years later, he opened his own place in Studio City.
In Tokyo he took up an apprenticeship at one of the city’s premiere sushi shops, working 15-hour days six days a week. He hasn’t stopped that rigorous pace. He became fascinated in all sorts of fish—octopus, glass fish, and studied in Anchorage, Portland, New York, Detroit and more.
Now, he and his son, Tom, and a group of businessmen own three other stores in Brentwood, downtown and Santa Monica called Sugarfish. He will probably offer lessons to young promising sushi chefs at those locations.
He was never concerned or threatened by the incredible number of sushi places proliferating along Ventura Boulevard—the most prolific kind of food in all of Studio City.
“There are many sushi places, but they are not mine,” he smiles.
And why not pass on this place to another chef? Why not keep the sushi going?
He points to the sign above the window of his restaurant and merely nods.
It is the only store that bears his name—Sushi Nozawa.
“No one else will be chef here.”