Sushi chef Sota Akiyama grew up in Japan, across the street from a sushi restaurant where he constantly was sticking his head in the door to check out the food.
This week, he’ll open his first restaurant in the former Gen Kai space at 3344 East Coast Highway.
“I always dreamed to have my own place,” Akiyama said. “Not an uptight place, but someplace locals can come in shorts and sandals. A place with great food and great atmosphere.”
Akiyama, 33, lived in Japan until sixth grade and learned Japanese cooking from his neighborhood restaurant and from his mother. In high school, he began a series of part-time jobs in sushi restaurants in Irvine, Laguna Beach and Newport Beach. He most recently worked at Nobu Los Angeles, an acclaimed restaurant in West Hollywood. Previously he was head chef for almost seven years at 930 Sushi in Newport Beach.
“I was always very interested, watching the chef, learning,” he said.
He later studied jazz, but turned to cooking.
“Making sushi is almost like jazz,” he said. “Very creative, very out of the box.”
In Japan, he said, sushi chefs must follow strict rules of tradition. But in the United States, he said, he plays with ingredients, taking traditional ingredients and adding his own flare.
His menu, he said, will feature traditional dishes that loyal Gen Kai customers have enjoyed, he said. But he also will feature items with different sauces that draw from French and Korean cooking styles and flavor profiles.
“There will be layers of flavors,” he said.
The previous owner of Gen Kai could not be reached for comment, but Akiyama said she was doing well and may open a retail shop in the future.
Sota will have a friends and family opening tonight, he said, and be open for dinner to the public beginning Saturday. A grand opening is planned for September when the full menu is ready, he said. Eventually, he said, the restaurant also will be open for lunch.
Meanwhile, Akiyama said his to-do list has been keeping him busy. The restaurant has new floors, paint and window shades. Eventually, there will be new tables and chairs. He’s been training staff and working with vendors to guarantee the best-quality fish will be delivered.
“I’m enjoying it,” he said. “I love what I do.”