Journey to the Rising Sun

By on June 6, 2018

Chef Dustin Rasnick has imported Japanese inspiration to the Tetons

Back on the Westbank, Dustin Rasnick cuts kampachi at Sudachi. (PHOTO: helen goelet)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Sonkei (respect) is a word that holds great meaning in Japan. The country’s language, greetings and approach to food are all rooted in notions of respect. Before each meal, for example, people utter the word tadakimasu (“I humbly receive”).

After a recent trip to Japan, Sudachi head chef Dustin Rasnick was deeply affected by this sentiment.

Born and raised on Kauai, Rasnick began working as a dishwasher at the age of 15. From there he moved to the front of house, where he quickly learned he was better suited to the sweaty, quiet creativity of  kitchen work. Since then, he’s worked in various restaurants, including Sushi Rei in Mammoth, California, where he honed his skills as a sushi chef. In 2009, he was recruited to join Sudachi as its executive chef.  

This past winter, Rasnick’s wife, Snake River Grill bartender Liz Rasnick, earned her six-month sabbatical from the town’s culinary institution. Rasnick decided it was time for him to do the same, and the couple traveled, climbed, and ate, arriving in Japan in March.

He was in for a surprise.

“It was like being hit in the face with a baseball bat,” Rasnick said with a crooked smile. “Here I was, having run a sushi restaurant for nine years, thinking I new a thing or two, and turns out they have a completely different way of doing everything.”

Rasnick worked under Chefs Kaname-San and Sato-San at Sushi Takayama in Ginza—Tokyo’s most upscale neighborhood, as well as Sushi Arata in Hiroshima. It was a humbling process.

From his first cut of fish, Rasnick was told “No, that’s not how we do it, we do it differently.”  

But the chefs’ words did not contain disdain, or even the slightest hint of disrespect. Rasnick, then, was motivated to watch and learn.

“In Japan,” Rasnick said, “everything has a purpose, and everything is done with absolute precision.” People practice one thing, and one thing only, dedicating their lives to perfecting their craft. One of his fellow apprentices, though the same age as Rasnick, has been learning for twice as long. He began his dedicated journey at the age of 17.

The sentiment carries over to the food. While Americanized sushi, or “dressed-sushi” as Rasnick refers to the cuisine served at his restaurant, is covered in various sauces and garnishes, traditional Japanese sushi is simple, letting the fish be the centerpiece.  

Inspired from his recent travels, Rasnick added seki saba to the menu at Sudachi. Meanwhile in Japan, the Tsukiji tuna auction is underway.

In America’s culinary melting pot, people adapt concepts, giving classic dishes a twist. In Japan, however, it is about honoring tradition.

“We had pizza in Tokyo that could have been made in Tuscany,” Rasnick said. “They travel to Italy to learn the traditional way of making pizza, then they come home and perfect what they’ve learned.”  

This dedication and respect for food and tradition goes beyond the kitchen. Traditional meals (kaiseki, honzen or yosuku styles) are served as bite-sized plates in multiple courses to allow each dish to resonate with the diners. When seated at the bar, diners sit directly opposite the itemae (the sushi chef) where they watch the chef delicately create. Diners are also able to choose their fish for the night from fish boxes presented to them by the itemae.

Some of the people coming in would know as much about fish as I do,” Rasnick said. “It was amazing to see people so involved in their experience.”

Pairing beer, hot sake, shochu and green tea with their dishes, these dinners last upwards of three hours. It is in every way dinner and a show.  

After experiencing the clean, traditional style of Japanese sushi as well as the respect and focus on production shared by both chef and diner, Rasnick’s outlook on his own restaurant has shifted.  Most importantly, his outlook on respect within the community of his restaurant has changed too.

“It was incredible to be spoken to with respect and kindness no matter what,” Rasnick said. Indeed, this is a mentality that is often brushed to the wayside in the hot, chaotic environments of western kitchens.

“It forces a feeling of mutual respect and it changes the whole tone of things,” Rasnick said. While no drastic changes are in store for his menu, his ultimate goal is to be able to offer more intimate, traditional style dinners where he can interact with his customers and give them a true experience of Japanese cuisine. For now, be sure to peruse Sudachi’s specials board as it will feature a variety of new fish flown in from Japan.

Rasnick’s new favorite flavor? A seki saba, or cured mackerel.  

About Helen Goelet

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