Sushi Sasa's Wayne Conwell on working for Iron Chef Morimoto, the genius of Jeff Osaka and sushi "edibles"
This is part one of my interview with Wayne Conwell, executive chef/owner of Sushi Sasa. Part two of this interview will run tomorrow on the Cafe Society blog.
While his toddling friends were chowing down on burgers and pizza, Wayne Conwell celebrated his fourth and fifth birthdays sliding raw fish down his throat, unknowingly prepping himself for his future career. "I was exposed to sushi when I was really, really young, and I always wanted to spend my birthdays at Benihana -- or somewhere like Benihana," remembers Conwell, the executive chef/owner of Sushi Sasa. He credits his mother and his grandmothers for introducing him to a culinary canvas of international foods: "My mom is Colombian and a good cook, but my grandmothers -- they could really cook, and they made amazing meals."
Still, a boy has to do what a boy has to do, and Conwell, who was living in Orange County and needed a summer job to get spending money (to eat sushi, obviously), took one at McDonald's, using his father's ID to get it. "I was fifteen and underage, but I needed money, and my dad has the same name as me, so I whipped out his social security card," recalls Conwell. In 1986, Conwell moved to Denver, where he attended East High School; some Japanese friends there helped him solidify a gig at a now-defunct Japanese restaurant. "My main goal was to learn as much about Japanese food as I possibly could -- and I learned a lot," he says.
Conwell garnered enough knowledge to land at a restaurant that "starts with Sushi and then rhymes with the word 'pen,'" he quips, a stint that lasted for eight years. "I started as a sushi-bar bitch and left as one of their longest-serving chefs," says Conwell, who gave up the gig in order to go to Southeast Asia. "I was kind of burned out on the industry; I wanted to take a break and clear my head, and I had a lot of money saved, so I decided to travel."
In Southeast Asia, he really began to think about his future -- and the prospect of owning his own restaurant. But before Conwell committed to Sushi Sasa, he took a detour to Philadelphia to work under Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. "A friend and I were sitting around, drinking beers and watching Iron Chef, and there was Morimoto taking on a guy making sushi, and we sort of wondered how we'd stack up to his competitor," he recalls. It wasn't long before Conwell found out. He fired off a resumé and cover letter to Morimoto's eponymous restaurant, ate dinner there, did a knife-skill test and was hired. "He put me through the wringer, but it was his birthday, he was in a good mood, and all the stars were aligned that night. I couldn't do anything wrong," recollects Conwell.
So he moved to Philly, leaving his wife behind in Denver, to work alongside the Japanese master, and while he started at the bottom -- doing prep -- he emerged as a "fully commissioned sushi chef," ready to do his own thing. Conwell returned to Denver, where he opened Sushi Sasa in 2005. "I think we have everything nailed down here -- the service, the atmosphere, the wines, the mixed drinks, the food. We have the whole package," he says. "We're progressive but very well-grounded, we have a really tight-knit team, and we've branched off in our own way, pioneering our own style, system and dishes."
In the following interview, Conwell raps on customers who want pot in their toro tartare, the guy who fled his restaurant in the face of fire, and how a gladiator staff of restaurant health inspectors would fare on the Food Network.