Without the Brick and Mortar
Thanks to Ronald Reagan, Ed Metcalfe can teach you how to construct a perfect spicy tuna roll, whip together a pot of miso soup, slice sashimi like a pro, or layer succulent layers of maguro, sake, and Hamachi over a tube of rice for a multicolored rainbow roll.
The 40th president probably didn’t know sashimi from shinola – Reagan’s tastes ran more toward meatloaf, mac and cheese and, of course, jelly beans – and he never met Ed. But on August 3, 1981, 13,000 air traffic controllers went on strike for better pay and shorter hours, and two days later Reagan fired the 11,000 who didn’t immediately return to work, then banned them forever from government employ.
That included Ed’s father, and thus began a culinary odyssey that culminated with world-class sushi in Sonoma.
“My dad was a little devastated when he lost his job. We had just moved into a brand-new home. I was getting ready to start my freshman year of high school. He was also flight instructor, had been in aviation pretty much from his early 20s, he had every rating you could get, but he couldn’t make enough money being a flight instructor. So out of the blue he decided he was going to buy a restaurant, and he looked in the paper and found one (in the Sacramento area) recently up for sale. The concept was breakfast and lunch, everything made from scratch in the morning, fresh biscuits, homemade gravy, big slabs of ham off the bone.”
Two weeks later the Metcalfes were in business. “My mom was the front of the house, my dad was the cook, and there was one dishwasher. It was a seven-days-a-week operation, and my freshman year I started washing dishes every Saturday and Sunday.”
The restaurant, called simply “Ham and Eggs,” was a raging success, “There was a line of contractors that would line up at 6 a.m. to get inside. I was washing dishes by hand, silverware, glasses, just getting my ass kicked every weekend. So I quickly figured out I didn’t want to do that. Let me try and cook.”
Ed started cooking in his sophomore year. At 16, he was arriving at 5 a.m., opening the restaurant, and cooking breakfast. “It taught me a lot of work ethic at a very young age.
I had an opportunity to help grow the business, so we ended up in four locations in a matter of five years. All breakfast and lunch, all the same concept, all the same name.”
Ham and Eggs did well enough that Ed stayed for 16 years, “until I realized I didn’t want to be flipping flapjacks and making gravy anymore. So at 29, I left the family business and went to culinary school in San Francisco at CCA.”
The California Culinary Academy, which closed in 2015, was part of the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu franchise and taught Metcalfe a variety of cooking techniques and styles, along with a bigger vision that quickly transcended ham and eggs. He went on to work in a variety of restaurants in diverse places, like Hawaii, Lake Tahoe, and Denmark, and along the way discovered an affinity for Asian food.
“It involved ingredients I hadn’t seen before, it was exotic, and after tasting them and experimenting with them, I was just intrigued and attracted to the flavor profiles. Asia’s obviously a large area, so I had to decide, what type of Asian food do I want to do? And throughout my experiences, I was always exposed to Japanese cuisine, no matter where I went it was there.”
Ultimately, it was a job in Copenhagen that set Ed on his path. “I spent a year there. It was my first exposure to sushi and really where I developed as a chef, working in a very popular, Michelin-starred restaurant, called “Sushitarian,” in downtown Copenhagen. I would watch the Japanese chef work behind the bar and was just astounded by what was happening, especially after being in a hot kitchen for so many years.”
Metcalfe landed in Sonoma – a place he had never seen despite Sacramento-area roots – after a friend prodded him to come.
“So I came up, I literally walked the Plaza, read every menu, and they were all the same, all Wine Country cuisine, Mediterranean Italian.”
It seemed like a good place to plant some sushi, so Metcalfe negotiated a lease for an empty space just below the Sonoma Plaza on Broadway, and opened Shiso Sonoma.
“My market study was walking the Plaza and reading menus. I think I was just turning 39 at that point, and when I came here, driving through the vineyards, I was in heaven.”
Shiso lasted four years on Broadway, built a solid fan base, but Metcalfe ultimately concluded, “I didn’t need to pay premium rent because, of course, you weren’t going to attract people down Broadway (from the tourism-centric Plaza), at least not back then. Even today it would be difficult.”
So, eventually, he opened a new Shiso in the Maxwell Village shopping center, right next to the miniature golf course, with acres of parking and a garden in back. He stayed there eight years and built a dedicated following.
If you’ve eaten his food you know Ed Metcalfe is a purist and an artist, very much at home in the kitchen. There’s a focus on detail, a precision of movement as he shapes pieces of nigiri and sashimi, wielding a 14-inch yanagiba, drawing the blade through a filet of salmon, carving out precise pieces with a steady rhythm. His commitment to the discipline of the craft as he learned it is almost reverent, a meditation of sorts. And it is instructive when he explains how the traditions of preparing and eating sushi are far different in Japan than here.
“There are so many misconceptions about what sushi really can be and what it is,” says Metcalfe. “And it’s two really different things between Japan and America. We’re so used to this kind of Americanized sushi that when people have a real sushi experience in Japan, it’s nothing like what we see here. I had an opportunity to learn sushi from a Japanese chef, and I honor that out of respect.”
The differences, he suggests, are both gustatory and cultural. “When you go to a real Omakase experience in Japan, you’re not going to get ginger and wasabi. You’re going to order from the chef and the chef is going to make one piece of nigiri at a time and put it in front of you, and there’s no dipping. The chefs literally put their own special touch to each piece in the nigiri, whether it’s with some smoked salt or a fresh herb, or just a glaze that they’ve created, and it’s very light. It’s never going to be like mayonnaise or something that we’re used to having. It’s really about the focus of that one piece in front of you, and to experience it in your mouth and really take it in.”
Unlike Americans, says Metcalfe, “the Japanese are very seasonally driven. They eat based on seasons and it’s all about the portions, like in the bento box, which is one of the healthiest food creations because it’s portion control, all very small portions and also usually very seasonal, with a piece of protein, some rice, your carbs from fresh fruits. It was one of the things I learned when I started studying sushi; it’s actually brilliant. The Japanese eat very healthy and they eat very portion control. They have a saying in Japan that they only eat until they’re 80 percent full.”
Much as he loved his kitchen time, Metcalfe found himself beginning to confront a couple of cold, brick-and-mortar realities. “If you’re going to be in this business, obviously you have to be passionate about restaurants. But the flip side of that for any owner/operator – especially if you want to be in the kitchen most of the time – is that you have your strengths and you have your weaknesses. And my weaknesses were always management. And I knew that. So, in a time when it is extremely difficult to find employees, and then to manage and build a team, and keep a team, it’s even more difficult.” And, adds Metcalf, the net profit margin on most restaurants is 3 to 6 percent, which doesn’t put that much in an owner’s pocket. “When I sold Shiso,” he says, “my employees were making more money than I was.”
And then there’s the issue of age. Metcalfe is only 53, but he’s been in the kitchen since he was 15.
“I just can’t imagine having to go back and do it all over again when there are so many other opportunities out there today in this industry, and they’re not related to brick and mortar, they’re opposite of brick and mortar.”
And, of course, the food industry in general was changing before Ed’s eyes. “The last two years I really started to see the writing on the wall with all the food delivery companies – Grubhub, Doordash, the convenience of online groceries, boxed meals coming to your door – I saw the trend of how dining was changing. We all know that going out to dinner or lunch is not cheap. And it continues to go up.”
So at the end of 2018, Ed sold Shiso Modern Asian Kitchen to the perfect buyers – Tokyo-born Shige and Toki Mori – who seamlessly took over the space, and named it Shige Sushi and Isakaya (which means “bar”).
Meanwhile, Metcalfe minus brick-and-mortar built on his existing catering service to add sushi educational classes, team-building events, Airbnb sushi experiences, farm-to-table dinners, winery events, pickup parties, and in-home private dinners for 6 to 100 people.
He calls the business “Sushimoto,” after one of his earlier restaurants (he’s owned four), and a visit to his Facebook page or website makes your mouth water. Food selections aren’t limited to sushi, and available menu items include Kobe beef medallions with shitake mushroom sauce, garlic and ginger-marinated tri-tip and Korean short ribs.
But the sushi classes may be the stars of the show. Ed can set them up anywhere, but he has a go-to site at the Seamus Winery tasting room in Kenwood, where classes of four to 10 people learn sushi A to Z, while tasting flights of Seamus wines paired for each course.
Metcalfe’s lessons cover making miso soup from scratch with dashi stock (vastly superior to most restaurant offerings), preparing sushi rice, where and how to obtain top-quality fish (He has a list, and don’t be fooled by designations like “sushi grade,” he warns. They’re bogus.), and how to shape and cut nigiri rolls or slice sashimi into perfect strips. It’s all hands-on and into the mouth. “We will make more food than you can eat,” he warns. And he’s right.
Metcalf will also tell you which fish are sustainably sourced and healthiest to eat, which are farmed, and why that is increasingly necessary. “That’s one of the things about being a sushi chef. You are always conscious about what you’re purchasing and is it right for the environment. So yellowfin and albacore are the most sustainable. Albacore is one of my favorite tunas. It’s lean, but if you get into the albacore belly, it’s actually very fatty and amazing.”
Ed says he still gets in his kitchen time while catering, but now there’s much less overhead burden, and just as much fun. “There’s a lot of joy when you’re teaching something that you’ve been passionate about for years – that’s definitely a part of the fun in my job.”
Ed Metcalf and Sushimoto can be found at sushimotos.com, or at 650.862.6633.