SUSHISAMBA’s Koji Kagawa & Richard Woods on International Sushi Day, ideal cocktails, and more

by | Jun 14, 2016 | Culture, Dining, Downtown Living, Editor's Pick

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A unique blend on Japanese, Brazilian and Peruvian cuisine and culture, SUSHISAMBA began in New York in 1999. Nearly two decades later, SUSHISAMBA has opened up additional locations in Florida, Las Vegas, and London. In honor of the first half of the restaurant’s namesake, SUSHISAMBA’s West Village location will be participating in International Sushi Day this year on Jun. 18. Diners will be treated to rare menu options, including the options to learn to create nigiri and build their own donburi bowl at their table.

Prior to International Sushi Day, Downtown caught up with SUSHISAMBA’s Corporate Sushi Chef, Koji Kagawa, and its Head Of Spirit & Cocktail Development, Richard Woods. Both Koji and Richard answered questions about the company –- which has an acclaimed sister restaurant in the U.K.-rooted Duck & Waffle –- and how they wound up working there. Koji joined the company as an assistant sushi chef in 2000, choosing to pursue the culinary arts after a musical career in Japan. Richard opened restaurants all over Europe before joining the SUSHISAMBA fold, later being named one of the “1,000 Most Influential People” by the Evening Standard. The two staffers exemplified through our Q&A that constant improvement at one’s craft is absolutely essential.

Koji can be followed on Instagram via @ChefKojiNY and Richard can be found on Twitter via @The_Cocktailguy. SUSHISAMBA is both on Twitter and Instagram via @SUSHISAMBA, and can be visited on the web at

Sushi by Chef Koji Kagawa

Sushi by Chef Koji Kagawa

Where did the idea for SUSHISAMBA’s dish for International Sushi Day come from? 

Koji Kagawa: Japan is one of our cultural and culinary inspirations. Nigiri and donburi are two of Japan’s most revered dishes. We’re honoring the day with our special menu, while also creating an interactive, hands-on experience.

Do you have a favorite kind of sushi? 

KK: My favorite kinds of sushi are ika, anago and tako. 

Do you remember the first time you had sushi? 

KK: Growing up in Japan, sushi was expensive. The first time I tried it was at a kaiten sushi restaurant.

RR: I guess it was around my early 20’s. The concept was new and exciting. Needless to say, since working at SUSHISAMBA, my expectations are much greater, and so I have never returned to that particular restaurant.

Do you have a favorite dish on the menu at SUSHISAMBA? 

KK: SUSHISAMBA has a unique ceviche selection on the menu, which brings together Japan and Peru in one dish: fresh fish, vegetables, bold sauces, lime juice…All of the ingredients come together for a flavorful experience.

Do you have a favorite cocktail on the menu at SUSHISAMBA?

RW: It really depends on my mood and time of day. That’s why the menu is so diverse. From the newest collection, it would have to be the Yushi Fizz. Fresh and citrusy and light. Perfect as an accompaniment to sushi. 

Which dish on your current menu takes the most time to prepare?  

KK: We typically buy whole fish and filet them in-house, which takes time and precision.

Which cocktail on your current menu takes the most time to prepare?

RW: From the newest menu, it would have to be the Miso-Mule. From the one before, it would be the Wagyu Old Fashioned. Both require a lengthy pre-service period to prep. That said, the importance is that this extra effort isn’t translated to the service time. Guests shouldn’t have to wait any longer. After all, the very least a guest should expect in any bar, is that they get served their drink in a timely manner. So as much as possible for me is done back of house and before opening, therefore the actual serve time for all the drinks is still the same.

SUSHISAMBA in the West Village

SUSHISAMBA in the West Village

Koji, do you remember the first dish you ever created? 

KK: Yellowtail Tiradito.

Richard, do you remember the first cocktail you ever created?

RW: (laughs) I’ve only been bartending around six years now, though my career in hospitality started a few years before that. It was the service side I fell in love with way before bartending. I started full-time as a duty manager and worked my way up to Operations Director in numerous businesses, but my favorite seat was always at the bar. I quickly found that the draw of bartending and the creativity could not be ignored. The job that led to my interest in hospitality, though, was at a local bar pulling pints. There were a few drinks — mostly fruity martinis and mojitos. Nothing crazy.

How does the cocktail menu at SUSHISAMBA compare to that of sister resaurant Duck & Waffle?

RW: They’re very different, but why create something similar? At SUSHISAMBA, I try to tie in the geographical importance of its heritage — be it with ingredients, flavors, etc. –- though my approach to both restaurants in terms of creativity is the same. At Duck & Waffle, anything goes. I’ve pushed some seriously creative and unusual flavors and ideas, and all have been extremely well-received. It’s more of a foodie crowd in Duck & Waffle and often, guests who first came in asking for a gin & tonic, now come in and ask for whatever I’m creating next. 

Where do you usually go to for inspiration when it comes to crafting a menu?  Is it a magazine? Word of mouth? Do other chefs ever make recommendations to you? 

KK: I find inspiration from other chefs, by studying different approaches used. The Japanese community of chefs in New York is rather small, so we will talk to each other about what is in-season and the best ingredients to incorporate.

RW: Everywhere! I just let it all come in -– no filters! It could be a dinner, a date, a smell. Seasonality is hugely-important. Right now, I’m working on themes, so my next menu at Duck & Waffle works on urban foraging, or sourcing everything from local parks. Other tasting menus I’m curating use color as a theme and explore the importance on how colors effects our perception of flavor.

Richard Woods

Richard Woods

How did you wind up in your current position? Were you an ambitious chef that someone discovered? Did you study this field within your college coursework? 

KK: I trained in Japan for five years, which required a great deal of dedication and precision. By the time I moved to the United States, I had a foundation and understanding of the best techniques and methods of preparation. At SUSHISAMBA, I’ve had the chance to exercise creativity in presentation with the specialty roll section of the menu. 

And Richard, how did you wind up in your current position?

RW: I originally wanted to be an architect, so I guess I’m still designing and building. I’m very fortunate to be able to do what I do. No two days are the same in a week. I could be designing bars, distilling, creating or bartending — which I insist on still doing, as it keeps me on my toes and helps develop ways in which I can speed up service or make an experience better.

Work aside, Koji, what is your dish of choice?  

KK: The Yellowtail and Lobster Taquitos can be addicting. The Churrasco is also a “go-to” choice when I’m looking for something more filling.

Work aside, Richard, what is your drink of choice?

RW: Hmm, difficult. Again, depends. I generally check out on a martini — gin, dry and slightly-dirty. It’s a mental thing. It clears my head. 

What is your favorite non-sushi-related restaurant in New York? 

KK: Everything. Spanish tapas, Asian – Korean and Chinese — French and Italian. 

When you’re not busy with your career, how do you like to spend your free time? 

KK: I enjoy the arts — painting, fashion design and sculpting. 

RW: Balance is important. But I do take work home — you can’t not! In my spare time, I distill all the spirits and ingredients needed for the businesses. 

Finally, any last words for the kids? 

KK: Eat more sushi!

RW: Stay in school! You’ll be surprised how a good grounding keeps you focused, and in some cases helps you develop further, your chosen career. Other than that, I guess we all at some time get to a point we we think, “Do I make a go of bartending and make it a career or do I take a ‘real job?’” My family was the same. Now? This is my real job and is a career that I’ll continue to push at and create, even past my days of bartending for 10 to 12 hours a day. Plan for the future, though. Enjoy today, but think about how you can develop your career in 5 to 10 years’ time.

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