While traveling the globe, sushi chef Jackie Chen had one goal.“I always knew I wanted to have my own restaurant,” said Chen, 44. “It felt like my destiny.”He got his chance when he opened the first incarnation of New Zealand Café in 2002 and moved to its location near the intersection of Sardis Road North and Monroe Road in 2004. “In the beginning, not many people knew we were here,” he said. But he stuck with his dream. “I knew if I provided a quality product, then the word would spread,” he said.The prizes and accolades that line the walls of his small restaurant, and the loyal customers who fill the nine tables and often line up outside or order carry out, are proof that Chen was right. “It is always busy,” Chen says, but he likes his restaurant’s small seating capacity because it enables him to “give customers individualized attention.” Chen’s menu is reflective of his upbringing, which was both worldly and culinary. He was born in Japan but grew up in Hong Kong, with a childhood that included abundant travel because his parents owned a sushi restaurant in New York. He studied culinary arts at Tokyo College, specializing in sushi. Chen learned how to make sushi “cleanly and safely,” how best to select and prepare fresh fish (“because,” he says, “each fish requires something different.”), how to cut it properly, and the optimal technique for making sushi rice. After working in Hong Kong for a year and a half, Chen moved to New Zealand in 1992 because he heard there were good opportunities for sushi chefs there. There he met David Zhon, who owned several sushi restaurants called “New Zealand Café.” Chen partnered with Zhon to open a new restaurant in the United States, and settled on Charlotte because, he says, “I saw it as a growing city with more opportunity to get in the game than New York or Chicago.” Chen can almost always be seen behind the sushi bar, where he is often joined by one or more of the five sushi chefs he has trained. There are also two cooks in the kitchen who produce the restaurant’s additional fare, like bento boxes, seafood and noodle dishes. But it is the sushi that has people lining up outside because, says Chen, “I don’t like to make the same sushi as other restaurants. I have my own style.” He uses a Japanese wholesaler for his fish, which are sold exclusively for sushi and hail from Japan, Australia and California. “I know how to make unusual combinations and extract more flavor,” Chen says. Customer favorites include Sweet Dragon Roll (fried jumbo shrimp, cucumbers, and light mayo sushi topped with eel and avocado); and Big Boss Roll (shrimp tempura, spicy crab and cucumber wrapped with salmon, tuna and avocado and topped with spicy shrimp and smelt roe). He introduces new combinations all the time, but also offers the staples of sashimi (thick cuts of fish with no rice); sashimi or nigiri (rice topped with a single cut of fish), rolls (rice and assorted ingredients, raw and cooked, wrapped in seaweed and then cut into six to eight pieces); and handrolls (served like ice cream cones). Chen hopes to expand, opening another New Zealand Café in Charlotte. He lives in Matthews and considers Charlotte home. “I love the weather,” he says, “but most of all I love the people.”
Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013
Charlotte sushi chef lives his dream
Want to go? New Zealand Café is at 1717 Sardis Road N. For hours, menus and prices, visit www.nzcafe.com or call 704-708-9888.
Katya Lezin is a freelance writer. Do you have a story idea for Katya? Email her at email@example.com.
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