By CHRIS COPLEY
5:44 PM EST, January 22, 2013
Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series of profiles of local restaurant chefs.
When customers jam the sushi bar at House of Kobe, fingers fly to assemble rice, fish, ginger and wasabi. But busy as a sushi chef might become, he must maintain calm and be conversational with customers, according to Fuli Sabit.
Sabit, 40, is the longest-serving sushi chef at House of Kobe, the Japanese dining institution on the Dual Highway in Hagerstown. Sabit was born in Ponorogo City, a mostly rural jurisdiction in Indonesia, northwest of Australia.
Ponorogo is renown as the birthplace of a traditional Indonesian entertainment, the Reog Ponorogo — a dance drama with an elaborate lion-and-peacock costume — and a classic Indonesian food, Sate Ponorogo, a grilled marinated chicken dish served in peanut sauce.
Sabit sat down with The Herald-Mail to talk about making sushi and moving to America.
The website says the House of Kobe introduced sushi to Hagerstown 30 years ago. How long have you been here?
I start working here in November 2000 — about 12 years.
Help me with the difference between sushi and sashimi.
OK, sushi comes with rice. Sashimi is just sliced fish. Just fish — no rice.
Then there's the roll wrapped in rice and seaweed. The roll is easy to tell apart. Now, when someone says "Make something for me," you ask "What kind of things do you like?"
Yes. We can make sushi and sashimi and some roll, you know, some combination. I don't know if you like sushi or sashimi.
What is the most popular sushi people order?
In here, most people order tuna — spicy tuna roll, tuna sashimi, anything tuna. Also, many Americans like the California roll.
Is there fish in the California roll?
No, no fish. That's why they like it. Or they order tuna.
What are some unusual fish people ask for?
People ask for giant clam, and also sea urchin.
Why do you put ginger and wasabi on a plate of sushi?
It's very difficult to make just right when we make sushi, because we don't know how much they like it. Some won't touch wasabi and ginger, but we add them, sometimes just for presentation — the pink color or green, like a leaf and flower.
You're not Japanese.
The staff here — some are Japanese, some are not?
Most of them are Korean and Philippine and some American, too. Now only Mr. (Masahiro) Hirai, (owner of House of Kobe) is Japanese.
Did you learn to speak Japanese before you came here?
No, we don't learn Japanese.
What was your sushi-chef training like? Did you go to Japan?
No. At the time, I had the job and I had to apply to my boss, and at the time, we had a Japanese chef here, so the Japanese chef, he teach me how to make sushi.
So you learned here (at House of Kobe).
Yes. And for 12 years, I don't go anywhere, because my boss asked me to stay.
Tell me about growing up in Indonesia.
My city is Ponorogo, in East Java. A small city. Population more than Hagerstown.
What did you do before you came to America?
Actually, I worked with my parents. My parents were farmers, growing rice or vegetable like eggplant, green beans or chili.
What brought you to America?
I read in the news America is No. 1 country at the time. So everyone was interested to come to the United States. Including me, too.
Did you come for a particular job?
No. I was just coming.
When did you come to American?
Where did you live?
I come to California, then move to Philadelphia. I go to Georgia, then I come here.
Did you have brothers and sisters?
Yes. I was the oldest of four. I had three brothers. They are all in Indonesia.
Do you ever go back home to see them?
I go home three times — 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Tell me about Indonesian food. Is it similar to Thai food?
Yes. We have tropical (foods). We have rice, but different vegetables.
What is a typical meal in Indonesia?
The usual meal is like, rice and vegetables and sometime chicken or tofu and soup. Mostly spicy. Like Thai food.
When you went to Philadelphia, did you have a cooking job?
No. This time, I was working, like, in a factory. I didn't know anything, so I just had a job in a factory.
Then, I work at a Chinese restaurant. That help me for cooking rice or preparing something like fish.
So when you learned how to make sushi, how did he train you?
The first time I train here, I just cooking rice. Make some sauce. And cleaning fish — just cleaning, not cutting.
How long did you study making sushi?
I work every day. Because they were sometime busy, they asked me to prepare cucumber. We cut and make like (wide) noodle, like a slice.
What do you have to do to get ready before customers come in?
Rice must be ready, because for everything we use rice. And we have to prepare vegetables and fish. Usually, if we're not very busy, we prepare a little, but like, on a weekend, we know it's going to be busy, so we prepare more rice, some fish and vegetable for sushi.
What makes sushi rice different from rice for other dishes?
Our rice, we wash very well. After that, we cook for exactly enough time. If cooked for not enough time or too long, it's not good. And we marinate it with sushi vinegar, to make it sticky. And we put in, like, sugar and salt.
Do the different sushi chefs here have different styles? Or is everyone's work pretty similar?
Pretty similar. But (another sushi chef) worked in California. He learned a special thing, because California has so many kinds of sushi there and here a little bit different. Like California roll, they put on a different topping.
What is your work week like?
I'm off Sunday and Monday. Other than that, I work 10:30 until 10 at night, but we get two-hour break for dinner.
Do you have a family?
Yes, a wife, Nisa. One girl, Saffana, age 4.
When you're home, does your wife cook, or do you?
My wife cooks. It's the Asian way, you know? Women mostly cook for the family. I do once in a while.
Is your daughter learning to cook?
She's learning from my wife. Just watching.
What does Saffana like to do with you?
Usually she likes to go to the mall or Chuck E. Cheese. Or go to my friend's house, because it's good to see Indonesian friends. It's easy to talk, easy to communicate. We have the same customs.
Do you watch TV cooking shows?
I watch YouTube. Some Japanese shows show technique, how to cut fish or something, and we see, "Oh, they are doing this and it's much faster than what we do." Not really how to cook.
I'm guessing customers want you to make their favorite sushi the same way every time.
Yes. Usually, we have many like that. Most time, the same thing. We know our customers, and usually customer already know our menu. Just, when we have specials, they ask "What specials do you have today?" So we make something not on our menu.
But as a cook, you must want to try to make something new. Do you ever come up with new kinds of sushi? New combinations?
Yeah, we try many different things, because we learn from other sushi places. We try sushi (blocks) using a presser.
This is a popular place. A lot of people come here.
I think so, because when I go to other restaurants in Hagerstown checking their sushi, our sushi is better.
You get to know your customers?
We try to talk to customers. We ask about how is your job, how is your day, how is your weekend. Mostly our customers are regular customers. Some customers, I don't know their name, but I know the person. Most customers, I know their name.
If you go ...
House of Kobe
757 Dual Highway, Hagerstown
Call 301-797-6979, go to www.thehouseofkobe.com or email email@example.com
Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday; 3 to 10 p.m. Saturday; and 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
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