Sushi, American style: How a white guy from Philadelphia became one of Sacramento’s top chefs
Lou Valente: ‘No one would even consider me’
Behind his sushi bar, Lou Valente moves with precision: his choreography a result of more than 20 years of faithful repetition. He dips his fingers into water and claps his hands before grabbing a small mound of rice, nimbly stretching it across a crisp sheet of nori. In a matter of seconds, his creation is rolled and ready for a final garnish of sesame seeds. He reaches for the shaker without looking.
The job is all about mise en place, which sometimes inspires Valente to break out into song. “Mise en place is my friend, mise en place is my friend!” he sings, pretending to conduct his workstation. Everything is arranged just so: thinly sliced scallions, cucumber sticks, lemons, whole avocados, pickled ginger, wasabi and shredded daikon that shines like glass.
Valente is chef and owner of Lou’s Sushi, the beloved Midtown neighborhood restaurant. On a Friday night, the line for a table starts forming at about 5:30 p.m. and doesn’t stop until 9 p.m. Exceedingly humble, charismatic and a little goofy, he’s understandably a popular guy.
His path here was simultaneously classic and unusual. Though he spent years apprenticing for Japanese sushi masters, he’s also a big, gregarious Caucasian dude from Philadelphia. He broke into a culinary world known for strict rules, tradition and cultural purity. Today, this would still be a feat, but in the early ’90s? Valente’s presence was a rarity.
His talent, however, is clear. Order omakase-style, and he’ll unleash an epic, nigiri-filled parade: suzuki with a dab of fiery yuzu kosho, kanpachi kissed with lemon, saba heightened with chili oil. But he thrives with Americanized sushi as well, serving bombastic, saucy rolls with bold textural contrasts. His sense of humor, for example, comes through on the dish Tastes Like Beef, which features seared tuna, wasabi cream and fried onions. It really does, miraculously, taste like beef.
Despite already accomplishing what once seemed like the impossible—succeeding as a Caucasian sushi chef and restaurant owner—he’s still on the perpetual quest to perfect his craft. For now, he’s quite proud of his tamago, the omelette known as one method used to dictate how Japanese chefs judge fellow chefs. Valente’s is rich yet delicate, with eight creamy, barely distinct layers.
“Yeah,” he says, nodding and smiling with his eyes. “Not bad for a white guy, right?”‘I'd never even heard of sushi before'
Like many chefs, Valente commits to his craft with ink. The tattoo on his right arm spells out “Louis Valente” phonetically in Japanese, but it also symbolizes “pure sushi,” “crazy hands” and “sword.” It seems like he was meant for the trade.
Yet, for the first 20 years of his life, sushi didn’t exist. Valente grew up in Philadelphia, first learning the ways of pasta, cookies and Italian cuisine from his grandmother instead.
Valente’s childhood was pretty standard: divorced parents, sports and decent grades in school. He worked some odd jobs before road-tripping to Los Angeles at age 22 and never looking back. There, he went to his first Japanese restaurant. While feasting on spicy scallop hand rolls, sweet shrimp with fried heads and a huge spread of nigiri, Valente marveled at the way the chefs moved and the exquisite presentation.
“I had never even heard of sushi before that,” he says. “I just fell in love right away.”
Valente immediately sought an entry into this world and landed at Bambu, an Asian fusion restaurant with a sushi bar in Malibu. Whenever he wasn’t busy washing dishes, he’d linger around the bar, chatting with revered master Go Kawano and taking mental notes. One day, he sketched out the entire sushi bar workstation on a yellow legal pad and, unprompted, began arriving early to set everything up. That’s when Kawano took Valente under his wing, letting him stand in on busy nights and make California rolls. Eventually, a chef broke his leg skiing and Kawano threw Valente behind the bar as a quick fix. He stayed there for two years.
In Japan, it’s common for sushi chefs to start learning as teenagers and spend years just cleaning fish or only washing rice before actually making sushi. But the process is different in the United States.
“The demand for sushi exploded so quickly, there wasn’t time for people to go through that sort of apprenticeship,” says Trevor Corson, author of The Story of Sushi. He traces sushi’s popularity stateside back to the late ’70s, when Hollywood celebrities began spreading the gospel. By the early ’80s, there were Japanese restaurants in most major cities on the coasts, and those restaurants needed chefs.
Nonetheless, Valente’s old-school Japanese boss demanded a grueling training period. Whenever he was caught slouching, Valente felt a knee rammed into his back. If a batch of rice wasn’t perfect, it met the trash. Hours were long and filled with constant micromanagement.
Yet, despite his traditional training, Valente says he had trouble finding his next gig. It was 1995, and he wasn’t Asian.
“In Japan, there’s a mindset about the uniqueness of its culture and that others can’t master that culture,” Corson says. “A traditionally minded person would find [a Caucasian sushi chef] inconceivable.”
Valente moved to San Francisco to attend the California Culinary Academy, a backup plan of sorts while he looked for work. He remembers going to one of the city’s premier sushi bars and, after dinner, handing the chef a letter of recommendation, written by Kawano in Japanese. That chef laughed and handed it to the next chef, who laughed and handed it to the next chef, who laughed and handed it to the next chef. His now ex-wife cussed them out as Valente inquired about the check.
“I went to almost every sushi bar that I thought I would like to work at and I got laughed out of every single one of them,” he says. “No one would even consider me.”
It went on like that for several months. Beaten down, Valente nearly gave up. That cultural barrier seemed impossible to overcome.
Then, Valente spotted a want ad in the San Francisco Chronicle, calling for “smiling sushi chefs.” Valente grabbed his resume and set out to what would become Ace Wasabi’s, a lively Japanese restaurant in San Francisco’s Marina District. The chef, Kiyoshi Hayakawa, would become his mentor for nearly six years.
At the time, Ace Wasabi’s was different than other sushi joints in town. It was rock ’n’ roll-themed and popularized the creative rolls that everyone now comes to expect from Americanized sushi restaurants. Valente spent three years with Hayakawa lurking over his shoulder before Hayakawa entrusted him with the kitchen. No other Caucasian chefs would come through during Valente’s time there.
“I think he’s one of the best guys,” Hayakawa says. “I told [apprentices] the main thing is the food, not the decoration: the basic skills, the basic technique, the basic taste. I think Lou really understands that.”
Still, did Valente have more to prove because of his skin color?
“To me, I really don’t care about what they are if they love making sushi,” Hayakawa says. “How is the public going to react? Well, that is their problem.”Success, and other struggles
Sake bombs usually kick off Valente's dinner shift, and he drains them with speed.
He stays sharp, though, with his eyes always darting around his 36-seat restaurant. He notices everything. He says “hello” and “thank you” to everyone. He calls customers at the sushi bar his friends—only when he doesn’t already know them by name—and clinks glasses with the ones who send over sake, beer or whiskey.
He constantly fiddles with the lighting and sound—he hates for the room to look too bright or too dark, or for the reggae to sound too quiet or too loud. He runs upstairs to adjust it periodically, depending on the crowd. And again. And again.
“It’s an all-night battle,” he says, exasperated.
In the kitchen, one of Valente’s cooks bats a Japanese hand fan to cool down a fresh batch of koshihikari rice, the crown jewel of Japanese grains. It’s a lengthy process of rinsing, soaking, straining, steaming, mixing and cooling. And proportions aren’t simple. Lately, Valente has been using 9 pounds and 11 ounces of water to cook 11 pounds and 9 ounces of rice, but that varies from bag to bag. How long ago the rice was milled factors into the kernels’ water content, which factors into how it should be cooked. Then, there’s the technique for mixing vinegar into rice. You almost make a slicing motion at an angle, quickly breaking up clumps. But if you push it the wrong way, you risk mashing the rice into a starchy mess, rendering it completely ruined with no way to fix it.
Preparing rice is just one small, crucial part of Valente’s jam-packed, 14-hour days.
He usually arrives at the restaurant by 9 a.m. He’s the executive chef, sure, but he insists on also completing work typically reserved for prep cooks. He wants to make sure all the tasks are done right, which means he needs his hands in them. He’s not above washing up after service, either. Sometimes, he breaks down all the equipment and completes an extra thorough cleaning when Lou’s is closed. He butchers all the fish, noting which filets could benefit with additional aging as well as where and when the fish was caught. Even the exact boat involved.
But Valente is learning to slowly relinquish a little control now that he’s hired such an able second-in-command, Kae Saeteurn. Tall, gangly and Asian, Saeteurn looks like Valente’s foil behind the sushi bar. He’s quieter at first, but sweet-natured and funny, and a beast when it comes to creativity. He’s responsible for the extensive vegetarian and vegan selections that have, in part, made Lou’s so popular.
Their rapport is obvious. Valente constantly forgets what tables orders are supposed to go to, but insists on betting a beer on the hope that perhaps, on this particular night, he will remember for change. Saeteurn always wins.
“He was everything in a sushi chef that I wanted to learn from,” Saeteurn says, recalling his move from Haya Sushi in Citrus Heights to Lou’s. “I had yet to meet a Japanese sushi chef or even a chef who trained under a Japanese chef traditionally.”
Indeed, Valente’s time under Hayakawa was so valuable, he finally had no problem convincing people to hire him. In 2000, he moved to Sacramento to become his own chef and a small partner in the now-shuttered Sushi on the River.
A pattern took shape. The small Japanese restaurants Valente stepped into kept transforming into bigger, flashier versions of themselves with massive flat screen televisions and neon lights. It wasn’t just Sacramento, though. It was happening at mom-and-pop sushi spots across the country in the late ’90s and early 2000s. The food wasn’t enough—owners felt they needed to sell a specific atmosphere too, and Valente wasn’t a fan.
After an expansion for Sushi on the River, Valente went to Taka’s Downtown. When Taka’s closed for a remodel, Valente hopped over to Zen Sushi. Six years later, Zen, too, closed for a remodel.
“They turned that place into a nightclub,” Valente says. “I was like, I can’t do this anymore. That’s not what I think it’s all about it. That’s not the direction places needed to go.”
In the fall of 2012, he signed a lease for a small space on 28th and P streets, which would become Lou’s Sushi. But he ran out of money during the build-out, and when Lou’s Sushi opened its doors on October 1, 2013, there was nothing in the bank to ensure it’d last. Every day was crucial, and Lou’s, like many new restaurants, wasn’t an instant success.
“The first eight months were crazy—it was like being in a washing machine,” Valente says, demonstrating by shaking his head furiously and making “dun-dun-dun” sound effects.
In other words, he felt clobbered.
Valente never quite had a handle on the business side of things. Numbers didn’t add up. In August 2014, Valente hired his now-business partner Kelly Brean as a consultant, who Valente largely credits for saving the sinking ship. Brean worked as the vice president of operations of Steakhouse Partners Inc., which owned chains such as Hungry Hunter and Carvers, for 13 years. His corporate background ushered in improved food costs, staff accountability and better front-of-the-house management.
Still, the rise in success wasn’t all business-related. A few months earlier, Lou’s Sushi got a huge bump from a glowing review in The Sacramento Bee. Then-critic Blair Anthony Robertson raved that Valente’s rice is “some of the finest you may ever eat” and his fish “superbly fresh, nuanced and clean on the palate.” When Valente read the piece, he cried. Sales went up 40 percent and stayed that way. In 2015, business rose another 20 percent.
All the while, Valente has enjoyed a loyal following of fans who have been eating his sushi for years. Indeed, go to Lou’s enough and you’ll probably see Les Pung, who loves the restaurant so much he once ate there for lunch, happy hour and dinner on the same day, back-to-back-to-back.
“I sit here, there’s no stress,” he says while dining at Lou’s for the 10th day in a row. “I know the service will be good. I know the food will be awesome. I leave here, I’m happy.”
Across the sushi bar, there’s Stacie Larkin, who has been frequenting Valente’s establishments for 15 years. Her husband doesn’t normally like seafood, but he’ll try whatever Valente puts in front of him. Today, it’s the couple’s first time eating octopus. They’re not really fans, but that’s OK.
“I come here because I trust him,” Larkin says. “I can say, ’Give me the best thing,’ and I trust he’s gonna give me the best stuff. I don’t think I’m special in that. He treats everyone in here like a close friend.”Sushi, for the people
Shaquille Dixon massages a sushi roll into place, and Valente jokes that if it's not good enough, Dixon is fired.
“You fire me at least three times a shift,” Dixon says, rolling his eyes. “I’m really not that bad.”
Dixon is Valente’s first apprentice. He’s 22, just like Valente when he received his first chance in Malibu. Valente, now the master, has come full circle.
He’s not as harsh as old-school Japanese sushi chefs, but he emphasizes the tiny details no one really notices that, he says, make all the difference. He develops sayings to help Dixon remember rules, which Dixon calls “Lou-isms.” For example: “If you don’t see the white, you ain’t doing it right.” It doesn’t refer to Valente, rather, the shimmery white strip on hamachi left behind when you skin it properly.
“I only have to tell him things 100 times before he gets it,” Valente says, letting out a snort while he laughs. Dixon started at Lou’s in the kitchen but spent his free time shadowing Valente behind the sushi bar. “I haven’t seen that level of interest since I did that in the beginning, so we gave him a shot.”
If you couldn’t tell by his name, Dixon isn’t Asian, either.
Continuing to teach people how to make sushi the traditional way is crucial for preserving authentic, Tokyo-style sushi in the United States, says Corson, the sushi expert. The long and intense apprenticeship matters, not the ethnicity of the sushi chef. In fact, Corson says westerners passionate about sushi, like Valente, are more likely to help with the effort because they can communicate effectively without cultural or language barriers. Valente’s mentor Hayakawa agrees, and says his own struggle with the English language was part of why he first took Valente on as an apprentice.
“It’s good for America,” Hayakawa says.
Besides, sushi never solely belonged to the Japanese, according to Corson. Its beginnings go back to Southeast Asia, and China, Taiwan and Korea have long had their own versions.
“There are definitely legitimate concerns about cultural appropriation. … At the same time, the history of sushi was a history of constant cultural change and mixing,” Corson says. “Sushi continues to evolve and transform.”
Corson argues that Caucasians thriving in sushi fits and that there are, unfortunately, many Japanese sushi chefs who still bank on their race for success. Valente sees it locally, too. In his words: “Some guys think their shit don’t stink just because they’re Japanese.”
And while Valente may be super-serious about his craft, he’s for the people. He happily stuffs wontons with bacon, applies a blow torch to mayo-topped jalapenos and liberally sauces his ever-popular sushi nachos. His taste isn’t solely focused on what’s refined, simple and elegant. His all-time favorite sugary cereal is Fruity Pebbles, because he digs the texture when it enters soggy territory. His regular order at Gunther’s Ice Cream is a double scoop of vanilla in a waffle cone, chocolate-dipped, and sometimes he’ll buy a Mini Nutty Cone to nibble on while he waits. Every two weeks, he goes to the bank on payday and, while in the neighborhood, picks up two giant oatmeal raisin cookies from Estelle’s Patisserie. Sometimes his car unintentionally veers into the Marie’s Donuts parking lot.
For his few precious hours away from work every week, Valente still thinks about food. He loves going out to restaurants—pho in south Sacramento, dim sum at Hong Kong Islander, bone marrow at Empress Tavern—and drinking at dive bars. The farmers market is a Sunday morning ritual. He’ll go to the movies sometimes, but even then, his mind wanders back to food. He recently saw The Hateful Eight and is now convinced he’ll name his next sushi roll “Minnie’s Haberdashery” after the movie’s setting.
And, of course, Valente eats sushi, his favorite activity in the world. When he pops a piece of nigiri into his mouth, he leans back with his eyes closed, smiling, savoring, giggling. Every sensation is pure delight. For his local fix, he drives to Shige Sushi in Carmichael, where the Japanese staff have known him as a customer for 16 years.
“He’s real, real good for a white boy,” the waitress says, patting Valente’s shoulder on a recent visit. “Of all the white people making sushi in all the countries, yours is the only one I recommend.”
One day, he’d like to visit Japan for the first time. But that would involve getting his restaurant completely dialed in, and Valente says Lou’s Sushi still can’t run flawlessly if he’s gone for too long. The most time he’s spent away was three days to visit his mom on her 70th birthday.
In that vein, his goals are completely Japanese, at least in the stereotypical sense. He strives for perfection, a goal requiring endless repetition, obsession and sacrifice. In Japan, sushi masters work tirelessly to climb to the top, though no one really knows where that is or what’s there.
That means he’ll never expand Lou’s Sushi, no matter how long the lines get. Valente dreams of turning 65 and opening a tiny, 10-seat jewel box of a restaurant, in true Japanese fashion.
Instead of retiring, he’d relish working alone. He’d welcome a nightly audience that prefers to relinquish control. Then, he’d serve sushi the way he likes to eat it, single nigiri after single nigiri, like a gently guided journey through the ocean.