New Jersey native Keith Dusko spent much of his 20s competing in professional Formula-1 racecar circuits and working jobs ranging from financial sales to bartending to fund the pursuit. In 2001, he got his first position at a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan and went on to help run a Japanese restaurant group with nine properties around New York. He later moved to New Orleans and early in 2012 opened Chiba (8312 Oak St., 504-826-9119; www.chiba-nola.com), a Japanese restaurant and sushi bar with a more contemporary menu than normally found locally.
You're not Japanese, but you own a Japanese restaurant. Why does that still seem rare?
Dusko: That's a fair question, and it comes up. I had a Japanese couple come in and ask for the owner. The waitress pointed to me and they said, "No, the Japanese owner." They couldn't believe it. I think one reason is that it takes, basically, an apprenticeship to really understand this cuisine and be able to deliver it in a restaurant experience. The people I worked for in New York showed me everything, and that's where I learned it.
We might regard sushi as simple and elegant. What don't we see behind the scenes?
D: That's the art of this business, that's the 18-hour day you put into it to make it look simple. What you don't see is all the work to keep this very complex supply chain going; you don't see the choreographer screaming at the dancers backstage. I think that's one reason chains haven't been able to make sushi restaurants work on a national scale, even though they'd love to. The business model is very complex.
What would you like people to understand about your approach?
D: New Orleans diners are pretty open-minded but we have gotten some pushback on some things, like fruit-infused ceviche or using fruit in some of the rolls. People can be intimidated by this restaurant. There's no crunchy roll on the menu for a reason. But when they allow the server to guide them and show what we do that's different, that's where the wow factor comes in. If I don't get that reaction, then I'm disappointed because that's what I'm aiming for.