Bob Shin, 65, better known as Bob Wasabi to sushi and sashimi connoisseurs across the United States, sits down in the dining room of his eponymous restaurant, the former location of Mama Bell’s at 1726 W 39th Street, after lunch service and explains the importance of the sushi chef.
Gesturing with his hand to emphasize his point, Shin notes that the fisherman is the first point of contact for tuna, salmon, mackerel, yellowtail or any other seafood. However, the fisherman at sea doesn’t have the customer in mind for each fish destined to be served at a sushi restaurant.
Shin says, “The fisherman doesn’t check the health and quality of each fish.”
Seafood vendors, the next major point in the supply chain, supply restaurants, supermarkets and other retail accounts. Again, they don’t necessarily inspect the finer points of each fish they sell, explains Shin.
“The chef is important. He is supposed to know if the fish is sick, old, scarred or healthy,” Shin says. “The chef has to catch these [flaws] but most sushi chefs don’t know. They can’t catch them. The chef is like a doctor and must know. I’m old-fashioned and traditional. I’m proud of my fish.”
In other words, the chef is the primary and final line of defense and arbiter of quality for the customer at the restaurant. Shin’s senses, detailed knowledge and experience deeply matter. In Japan, Shin notes, an apprentice will spend 10 to 20 years gaining experience in the craft of sushi before ever working behind the counter.
Shin says of his work, “It’s not just cutting.”
Shin, a veteran sushi chef with 30 years of experience, speaks about the fundamentals and nuances of his tradecraft with the passion of a missionary. He shares these details in a modest, understated tone but is firmly dedicated in his efforts to educate customers that wish to know more.
While focused and driven, Shin also has a lighter jovial side. He earned his nickname Bob Wasabi from a customer years ago and decided to use it professionally. Sometimes, he brings out a guitar during opportune moments and regales them with his two-song repertoire. Shin’s true gift is expertise attained over a lifetime.
Shin hails from Seoul, Korea, where his connection to restaurants and seafood began from childhood. “My relatives had a restaurant in the number one area in Seoul,” Shin says. “I worked there and learned about fish. I didn’t go to culinary school. I learned on the job.”
Shin’s parents emigrated to Sacramento, California, in the early Seventies. Two years later, Shin followed at the age of 25 and found work at a restaurant. Throughout his life, Shin criss-crossed the United States either working under contract for restaurant owners or operating his own business. He ran a fish and chips market in New York, moved to Maryland and worked at a sushi restaurant for three years, and spent multiple years preparing sushi at East Coast restaurants such as Kobe Japanese Steak House, Sakura, and Wasabi. His work-driven travels include stints in Sacramento, a sister Kobe restaurant in Kansas City’s Power & Light District, and Maui, Hawaii. Shin’s wife and children followed him as he learned and plied his craft.
Now, Shin, his wife, son Eugene and daughters Esther and Tanya have devoted themselves to serving fine-quality sushi on Kansas City’s Restaurant Row. Shin has channeled his three decades’ worth of experience down to one mission: Offer the right fish at the right price.
Poke, a nod to Shin’s time in Hawaii, is a splendid appetizer of sashimi dressed in a soy vinaigrette with vegetables. The spicy fish bowl (heh-duhp bap) is similar to Korean bibimbap, a mixed warm rice dish with vegetables, meat, egg and gochujang. Shin’s dish tops rice with an assortment of sashimi and vegetables dressed with a spicy chili sauce. Non-fish eaters can try chicken yakisoba noodles with vegetables or teriyaki chicken.
Naturally, seafood is the star on the menu. Whether it is nigiri, sashimi, sushi or other speciality dishes, such as hamachi kama (broiled yellowtail collar), Shin is adamant about offering only the finest quality fish.
“The best sushi chefs are ‘throw-away’ chefs,” Shin says. “If the fish is still good but a day or two past its prime, the best chefs are willing to throw it away and use only the best. It costs a lot of money to do this.”
Shin follows this expensive practice out of dedication to offering his customers the best sushi. That gold standard is worth a price only modestly higher than area competitors. His sashimi and nigiri is clean, fresh and has no unpleasant aroma. He is careful and precise down to how he handles each fish with a minimum of touching. Shin even takes care with how he opens the sushi case with certain fingertips in order to keep each surface clean and free of aroma.
Shin’s daughter Esther first began working with her father in Maui. She says, “Seeing him work firsthand and being able to work with him, I developed respect for his field. Bob pays lots of attention to detail, such as wiping the knife after each cut.”
Esther notes that her father cures saba (mackerel) himself, a centuries-old practice that not every modern sushi chef performs. Shin knows whether certain farm-raised fish is better than wild-caught. He never offers snapper, a bottom-feeding fish, or white tuna (which actually isn’t tuna but typically escolar) on his menu.
In the pursuit of cheap sushi, Esther says, “people forget about the details of sushi and the importance of freshness. Cheap sushi is just wrong.”
Shin is not willing to take short cuts.
“I buy whole salmon. Some chefs buy quick-frozen fillets,” Shin says. “It tastes different. Ninety-five percent of customers don’t know but a few can taste the difference. I can taste a chef’s sushi and know if they have one, two or five years’ experience.”
Shin’s refined palate works on behalf of customers, whether or not they are educated in the subtle and substantial differences in the quality of sushi and sashimi.
“He can detect smells and know how long a fish has been out,” Esther says.
Shin’s reputation precedes him across the country, not only with the following of fans wherever he has worked, but also with seafood companies.
“Vendors know me and call me ‘The Complainer,’” Shin says. He dismisses the nickname but also acknowledges it as a measure of his reputation. He knows his seafood well enough to be vocal and willing to send inferior product back, or to receive a credit on orders. “Owners like it when they hire me because they know they will get good product or credit.”
“Owners trust my father,” Esther says. “Why would you risk your restaurant’s reputation over quality?”
Now, Bob Wasabi works for himself, for the future of his family and, ultimately, the satisfaction of his customers. Shin alludes to famed 90-year-old sushi chef Jiro, subject of the film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” and how long he himself will work.
“I’m happy and proud of my work,” Shin says. “I’m older. This is my last chance to focus on what I know best.”
The right fish at the right price.