How brothers Toshi and Yasu Kizaki made Sushi Den into one of Denver’s most storied restaurants.
Yasu’s burnt orange Volkswagen Beetle kicks up a curl of dust as he eases onto Den Farm’s dirt driveway. He parks near a cluster of pickup trucks, gets out, and pushes up his glasses to survey the scene.
It’s not yet spring, and despite hints of green peeking through fertile dirt, the fields lie dormant. Two goats—Lamb Chop and Pork Belly—mill about as a crew busies itself fine-tuning the newly constructed 3,000-square-foot greenhouse. This is not just any greenhouse—it’s a passive-solar structure that, once completed, will keep the temperature and humidity constant so that pesticide-free herbs, produce, and flowers will grow year-round. The bounty’s final destination: The kitchens of Sushi Den and Izakaya Den. “If you can get great ingredients—that’s the difference between a good chef and a so-so chef,” Yasu says. “We like to have that control.”
Inside, the temperature is a warm 70 degrees. I find myself squinting against the light reflecting off the white walls. That’s the point, of course; this structure is designed to capture and use as much sunlight as possible. Already, flats of seedlings labeled shiso, Thai basil, lemon basil, sweet basil, and Japanese parsley are pushing through the rich soil. Local sushi-chef-turned-farmer Sukenobu “Nobi” Sakai oversees the planning, planting, and harvesting of each crop. Tomato, cucumber, and Japanese eggplant starters are next. The greenhouse is high-tech—it even employs an energy-efficient hydroponic system—but outside in the fields, things are pared down. “We farm with our hands,” Sakai says. “If there was a weed there one day and it wasn’t there the next, that’s because we pulled it. That’s how farming has been done for the longest time.”
Of course, the Kizakis aren’t the first, nor the only, local chefs and restaurateurs to turn to farming as a means of supplying a restaurant. Alex Seidel from Fruition Restaurant co-owns Fruition Farms in Larkspur. In the city, Bittersweet’s grounds are planted with vegetables and edible flowers that are often harvested during dinner service. And this spring, Keith Arnold and Stephanie Bonin, the owners of Duo Restaurant, are planting a first-year garden designed around the restaurant’s seasonal menus.
But Den Farm is a means of further introducing Denver to elements of Japanese culture via specific herbs and produce that are difficult, if not impossible, to find locally. “The whole reason for the farm was to put more passion into the restaurant,” Yasu says. “Toshi’s ultimate passion is his restaurant, and the greenhouse and farm show his commitment to his customers.” The added benefit of the hyperlocal produce is that it’s a good marketing tool, helping to offset Sushi Den’s tremendous carbon footprint: Flying seafood 6,000 miles twice a week is not exactly an environmentally friendly practice.
There’s also a human element to the endeavor. Yasu reflects on the cohesion of Sushi Den’s original staff of five. When the restaurant closed each evening, they would sit down, share a meal, and drink and talk. Now, with a staff of 150 (with a half-dozen countries represented, including the United States, Japan, Korea, Mexico, and Myanmar), the easy flow of communication has become more difficult. The brothers hope Den Farm will be used by staff as a place to bring their families—and that it will become a place that has value beyond the ingredients it will provide. “We always try to understand the mentality of chefs versus servers and why there is friction,” Yasu says. “Chefs are technicians and have to do it exactly the same each time; servers are more fluid. This project will bring servers and chefs together; it brings a sense of community.” While it may be naive to think that time on the farm will smooth workplace grievances, it’s an outward sign that the Kizakis—and Yasu in particular—are aware of divisions among the staff.
But perhaps most important to the brothers is that Den Farm is an ode to their roots. On Japan’s Kyushu Island, the Kizaki brothers—there are four in total—grew up watching their parents work long hours in the field. “That’s why we started cooking,” Yasu says. “My parents came home at 9:30 or 10 at night; we were so hungry, we started cooking.” The brothers would forage in the family garden for fresh vegetables—Japanese cucumber and Japanese eggplants were staples—and mix them with leftover miso soup and cold rice. Eventually, they taught themselves to sauté.