Den Masters

How brothers Toshi and Yasu Kizaki made Sushi Den into one of Denver’s most storied restaurants.

May 2012

5280.com Exclusive: Images from May's Den Masters.

The sun has risen, but it’s still early enough that the city is cast in shadows when I meet Toshihiro and Yasuhiro Kizaki, of Sushi Den and Izakaya Den, in the parking lot of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Yasu, the older of the two brothers, rolls down his car window and instructs me to follow. Our destination is True World Foods, a national fish distributor with a warehouse in Commerce City. The brothers have invited me along to one of Toshi’s early-morning rituals: Five or six days a week he drives to True World to select seafood for the restaurants.

Inside the warehouse, it takes my mind a minute to register the briny scent of the ocean while standing more than 1,000 miles from the Pacific. Toshi and Yasu greet the staff in Japanese and quickly turn to business. We slip into freezer jackets and duck between plastic panels into the “tuna room,” an enormous refrigerator dedicated to the mammoth fish. A typical bigeye weighs 95 pounds after being gutted and tailed (this weight is then whittled down by another 30 pounds when the bones, skin, and head are removed). This morning, True World is sitting on 1,000 pounds of bigeye.

Toshi, who is 56 and has smooth skin and close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, surveys a large corkboard where long, straight pins pierce knobs of skin-on flesh. Each notch corresponds to a different fish. Carved from the tail region, the half-moons reveal the color of the meat, the fat content, and the bloodline—the all-important indicator of freshness. “You want it bright red because blood cells oxidize,” says Seattle Fish Company COO Derek Figueroa. “The bloodline is one of the best indicators of a fish’s age—its freshness.”

Toshi chooses his fish, an unusually large 160-pound bigeye that’s a week out of the water. Yasu hands me a shimmery scale off the floor. It’s roughly the size of a nickel, opalescent and flexible, even flimsy. Even though Yasu is two years older than Toshi, his soft, youthful features make him look two years younger. Yasu speaks in measured phrases and sentences, as if translating thoughts from Japanese to English before he articulates. He explains in a hushed voice that this is one of the reasons tuna are so difficult to farm: The boundary nets damage their skin.

A few feet away, Toshi cuts through the bigeye’s thick flesh. He is a slight man, but it takes him just minutes to quarter the massive animal. The fish outweighs him by a good 10 pounds, yet he doesn’t strain against the weight. Each cut is a minimalist dance that combines the precision of a surgeon with the grace of an artist. He works silently. When he peels back a panel of muscle, the rib cage is revealed. Yasu steps closer and runs the back of his thumbnail against the meat near the pearly spine. He gathers a ribbon of light pink, translucent flesh and puts it in his mouth to taste.

Toshi doesn’t need to make these pilgrimages to True World. He has enough purchasing power to ensure that the company funnels him its top selections. But control is in his makeup. “Toshi and I have a long way of doing things,” Yasu says, and it’s difficult to argue his point: In December, Sushi Den will celebrate its 28th birthday. Longevity is a feat for any business, but it’s an anomaly in an industry where only 60 percent of restaurants succeed beyond three years. Laserlike focus on the minutia of ingredients, sourcing, technique, and the experience of dining at Sushi Den have made the restaurant a Denver legend.

Meanwhile, the Kizaki brothers themselves have remained enigmas, very much by choice. Shy by nature, Toshi retreats to the background using his strained English as an excuse to disengage. Even with Yasu as the restaurant’s front man—the liaison between the staff and Toshi, and between the restaurant and the rest of the world—there’s a distance. “The Kizakis don’t trust many people who aren’t Japanese or within their small community,” says Eric Dutton, a seven-year veteran of Sushi Den who’s now in charge of the bar program at Vesta Dipping Grill. “It took Toshi more than three years to know my name. You can approach success one of two ways: You can create a culture of family and trust. Or you can keep everyone at an arm’s length.”