How brothers Toshi and Yasu Kizaki made Sushi Den into one of Denver’s most storied restaurants.
A few days before this story was supposed to go to press, Yasu called me and told me that Toshi would like to meet to tell me the secret behind Sushi Den.
During the three years I’ve reported this piece, any interaction with Sushi Den and Izakaya Den, and anyone or anything associated with the two restaurants, has been tightly choreographed by Yasu. He first invited me to True World; next, he took me into Sushi Den’s kitchen; and, finally, this spring, he met me at the farm. He’s sat for interviews and fielded my many questions, by phone and email, and talked at length about how Sushi Den came to be. But, without exception, he has spoken on behalf of Toshi. In fact, aside from three brief introductions, I have had no interaction with Toshi. Until now.
And so, on a warm March day, we sit in the tucked away Denchu room at Sushi Den. For the first time, I notice that Toshi and Yasu share the same hands. They’re nimble, strong, and ageless with squared-off fingers that have a fluency of movement. They are chefs’ hands. Though both brothers are married (Toshi to a Japanese woman and Yasu to an American), neither wears a wedding ring. The starched sleeves of their chef whites graze their elbows, so as not to encumber their work. As we talk, Toshi traces circles on the table with his fingertips, sometimes opening his palms to emphasize a point. Yasu leans back in his chair, his arms crossed and a finger tucked under his chin. The room’s name, “Denchu,” translates to “inside of Sushi Den,” so it seems only appropriate that Toshi is now speaking. When English fails him, he switches to Japanese. Yasu adds context when necessary, but Toshi’s words are plain, and his meaning is clear enough that no translation is needed.
“I like to serve best quality food,” he says. “Best quality ingredients. We make it all. That is the way,” he says. This, I realize, is the secret of Sushi Den. I’m not sure what I was expecting to hear, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t this: The words themselves are neither momentous, nor even particularly surprising. But as we continue to talk, I learn that this credo is much more complex than the simple words convey. There’s a code embedded in the language, and it reaches back hundreds of years to feudal Japan. Seven generations ago, the Kizakis were Samurai, a royal, ruling class in which the defining characteristics were discipline, respect, honor, and humility. (In America especially, these traits can be construed as aloof or distant.) The symbol of the Samurai is the sword. Taketo Kizaki, Toshi and Yasu’s father, was tremendously proud of his ancestry. He was also strict. The brothers were terrified of him—Yasu says he didn’t have a real, two-way conversation with his father until Yasu was 37 years old—but the sons took Taketo’s teachings seriously. They live by the code, “the way.” Toshi has 30 knives in total, two of which are engraved with the Japanese characters for “Kizaki.” Perhaps it’s no coincidence that instead of ruling by the sword, the Kizaki brothers today reign with their sushi knives.
Adhering to an order, however, does not a business make. Without Toshi’s vision and skills, there would be no Sushi Den. But without Yasu’s perspective and understanding—mastery may not be too strong a word—of business, plus his role as protector, Sushi Den would not be the institution it is today. The brothers recognize the impact they’ve made on Denver, and they feel a responsibility to honor their food culture in the only way they know how: with precision and respect.
This sense of duty could, eventually, mean the empire’s demise. Yasu explains that in Japan, when someone starts a business they don’t do it with intention of selling it—it’s passed down to a protégé or the next generation. Since neither Toshi nor Yasu have children, I ask who will inherit the Sushi Den empire. Yasu is stoic: “If the right person comes along, it will go to that person. However, if we do not find the one, we would close. Our name is attached to something that we created, and we do not wish our brand to be tarnished.”
This brings us back to the room—Denchu—which was named by Takashi Nakazato, a famous Japanese ceramic artist, in recognition of Toshi’s gift to Denver. “I moved here to pass on Japanese culture and serve best quality food,” Toshi says. “This is my place, this is my home. This is my root.” Early in our conversation, I asked Toshi to write the Japanese characters for “Sushi Den.” He did and explained that the third and last character embodies the concept of passing on tradition. I can’t help but notice that it looks a bit like a fancy house—perhaps even a restaurant.