Some food, some drink.
Raw for the Rural Folk: Sake2me Sushi Rolls, Hays Kansas.
When a small Northwest Kansas town gets a new restaurant, folks can't help but take notice. However, when an area know for their conservative Volga German Heritage up and gets a Sushi Bar, whoo boy! Now you know you're somebody! Sake2me Sushi Rolls recently opened for business in our little patch of rural America, and I sat down with owner, chef, and all-around swell guy Mike Huskey for an interview to learn what it takes to start something big in little Hays, Kansas.
Nobody moves to Hays, USA for the scenery, and they sure as hell don't move here for our um, "pleasant" weather. Nine outta ten times, the reason folks move here is to move back. Now, I'm not sure if "culinary gentrification" is a real phenomenon, but around this small Kansas town, it indeed seems to be the case. It goes something like this: Families (including mine) get started in the big city, only to come back to this area as employment permits to raise their kids and be close to Grandma and Grandpa. At first it's not a big deal to give up those conveniences associated with [sub]urban living; but after a while, driving three hours one way for the chaos of big box door-buster sales and "proper" casual dining (with unlimited breadsticks) kind of loses its luster. As the transplants from the population centers begin to grow restless; they'll latch onto any shard of city livin' they can get. In short, they crave sushi.
I'll be the first to admit that that I was not only excited but a bit skeptical when I first learned that Hays, Kansas was getting a sushi restaurant. I mean, geez; we're land-locked, and the stuff's gonna demand a premium price, and anyway other restaurants around here have tried sushi as a weekend special with less than spectacular results. No one and I mean NO ONE in this town can be trusted to give you an accurate assessment when a restaurant opens in this town. People will fall over each other like so many lemmings headed for the cliffs to try whatever is new. If the Facebook fanpage hype is to be believed, Sake2me Sushi Rolls is a little piece of Japan magically transported to the corner of 7th and Main (mind the one-way when you're looking for parking). Well, somebody's gotta be the level-headed Doubting Thomas around here, so I had to see for myself. Me and a few business associates went in for lunch on a recent Friday, and y'know it was more than palatable, it was pretty good; at least as good (if not better) than sushi I'd had in Wichita or even out East. Hmmm. Time to learn more, and get some proper pictures too. I smell an interview (love me a good interview).
The owner of Sake2Me Sushi Rolls is Mike Huskey. He understands the nature of being a Hays transplant as he himself is one (from St. Louis). After my initial dining experience, I went back to talk to Mike to see just what it takes to open up a sushi joint in the sticks. Here are the highlights from that interview:
- Mike didn't get his start in sushi until 2006 during his honeymoon. Mike said, "It was one of those things I could never get off my mind. I started researching and reading books, and after a while I took it to my kitchen." Mike's initial experiments started with cooking for his in-laws (I can identify). Soon, he started doing sushi for friends, then friends of friends, and eventually small catering events. As word got out here in town, Mike couldn't keep up with demand from his kitchen; it became time to commit or quit.
- Mike didn't take the idea to open a restaurant lightly; the failure rate for restaurants can be quite high. Mike knew that and did his research accordingly. Not being so proud as ignore the work of the trailblazers before him, Mike tells me he got a good chunk of guidance from the book Uchi, titled after the Austin, Texas restaurant of the same name. "I'd stay up 'till two o'clock / three o'clock in the morning [just] reading [about sushi]." Mike found that he had many of the same ideas about how to run a restaurant, and the book provided validation for what seemed to him to be common sense.
- You can't talk about a sushi restaurant and not talk about seafood. Although Hays is fortunate to sit on the I-70 corridor, you aren't gonna get the freshest fish unless you're flying it in. Our airport is small, and I speak from experience when I say that flights ain't always that cheap. All the same, Mike is able to bring in some quality ingredients. Specifically, the salmon he gets is absolutely fantastic. Best farm-raised salmon ever. I had to dig deeper to find out where it came from, and it turns out that Mike's Salmon comes out of New Zealand, where they have conditions that make it one of the few places in the world where a big ol' fish like a Chinook aka "King" salmon can thrive, and do it with a fair amount of sustainability. Really, you gotta try it. You stick a piece of that New Zealand Chinook sashimi under your nose, and all you can smell is sea water and something akin to butter eminating from those visible striae of fat.
There's a sensibility out here in rural Northwest Kansas where food is concerned that you simply can't ignore if you want to be successful; and I think Mike gets that, as he's the first to admit that the more traditional sushi isn't always the best seller. "We're trying to match our food to the Western Kansas palate." And frankly, you can tell as many of the specialty items focus less on what's raw and aren't afraid to use a sauce or two to bring it all together. Restaurant goers around here demand value; and unfamiliar things can be a hard sell for those raised on meat and potatoes. To that end Mike tells me that's exactly the reason why their rolls seem to be as big as what you can comfortably fit between two chopsticks without the whole mess falling apart on you. Value doesn't always mean quality where sushi is concerned, but I personally think Mike's struck a balance here.
It takes inventive and creative people to make it out here. I've always been of the firm belief that it's actually our lack of wall-to-wall strip malls and cookie-cutter chain casual dining that drives people who live in rural America to innovate. There's a lot to do in suburbia; and if someone's spoon-feeding you enjoyment, then it sucks out a lot of the zeal and passion that comes with doing what you like. Mike's only been making sushi for six years, but ingenuity, necessity, and a clear understanding of his market has transformed him into a professional whom I hope will be supplying me with weekend bento for many years to come!
In case you missed it earlier in the read, be sure to hop on over to facebook and give Sake2me Sushi Rolls some love so you'll know what's on the menu when you're passing thru town!