For starters, it was Kim’s first time running his own restaurant. It was in a town that was new to the Berkeley native, in the space and under the moniker of Mill Valley’s first-ever sushi restaurant, one that had a devoted following for more than three decades. And at the end of 2013, he decided that the restaurant’s out-dated infrastructure needed an overhaul, so he closed for two months to accommodate the renovation. And then two months turned into six.
“I was the new guy in town and I was taking over this restaurant with a really long tradition,” says Kim, who moved to Mill Valley with his wife three years ago. “I was pretty worried about that. And then we closed. It was rough. It hasn’t been perfect by any means. But everyone has been very patient. I really appreciate the locals understanding. And now things are good. I’m pretty happy now.”
Born and raised in Berkeley, Kim got a degree in graphic communication at Cal-Poly in San Luis Obispo. After graduation, he decided on a new direction: he wanted to one day open his own restaurant, and he decided to start at the bottom. Kim popped into the popular Yamato Japanese Restaurant nearby in Grover Beach and asked for a job. That job turned into an apprenticeship that lasted two years, from creating traditional rolls to being a line cook in the kitchen.
He followed that stint with eight years in San Jose, working at a variety of Japanese restaurants in a number of capacities. In each role, Kim specifically sought to focus on a different style of the Japanese food world, all in the interests of learning everything and thus informing what would become his own personal style: traditional Japanese interwoven with a bit of the modern, fusion sushi.
Kim got married and moved to San Francisco, and just four months into that new chapter, he heard from his mom that a family friend, Carolyn Kikuchi, was looking to sell her Samurai Sushi restaurant after the passing of her husband and Samurai chef Jun Kikuchi, with whom she co-owned the restaurant. Kim made the leap of a lifetime, taking over a restaurant that dates back to the early 1980s.
“I always wanted to own my own business and the restaurant business seemed easy enough,” Kim says with an appropriate degree of sarcasm. “You know, something really easy.”
It’s been anything but that, as Kim tries to stay competitive in a crowded landscape of sushi joints, striking a balance between serving up high quality sushi but with lower price points than the others, all the while earning the equivalent salary of a line cook.
“And even if I made a lot of money, I still won’t be able to buy a place here,” he says with a laugh.
And while the six-month closure was rough – Kim worried that he’d lose his employees AND his customers in the process – they all came back. “That was really great,” he says.
Kim says he’s honed his style to find the right mix of traditional and fusion. “Every cuisine it constantly evolves,” he says, noting that he’ll be unveiling a new menu soon that features more vegetarian sushi options and less deep-fried fare.
“To me there is no right sushi,” he says. “As long as the rice is perfect and the fish is good and it tastes good and it’s healthy and the customers like it – you’re good.”
The 411: Samurai is at 425 Miller Ave., across from Whole Foods and Super Duper Burger. 415-381-3680. Hours: 5-9:30 p.m., Mondays to Saturdays.