Albert Utomo Brings Art to Sushi in Visalia
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Traditional with a TwistApril 2016
Story by Jordan Venema
Photos by Amber Smith
Dining at Sushi Kuu isn’t just a delicious meal – it’s a visual experience.
Head chef and owner Albert Utomo explains, “With sushi, I can express myself with food. Everything is attention to detail. It’s an art.”
Utomo opened Sushi Kuu in February 2015 following a two-year stint as head chef at Neta, an upscale sushi restaurant in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, where he acquired a flair for artistic presentation. But like any traditional Japanese sushi chef, Utomo would never place presentation before flavor.
With one exception. Utomo isn’t Japanese.
“Yeah, it does sound like a Japanese name,” Utomo chuckles. His name is actually Indonesian, and the 30-year-old chef grew up in Indonesia until he moved to the United States with his family at 17.
Though Utomo learned to cook in Indonesia with his family, who are also in the food industry, he feels a connection with Japanese cuisine. In his early 20s, Utomo began culinary school in Las Vegas, working part-time at a sushi restaurant.
There Utomo learned the basics: how to cook rice, how to slice fish, until “I moved to New York City where I learned more sauces, more fine dining.”
Not content only to learn from the sushi chefs under whom he worked, Utomo traveled to Japan to experience its cuisine firsthand. “This is my profession,” he explains. “So I had to see the root. I wanted to see how they actually do it there, and I brought it back with me.”
Utomo admits that as an Indonesian working in a predominantly Japanese industry, he sometimes felt like an outsider. But that didn’t stop Utomo from expressing himself through his sushi, or adapting traditional sushi to the modern palate – even when that led to criticism.
“The older Japanese chefs will actually say, ‘Oh, that’s not Japanese style,’ but here we are in the United States, you know? We have to actually serve what people want here, too,” says Utomo.
After more than a decade working in sushi restaurants, you’d never guess that Utomo wasn’t Japanese – not just because of the phonetically similar name, but from the quality of his food. He calls his style of sushi “traditional with a twist,” and serves more than 25 fish, each with its own pairing sauce. If the chef ever felt like an outsider in the sushi world, he’s put that behind him, and since opening Sushi Kuu in early 2015, Utomo has made himself at home.
In fact, that was the lure – the sense of home – that brought the accomplished chef to Visalia. Utomo and his wife long had been thinking about moving to California, though neither had ever even heard of Visalia.
“I got on the map (online) for a sushi restaurant that was for sale in California, and this restaurant was for sale,” says Utomo. He flew out, stayed in Visalia for two weeks, “and I liked it. I like this city. The people are very nice.”
When Utomo was chef at Neta, he would sometimes get home at 2 am, “but as a father, I want to see my daughter. I want to have a connection with her.
“To be honest,” Utomo says, “in the beginning, we were scared.” He and his wife had no friends or family in Visalia, but they quickly felt comfortable with the “family style” and “slower pace” of the city. “People here are more close to each other,” Utomo adds, which has allowed him to make the kind of connections he never had with customers while working in New York.
“Over here, people will actually talk to you,” says Utomo. “Now I have regulars. I know what they like, I know what they usually order, I even know them by name.”
Compared to New York, Visalia might seem like a small town, but Utomo still presents his dishes as though they’re under bright city lights. Sushi Kuu only uses fresh fish, never frozen, and everything is made in-house, down to the ramen broth.
He couldn’t do any of it without his staff, says Utomo. “Everybody is important. They’re like a little family to me.” And as successful as his career has been, that’s what keeps him going: family. “I know career is important, but family comes first.”
Sushi Kuu • County Center Shopping Center • 3109 W. Noble Ave., Visalia • (559) 735-9680
Monday-Thursday 11:30am-2pm, 4:30-9pm; Friday 11:30am-2pm, 4:30-9:30pm;
Saturday noon-2pm, 4:30-9pm
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