From Cheras To New York: The Story of Yama & J Sushi Buffet

“Someday, everybody will call you Yama. You will remember the name I gave to you,” said Michihiku Sakakuchi-san, chef and sensei to his newest apprentice. “It’s a reminder to concentrate, to enjoy your work.” The year was 1987.

Two years earlier, the apprentice who would be Yama left his family of 10 siblings in Cheras and headed to New York City at age 18. Several gruelling Chinatown markets and factory jobs later, his improved English landed him a life-changing position: a waiter in a Japanese restaurant. He didn’t even like sushi, he says.

When Yama recalls this now, he chuckles. “The staff spent 35 dollars to eat in their own restaurant. For something not even cooked! Why were people so excited? But as I kept eating, it got better. Months later I wanted to be a chef, just so I could eat free sushi.”

With his new name, came new beginnings. But free sushi was a long time away. For the first two years of Yama’s apprenticeship, he cleaned fish. He did nothing but prepare rice for another two years. “Cooking rice is not even that hard! I just received very traditional training. My sensei built my patience.” Finally, Yama perfected sushi and sashimi over a year each, and then he was “doing everything.” Years passed running restaurants with his sensei. But by year 10, the same tradition that bonded them changed their paths.

“New York is fast. So many nationalities, so much culture. I noticed fusion restaurants becoming popular, so I experimented. But my sensei said ‘Don’t make that stuff around me. Just make what I taught you.’ Then I realized if you follow one chef forever, you’ll learn only one thing. I needed to learn from many chefs.”

fusion special

Yama did just that, observing 20 chefs in five years. Japanese food in America was exciting. Fusion chefs from Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Germany, France, and Italy were reinterpreting Japanese flavours. His observation: “Fusion is in the sauce. I made 10 different sauces just for salmon.”

Word spread of Yama’s creativity. His decades of experience gained rave reviews from American newspapers and even Jorge Rodriguez, ranked amongst America’s top 20 chefs. When his sensei visited, head chef Yama served up something uniquely fusion. “He called it excellent. That meant the world to me.”

Yama doubted his return to Malaysia, but after scouting 50 locations and visiting another 25 local Japanese restaurants, he decided the perfect place to introduce Malaysians to his work was here in Jaya One. “People here will be as happy as I was when I discovered sushi.” His restaurant is as fusion as his food, with rainbow lights everywhere. Does he miss the States? “Sometimes. But when I do, I’ll make myself some sushi. And when I close my eyes to eat it, I’m in New York again.”

Yama & J Fusion Buffet
WEB: facebook.com/yama.j.66
ADDRESS: Blk M, Unit 6, Level 1
PHONE: 013-2050633

BY: Sue Taib