Mark Garcia was considered an outsider when he moved from his native Chicago to New York in 2016 to open his own restaurant.
But now, Garcia is the driving force helping to steer the cuisine and growth of upscale omakase sushi restaurant Kissaki, which opened in the Hamptons in June and is set to open its sixth location in Manhasset this summer.
Omakase sushi is a concept that requires diners to entrust the ingredients and presentation of their meal fully to the sushi chef; it has been compared to an artist creating a masterpiece.
Garcia’s start in the restaurant world was humble enough.
“I was in high school in Chicago and I enrolled in a culinary arts program in my sophomore year,” he recalls, adding that he got his first job through the program.
A veritable tour of Chicago’s restaurant and hotel kitchen scene followed, with stints at Sushi Samba Rio, Kaze Sushi, the Waldorf Astoria, and Momotaro.
Garcia first learned Italian cuisine early in his career and then began his ascent into the world of sushi under the 10-year tutelage of esteemed master sushi chef Kaze Chan of Sushi San in Chicago, who is credited with opening an array of influential sushi venues in Chicago for the past 25 years.
“I learned sushi from one of the masters,” says Garcia, 37.
Following a successful run at Momotaro, Garcia moved to New York and in 2016, he and partner Jay Zheng opened Gaijin in Astoria. The name “Gaijin” literally means outsider in Japanese.
The venue’s name was fitting for Garcia not only due to his Mexican roots but also because of doubts about his success compared to other master sushi chefs.
But those doubts quickly fell by the wayside as Garcia developed a strong following for his innovatives.
In 2019, Garcia met Garry Kanfer, his current partner and Kissaki owner.
“I was very enthusiastic to meet Garry because he wanted to build a brand and not just open a business,” Garcia recalls.
Initially, Kanfer sought to make Kissaki a high-end establishment in the price range of $400, but Garcia said it was “too high for the average diner.”
“I wanted a more accessible price range,” Garcia said, noting that at the time in New York, there were two very different dynamics.
“There was a $50 quick and easy sushi and then there were the $400-plus levels,” Garcia says, explaining that the latter felt a bit “stuffy, almost like a church.” The two settled on something “in the middle” for Kissaki, with prices more in the $150 range.
But with the first Kissaki location opening in January 2020, Garcia said the pandemic turned things on their head.
He recalled that at first, his spirits were somewhat crushed between lockdowns and limited crowd capacities, especially since things had been going so well when they first opened.
Like many other restaurants, Kissaki, which now has three locations in New York City, one in Connecticut, and one in Water Mill, has had to pivot during the pandemic, which meant offering takeout omakase boxes in small, medium and large.
Popular takeout boxes include nigiri featuring tuna, salmon, mackerel, and even red snapper.
Garcia says that Kissaki is also using innovative robots at all locations to help expedite the labor-intensive process of making sushi and especially takeout boxes. “The robots have been a great tool for us to use to get ahead,” he adds. The tools are commonly used in Japan but rarely by city restaurants.
Specialties Garcia prepares include seasonal fish such as tuna and salmon with banana peppers and chives.
“Our fish is sourced directly from Japanese suppliers,” Garcia says, adding that Kissaki has relationships with farmers and harvesters.
The menu also features creative cocktails such as a kissaki kick or green lantern as well as signature desserts like dulce de leche or matcha red bean chiffon cake.
Asked about business now, Garcia says it continues to be very “up and down.” He adds, “we’ve struggled as all restaurants have.”
And, even though Garcia says things are improving daily at Kissaki, he still believes it is a difficult business.
“Restaurants are tough to work in…I’m surprised people even still want to open them,” he says. “The numbers are tough and profit margins are thin. Now with the pandemic, things are even worse.”
Kissaki Manhasset will open this summer at 411 Plandome Rd. Visit explorekissaki.com