A TURN OF THE WHEEL

Los Angeles Times - - SATURDAY - BY S. IRENE VIR­BILA irene.vir­bila@la­times.com

“I used to dream of sushi. Ev­ery day,” says Mori­hiro On­odera. “Now I wake up in the mid­dle of the night with an idea for a plate.” The for­mer owner of Mori Sushi is ob­sessed with mak­ing pot­tery. Be­hind his Los An­ge­les sushi restau­rant, he had two pot­ting wheels and a kiln, and when­ever he had a few min­utes, he would be at the wheel, form­ing a lump of clay into a bowl or plate.

Four years ago, On­odera sold his sushi restau­rant to a long­time em­ployee and now spends much of his time mak­ing ce­ram­ics for a ros­ter of il­lus­tri­ous restau­rants, in­clud­ing Prov­i­dence in L.A. and Mélisse in Santa Mon­ica. But that’s just one of his three jobs. An­other is grow­ing Ja­panese rice in Uruguay. The third is mak­ing food once in a while.

On­odera, who is from Fu­ji­sawa in the Iwate pre­fec­ture of Ja­pan, came to the U.S. at age 21 (he is now 51). In the 1980s, he worked as a sushi chef at Katsu on Hill­hurst Av­enue, R-23 down­town (both gone now), and in the ’90s at Mat­suhisa on North La Cienega Boule­vard and Takao in Brent­wood. He opened Mori Sushi in 2000.

Over the years, On­odera be­came friends with the chefs who came to eat his ex­quis­ite ni­g­i­rizushi and omakase. He re­mem­bers when Michael Ci­marusti, Josiah Citrin and David Kinch made their first trips to Ja­pan and fell in love with the ce­ram­ics at restau­rants in Tokyo and Ky­oto. “They wanted those plates. But the prices were so high, some­times $6,000 for a sin­gle piece, so they asked me if I could make some­thing sim­i­lar — cheaper, more rea­son­able for them,” he ex­plains.

The chef could and did. One plate led to an­other, and now On­odera cre­ates star­tling and unique serv­ing pieces for Prov­i­dence, Mélisse, Il Grano, Orsa & Win­ston and Capo. He’s cre­ated spe­cial plates for Man­resa in Los Gatos, Calif. Napa Val­ley’s three-star Miche­lin restau­rant Mead­owood has some of his bowls too. None of them is white.

“My goal is not just to make pot­tery. My goal is for chefs to present food on my pot­tery.” And each piece he makes is a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween pot­ter and chef. His big­gest in­spi­ra­tion is the late leg­endary Ja­panese cal­lig­ra­pher and ce­ram­i­cist Rosan­jin Ki­taoji, who also had a Tokyo restau­rant.

On­odera keeps pho­tos of his fa­vorite pieces on his iPhone, show­ing off images of the lip­stick red bowls he made for Prov­i­dence and plates with a shal­low cir­cu­lar de­pres­sion for sauce com­mis­sioned by Josef Cen­teno for Orsa & Win­ston. For Mélisse, he made bowls with wide rims pierced with tiny holes. Up pops a photo of a huge red-glazed plat­ter with an in­den­ta­tion for dip­ping sauce. “I made that for Dario Cec­chini,” Tus­cany’s renowned Dante-quot­ing butcher, says On­odera. On­odera says that Capo’s Bruce Marder hand-car­ried the piece to Cec­chini at his shop in Pan­zano-in-Chi­anti, com­plain­ing all the way.

The pot­ter now works at Xiem Clay Stu­dio in Pasadena, where he has 24-hour ac­cess. When an idea comes to him in the mid­dle of the night, he can go there right then and begin work­ing.

No new­found en­thu­si­asm, his in­ter­est in pot­tery goes as far back as his days as a sushi chef at Katsu and R-23, where he was in­spired by the work of ce­ram­i­cist Mi­neo Mizuno. He never had the time for pot­tery then. Dur­ing a brief stint work­ing in New York, though, he squeezed in a sin­gle Satur­day morn­ing class in hand-built ce­ram­ics at Green­wich House Pot­tery. Af­ter that, he taught him­self. “I don’t like a class. Not even cooking class,” says On­odera.

When he’s not mak­ing ce­ram­ics, On­odera works on his sec­ond, even big­ger project: grow­ing rice and teach­ing peo­ple how to cook it. “What is sushi? It’s not all about the fish,” he says. “60% is about the rice, 30% the fish and 10% skill — maybe more.”

At Mori Sushi he used his own Cal­i­for­nia Delta-grown rice, pol­ish­ing just what he needed each day. He grew that rice with his friend, rice farmer and re­searcher Ichiro Ta­maki. In 2005, Ta­maki and On­odera be­gan grow­ing a Ja­panese cul­ti­var in Uruguay. “It’s 32 hours from my door to the rice field,” says On­odera, shak­ing his head as if he can’t quite be­lieve he signed on for this.

Their Ja­panese short-grain koshi­hikari va­ri­ety is sold to some of the same restau­rants On­odera makes plates for (Mélisse, Prov­i­dence and Orsa & Win­ston) un­der the la­bel Sat­suki and is also avail­able re­tail at McCall’s Meat & Fish Co. in Los Feliz.

But what about cooking? Does he miss his restau­rant? Would he open an­other one? “I’m tak­ing a long break,” says On­odera, who seems quite con­tent with his cur­rent oc­cu­pa­tion — or rather, all three of them.

Pho­tog raphs by Mar­cus Yam Los An­ge­les Times

MORI­HIRO ON­ODERA went from kitchen to kiln, sell­ing his sushi restau­rant to fo­cus on mak­ing pot­tery. Here, he works at Xiem Clay Cen­ter in Pasadena.

THE POT­TER, chef and rice grower makes ce­ram­ics for highly re­garded restau­rants.

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