Unusual Pairings - An Omakase of Sushi & Watches
Resident sushi lover partakes in an evening of sushi and conversation with master sushi chef and watch collector, John Daley
Watchmaking can perhaps be best described as the art of telling time, and like any art, it exists at all levels. Art can be highly consumable and easy to access much like pop music or Swatches. Art might also exist to stimulate the intellect and be cerebral like Philippe Dufour’s Duality. However, what persists between the levels and the artistry is virtuosity and craft.
In this article, we sit down with a man who is an artist with a knife and a virtuoso of combining shari and neta. He has trained at some of the most venerated sushi restaurants in New York City and in Japan. He also happens to be a watch collector. The man is Chef John Daley of New York Sushi Ko.
On a cold December Night
The Lower East Side of Manhattan has long been home to artists and creatives. However, just by looking at Clinton Street over by the Williamsburg Bridge one might not expect to find one of Manhattan’s best sushi bars nestled between the bodegas and dive bars. However, this is exactly where New York Sushi Ko was situated. Just recently shuttered, New York Sushi Ko was helmed by Chef John Daley who we sat down with on a chilly, rainy December night to talk the art of sushi, watchmaking, watch collecting, and the omakase meal.
When you walk into New York Sushi Ko, the thing that strikes you the most is the sheer simplicity of the space. The long 8 seat sushi bar dominated the space and the tang of vinegar lingers in the air from shari preparation. Like many of the great independent watchmakers, New York Sushi Ko is a small, artisanal operation. Just like his little nuanced sushi Bar, everything about Chef John is about the details. He’s not the hyper clean-cut sushi maestro you might expect, dressed in a black t-shirt, jeans, fitted cap, and feet clad in Jordans. Perhaps most interestingly, are Chef’s tattoos. His arms are decorated with images and if his dedication to his craft were ever in question, the words “fish” and “rice” adorn the tops of his fingers.
On the night of our conversation, Chef was wearing a black t-shirt and jeans. For our conversation, Chef John brought out his many watches. Everything from a vintage Baume & Mercier Chronograph to a shockingly yellow G Shock G5600 A-9.
We jump into pleasantries, catching up and set up the camera equipment for the night’s main event: A horological and gastronomical omakase comprised of watches from Chef John’s personal collection as well as others’ and of course Chef’s iconic sushi pieces.
What is it that you love about food? About Watches? Do those intersect?
“The intersection is for you to find, but food has supported every dream I’ve ever had. I’ve wanted to be a professional skateboarder, tattoo artist, DJ, and throughout all of these things, cooking has been there to support all of it.” – Chef John Daley
Chef John spent six years pursuing his dreams until he narrowed it down to being a DJ or a Chef. In his words, “I could be pretty good at both or great at one.” He went on to live a week as a DJ and a week as a chef, and realized that chefs only get better with age, and rest, as they say, is history.
The first watch Chef remembers is, like many watch enthusiasts, a Swatch. In fact, he recalls it as a Challenger Space Shuttle Swatch and it was the watch he was wearing when that shuttle exploded. However, it was not until he was 17 or 19 and began cooking in better restaurants that the watch bug really bit. He remembers being “surrounded by older people who wore watches and became consumed with more than just the aesthetic. It [Watches] does lend itself to a community, if you will. Vintage watch collectors are vintage watch collectors. Different personalities for different worlds. In this case the people who wore these watches were men to look up to and one of the accessories they all seemed to have was a watch.”
For Chef John, the first real intersection between his profession as a chef and timepieces came with the first watch he purchased for himself.
As he put it: “First watch I ever bought was a Timex, bought it with my first paycheck as a line cook. I was 20 years old; I’m still wearing this watch 18 years later; I’m wearing it right now. That was definitely the first intersection. I realized cooking could provide me with watches. If I cooked, I could get what I wanted. In this case it was a Timex I saw at Kmart because we used to skateboard in front of Kmart. We used to go in to get our drinks and stuff like that; we’d always walk by the watch case and I saw this one watch - a Timex Chronograph. I wanted it for about four or five months before I got it. When you’re a 19-year-old kid living off TCBY or Friendly’s money an extra 50 dollars for a watch doesn’t really just show up. Several months after starting to cook, coming back from Lake Champlain where I was cooking at the time, the first thing I did was buy the watch.”
The first watch is arguably the most important in many ways to collectors, and it is with Chef John’s Timex Chronograph that we began that evening’s omakase paired with piece of Aji (horse mackerel).
A more common fish, the Aji still possessed good texture and character which mirrored the character of the many years Chef’s Timex Chronograph has spent with him.
Does the craftsmanship involved in sushi making play into how you look at watches?
“Certainly, the craftsmanship behind watchmaking and the craftsmanship behind practicing sushi making are very similar, very intricate, very finite actions and executions of plans. In sushi, if you’re not exact it’s going to be wrong. In watchmaking if you’re not exact it’s going to be wrong.”
On the topic of exactness, Chef John chose to serve the second course of our omakase: Saba (Spanish Mackerel) delicately sliced and layered to enhance the texture and mouthfeel. This piece was paired with Chef’s personal vintage Baume & Mercier chronograph.
Chef John views Swiss watchmaking much the same way Japanese treat sushi making. The apprenticeship nature of both these crafts and the fact that it takes, “8, 10, 12 years to become a decent watchmaker and the same for a decent sushi chef,” is perhaps the most direct parallel that Chef could draw between the two.
The above course is one that Chef John is well known for and reflects his journey as an apprentice in New York, in Japan, and even in Hawaii reflected in his use of the Kukui nut as garnish for the mackerel.
Chef sees sushi sitting on the same shelf as watches as far as expensive things go. “A decent sushi meal for five will definitely run you as much as a decent entry level watch will. You can go have yourself a $1,000 per person meal at Masa the same way you can buy a Patek Philippe. You can have yourself a dollar piece of Indonesian frozen tuna at your 50% off sushi place and you get a watch in a happy meal. Watches and sushi exist on the same level.”
You’re the curator of the meal, some might even liken that to what watch collectors do. If we think about the way you construct your omakase, how do you come to those decisions?
“I could see that. You take what you’ve collected over the years whether it be a physical collection or tastes, flavors, and memories and you showcase or present them to your audience. What you have to reveal and the time you have to reveal it is very brief, so you have to be calculated in that - what message do you want to send across?”
As a watch collector Chef John holds the firm belief that the watches you choose say a lot about the person wearing them. Some watches say, “Hey I have money.” Some watches say, “Hey I have some style, and I have some time to do research, but they all make a statement. I find a lack of individuality amongst mass produced watches and the statement that they are all making to me is, ‘this is what I’m worth.’”
Much like sushi, Chef believes that, “you can execute the same functions from lesser materials, but you can’t get the same product.” With a brand, everything that the brand represents goes into it. “I think brand statements are more generalizing statements than vintage collections statements. Only because you could be in a room with a hundred people that are watch collectors and you have a [modern] Sub, you’re going to find your doppelganger there.” In essence, the curation of the collection, whether it be watches or a course in an omakase meal is critical.
However, Chef also admits that there is nothing wrong with following the crowd. “Some people aren’t comfortable with making a loud individualized statement, so they want to blend in to be a part of that brand “herd” if you will. If you spend $5,000 on an old Baume and Mercier from the 40’s and 50’s. Some people might ask why you made that decision over a pre-owned 2013 Sub. There’s nothing wrong with your justification just being able to own it.”
With sushi, it’s not so much an Individualized statement that Chef is trying to make. It’s all about the interaction he wants to share with the guest. It’s about the story he wants to tell his audience because it’s the story he was told.
“This is “my version of telephone” I don’t want to change the story, but I do want to take the facts and milk the story for all it’s worth. I want to make it come alive. I want it to be as vibrant and loudly dictated for you as it was to me.” In taking that philosophy to heart, Chef John also interprets the classics, taking his global culinary education and presenting it through his lens much like another of his iconic pieces below: Smoked Uni (Sea Urchin) from around the world.
You’ve done the high-end sushi thing and wowed a lot of people. What’s next for you?
“I think the next phase of my story is going to be of broader reaching messages. Omakase is so specialized so individualized and it’s more personal for the guest than it is the chef. A lot of people are under the impression that it’s the chef that dictates the meal. You come to my restaurant and you’re eating something different than the person next to you, it’s not me. It’s them or you. All the food’s the same behind the counter. It’s what goes out that’s different.”
On watches, Chef John has never had a pre-determined direction in how he collects. He’s always collected and acquired as it flows with his passing through life and it’s “an ironic metaphor,” marking his time somewhere. He bought watches when he lived in Japan, when he lived in Hawaii. That for him is the ethos with which he approaches collecting.
From our conversation with Chef John Daley, it’s clear that like master watchmakers and watch collectors he has passion for his craft of sushi and as a collector of timepieces. His art is not only in the making of sushi but also in the curation of his omakase. In this way, he is both collector and artist.
As for the broader message? Chef John’s next venture will still be through the medium of sushi, but to get that sushi out to more people. “Without using the term fast casual, it’ll be fast serious,” and we can’t wait to see what that means.