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I Love Sushi chef: rolling sushi for a higher life

By James Steinbauer, University Editor

A seamless square of dark green seaweed nori crackles as it's snapped into two perfect portions. Snow-white rice is scooped from a fathomless steamer. Stainless steel surgically slices a thin piece from a hunk of vivid red tuna and the glimmer of the blade reflects off a polished wood countertop. Simple ingredients are rolled into a mosaic of texture and flavor - and all within 45 seconds.

"I've trained myself," Ryan Chung, the lone sushi chef at I Love Sushi, said. "I can make any roll on the menu in under two minutes. I'm super-fast."

And he has to be on nights like this. With more than 30 ravenous and intoxicated college students lined up outside the door and superimposing delivery orders, every second counts.

The phone rings for the second time in a minute.

"It's going to be an hour," Chung explains, adding a drizzle of eel sauce to his latest roll. "Do you still want it?"

He hangs up the phone and scribbles down another order.

"It's like hell," Chung says, laughing. "That's my motto though, keep the customer coming back."

Chung moved to the United States 12 years ago from Seoul, South Korea, where he worked as a computer crime investigator. He was studying criminal justice at the University of Toledo when he snagged his first job in the restaurant business at Uraku, a Japanese restaurant in Bowling Green, and fell in love. A year later, he purchased the restaurant.

"As a cop, every time I had to arrest somebody, every person I met, they weren't happy at all," Chung said. "But in a restaurant I found that everyone comes to me hungry and laughing and smiling. I get to make those people feel happy."

After taking over Uraku, Chung's previous boss, Young Gun Park, taught him how to make sushi. Chung researched Japanese techniques, watched documentaries and read comic books to help teach himself. He would stay awake at night for hours, testing new skills and recipes until they were perfect.

In 2010, Chung began looking to expand his business and decided to take a trip to the college town of Oxford, Ohio.

"It just snapped," Chung said. "I thought, 'Oh my God, this is the best place!'"

Four months later, he opened his restaurant, I Love Sushi, in a small shop on Poplar Street.

One thing that sets I Love Sushi apart from the other sushi restaurants in Oxford is its size. The restaurant's lack of major storage means that Chung has to go to the market every morning for fresh vegetables, avocados and ingredients for his homemade sauces and entrees. A sushi restaurant's most important ingredient, the fish, comes fresh twice a week from a wholesaler in Chicago and is never kept for long.

"If it's not fresh enough, I don't sell it," Chung said. "If I sell my customers good food nine times out of 10 - failure."

Another feature of I Love Sushi's success is its clientele. While Sushi Nara, Oxford's other major sushi restaurant, caters to formal diners and bar-goers looking for entertainment, Chung says that I Love Sushi caters to diners specifically interested in the food.

"I'm the best though," Chung said. "If you taste my sushi here once, you can't get it anywhere else in Oxford."

Now, the line of college kids waiting to eat the "best" sushi in Oxford is growing, but Chung isn't fazed. He just keeps rolling.

"I have fun now," Ryan said. "When I see a drunk college kid, I don't have to worry about being suspicious anymore - I just have to worry about making them full. That makes me happy."