Photos: Kris Kathmann
Wu Lin’s Life of Learning
According to an old Chinese proverb, “Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.”
The life of Wu Lin, born in Fuzhou, China 34 years ago, certainly reflects that teaching. From learning the art of sushi, to learning English, to learning how to run a business: Lin says his constant yearning for learning got him where is today. Where he is today, is a long, long way from his birthplace.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
For Lin that single step was discovering his true passion in the kitchen: sushi. A passion that led him on a journey from China to Japan and eventually the United States. His desire to learn the trade was so intense, he made quite a name for himself spending years watching Japanese chefs perfect their art, while he worked alongside them making the hot dishes. Eventually, friends invited him to work in a sushi restaurant in New York City, even though he had never touched a fish or actually made sushi.
“In Japan, they don’t give you a chance to touch the fish because the fish is so important to the restaurant,” he explains. “It is so expensive, so even while training I was not allowed to touch it, only the chefs could. But I would always watch and learn and just keep working, working, working. Finally, I got a chance to go to United States.”
“Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.”
He had to remain patient even in New York. Where he again had to watch and earn his way into a sushi chef’s good graces. But he knew if he put in the time, his day would come.
“A chef in New York finally gave me a chance and I just every day worked on getting better and better at sushi,” says Lin.
Not only had he not had a chance to make sushi before coming to America, but he also knew very little English. So along with learning the art of sushi, he was also learning a new language.
“I learned by being with people. Because I worked in a sushi bar, I got the chance to talk with customers sitting at the bar. I also learned by working with other American employees in the restaurant. So no classes, really I learned just by being with people. When I came to Mankato I really improved because I get to talk more and more with people that come here. I want to see what customers are thinking about my food and find out what I need to face to keep going.”
He came to Mankato in 2014 when he purchased Tokyo Sushi & Hibachi. It was a restaurant in need of some rebuilding, not the physical space, but the relationships with customers.
“Behave toward everyone as if receiving a guest.”
Relying on that Chinese proverb helped Lin turn the restaurant around.
“We try to greet everyone and listen to what they want from our restaurant,” he says. “If we talk to customers we can find out how to make things better.”
Still, that is not his proudest achievement.
“There is a time for everything, do things at the right time.”
In 2017, he became a U.S. citizen.
“I feel good,” he says. “It was a goal I had so I can stay here and don’t have to worry about the status of my immigration. Now I can focus on bringing my family here and building a business and life here in Mankato.”
In this interview, Wu Lin talks about his journey-not just the actual miles but his path to learning a new language and culture, how to run a business, and becoming a U.S. citizen. He also talks about how another Chinese proverb guides his future: He who is not satisfied with himself will grow.
You are a long way from home. Let’s start by talking about where you grew up.
I was born in Fuzhou, China in 1984. When I was 8 years old, my parents had to go to another country to work so my grandparents took care of me and my sister. My parents worked for a clothing company. So as a little kid and all through high school I lived with my grandparents. After high school I went to work in a restaurant in China. After a few years I got married and that’s when my parents were able to come back to China.
You started working in restaurants right out of high school, but you have no formal culinary training?
No. In the beginning working in a restaurant was just something for me to do while I tried to figure out my path. But I found out I really liked it. So I learned by watching others and then just doing it. After three or four years in China, I got a chance to go to Japan to work in a restaurant. There I had some friends that wanted me to work in a Japanese sushi and hibachi restaurant. But I didn’t make sushi. I mostly cooked the kitchen food, the hot food.
But working there I got to learn what sushi is. I could watch chefs prepare it, but when you are new you can’t touch the fish. They don’t give you a chance to touch the fish because the fish is so important to the restaurant. They don’t want you to slice the fish wrong because then it would be wasted. But I knew sushi was something I wanted to do so I would always watch and learn.
I had friends working in New York in a sushi restaurant and they told me to join them so I could get training in an American sushi restaurant. They were excited and kept telling me ‘you can make money doing something you love!’ That was in 2010. So to pursue my dream I left my family to go to America. I have a wife and daughter. But knew I would have them come when I could.
But still at first in New York, I couldn’t touch the fish! I just had to watch the chef. You work with a chef and stay on the side and if they like you, you can learn more and more. Even in New York the chefs did not give me a chance to cut the fish at first because fish is very expensive so if the cut is no good it would be waste. Good sushi chefs have high standards. People may think making sushi looks easy, but it is not easy. There are many steps. You must learn how to clean the fish and tie bone. Plus rice is a big part. That’s how you start by learning how to cook the rice. Then how to work with other ingredients like cucumber.
What people don’t understand is that the basic work also builds body muscle and muscles in your hand. When you are a sushi chef, hand muscles have to be trained so you can hold the knife more comfortably.
I remember when I got my first touch of the fish in America. A chef was willing to teach me and I worked hard to learn it. Then I got to know more and more people in the business, so more opportunities started coming to me. I left New York to work in Boston and Alabama before coming to Mankato. I was working in Alabama and somebody called me to see if I wanted to buy a restaurant.
When did you come to Mankato?
I came to Mankato in 2014. Some of my friends were working here and they told me the owner wanted to sell this restaurant. I didn’t know about Mankato, but my friends told me to ‘just come here to see it’.
Coming from New York and Boston, Mankato must have seemed so different. What did you think of it?
It’s so small but the people here are so kind. It is totally different than the big city. Here people speak slowly, walk slowly, it is just more comfortable. Like with my daughter, she is nine and I finally just a few months ago got to bring her to live here with me. People here are especially helpful with her. I was looking for a school in Mankato for her and it’s hard because she cannot speak English so I didn’t know what to do. A customer that eats here heard that I needed to find a school for her and he told me that his son goes to Loyola. He told me Loyola would be a good school for her and helped me get her enrolled there. He was right. There they teach my daughter English, they have special class for her. People here in Mankato like to help others. I feel she needs special understanding and patience. Plus I like that it is a religion school. In my mind all religion is good for people. All religions teach people to be kind. That is what Mankato is like. People like to help other people.
So yes, we love it here. It is just more kind than other places. The first time I came here I was thinking this is small town. But Mankato is very comfortable. You can get everything you need here.
But Tokyo was hard to run for a business at first.
Learning how to make sushi is one thing, learning English is another, but you also had to learn how to run a business.
In the beginning it was very tough. So my mom and dad came here to help me. I was thankful because that way I didn’t have to hire too many management people. It’s good my family can help me because it allows me to keep working to build it the way I want. To build it like the restaurant I have in my thinking. It is my dream to have my own restaurant.
In learning to run a business, I had to learn how to handle the employees. I learned I need to keep them happy so they want to work, but it was a challenge to find that balance. I have to push sometimes to make sure all are working to high standards and maybe some are not happy, so I have had to learn to manage employees.
Also, employment laws here are challenging. But that is just something a business owner has to face. With my English sometimes I don’t know what it all means, but local people and my customers really help me. Customers will hear of my needs and find a company to help me with what I need. During these last few years I have learned more just by doing than I would have learned in school. Again, I just read, read, read everything I can to learn.
Aside from managing employees, what other challenges came with the business?
I had to learn how to price the food here. In New York and Boston things were more expensive and sushi could sell at a higher price. So here I had to face and manage that price would be lower. This town is medium level for income in the U.S. so I try to keep medium price for people who come here. I price the food so that it will move quickly and I can keep it fresh. So I don’t set the price too high, then everything goes fast.
Also I had to figure out what kind of sushi and food people like here. So I listen to my customers and make changes when I need to. That is how I build the business.
No matter when I eat here…lunch or dinner, any day of the week…you are here. How many hours do you work in a week?
Since I started, I never really get time off. Now that my daughter is here I am taking more time off. I know kids need time from their parents. She is in school, but after school I need to teach her about this place and I want her to join some sport and make some friends.
But before she came, every day I was working all day. But it’s okay. I need to work more than other people. If I have to hire I cannot afford it.
How many employees do you have?
Ten full time and some part time. I use many friends from China. So lots of friends and family work here. They come here and they like it here too!
Is finding employees a problem?
First, I hire people I have worked with before. I tell them, Minnesota is cold, and not everyone likes the cold. But like me, after they come here, they like it and stay.
But it is hard to find people, especially for full time. I pay more because I know my employees have their families to pay for so I also give them good benefits. If you pay well and take care of the employees then they want to also help you.
Also I advertise for jobs online, so for part time having Minnesota State University nearby helps. Part time is not so hard.
How about vendors for fresh fish, are they hard to find?
Chicago and Minneapolis have fish companies that I use. It’s good because over the years more and more sushi restaurants are starting in the Twin Cities, so that means more fish companies opening in Minneapolis. The fish market in Minnesota is getting bigger. The fish companies in the state get fish from the UK and Norway because in that ocean the fish is different. So it’s getting easier. When I first started there were no fish companies in Minneapolis. So I got from Chicago, which is still a good choice because they can drive from there to here. If I get from somewhere that is not Minneapolis or Chicago it is not as fresh.
You used to have hibachi going where the chefs cook right in front of you. But in the last few years you have shut that down. With the big franchise Shogun moving in did that affect that?
No, it is because the space we have here is too small for hibachi chefs. There is only room for two hibachi tables so it’s not worth the cost of two chefs to serve so few people at a time. To cover one hibachi table of five to eight for three hours, and probably only get two rounds in each night, well the return on investment just isn’t there. It’s not easy to cover those costs.
I don’t mind Shogun moving in. I believe all business needs competition. It is what pushes you. Mankato has so many people they need a choice. They can decide for themselves which one is better. Every business, every industry needs competition.
You just became a U.S. citizen!
Yes! It was my dream since I was young. I need it for my life in the United States so I can bring my family here. I came to United States in 2010 to work. After I got my green card I had to wait five years to take the test. I studied for the test for many hours. My English is not good so I needed to read all the books about American History. I learned lots of English from that book. I would just read, read, read every day. I took the test and passed! One of my best days of life.
That allowed me to finally bring my daughter here to live with me. She hasn’t been here long, but I can tell she is happy, even though she cannot talk English, she is smiling everyday. I hope to bring my wife soon. She is now going through the immigration process. We are doing it right, so still working on immigration.
From the very beginning I just want to make a life to keep my family together. I want to do something to help other people, like the friends and family I have working here. I keep going for them.
Even after many years with the restaurant it is tough. I just try to keep the food tasty, all employees happy and all the customers happy.
Biggest lesson you have learned in business?
If you have a problem, you deal with it and learn from it. I am still trying to get better each day at sushi, at English, at helping my employees and customers. Being a small business owner is really hard, very tough. I have found that confidence is very important not only for business but for anything. If you believe you can do something, and then you try it and you never stop. Plus, I keep learning. I read a lot of business publications. Reading is very important.
Advice for others?
You have to find your own style and find out what works for you. You can not copy anyone else. Whether you are Chinese, American, whatever…just treat people the way you want to be treated and take care of everyone around you and it should be fine.
Your journey doesn’t end here, does it?
No, I am going to just keep learning and keep going every day. Keeping working hard. During my whole life I learn every day and that’s not going to stop.
Is it Sushi or is it Sashimi?
Sushi and sashimi are two Japanese dishes that are often confused, but are completely different.
Sashimi always has raw fish as an ingredient but does not include rice. Sashimi are small thin slices of fresh fish. As we heard from Lin, the cutting technique of sashimi is one of the most rigorous during training for a sushi chef. If the fish is cut too thick or too thin it can affect the taste. Different fish require different cutting techniques.
Sushi, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily have raw fish as an ingredient. It’s really all about the rice! Vinegared rice is the foundation, then other raw ingredients which may include fish and vegetables are added and rolled.
The Scoop on Sushi
- Tataki is mostly raw, but the fish does have a sear on it. It was invented in Japan in the 19th century but is not considered to be very traditional at all.
- The term sashimi means pierced meat. It is a phrase coined because of the method Japanese fishermen use to kill the fish: they catch the fish on a long line, pierce the brain of the fish, and then store it in an ice bath.
- Killing the fish immediately after catching it reduces the amount of amino acid. Why is that important? It delays most types of decomposition within the fish. This process is known as Ike Jime.
- The Sushi Restaurants industry is highly fragmented, consisting mainly of many small establishments that employ five people or fewer.
Sushi’s Start in America
It technically started In 1966 when a Japanese businessman, Noritoshi Kanai, brought a sushi chef and his wife from Japan with him to Los Angeles to open a nigiri sushi bar inside a Japanese restaurant known as Kawafuku in LA’s Little Tokyo. The restaurant was only popular with Japanese immigrants. Still, more and more sushi spots opened in Little Tokyo. Slowly word got back to Japan that there was money to be made in America. So young chefs made the trek from Japan, tired of the rigorous and restrictive traditional culture of sushi making there.
Sushi restaurants didn’t start gaining popularity with American clientele until the 1980s when the California
Roll was introduced. The California Roll certainly “Americanized” with only avocado, cucumber and some form of crab meat.
Now, though, sushi restaurants have become more mainstream in the food service industry. IBISWorld says the sushi industry grew at an annualized rate of 3.3 percent from 2012 to 2017. IBISWorld predicts growth will steady out now, but in 2017 the industry in the United States had a total revenue of an estimated $2.6 billion. The industry employs nearly 23,000 and there are more than 3,600 sushi-related businesses in operation.
What is Considered “Sushi Grade” Fish?
You may have heard the term “sushi grade” when it comes to fish, but what does that actually mean? Turns out, just like the sushi roll it will go into, it’s a bit complicated. The term is more of a “selling point” than an actual standard. But here’s what the FDA has to say. The FDA requires raw fish be frozen (usually at -35 degrees Fahrenheit) for a minimum of 15 hours. This is part of the parasite eradication process. In most cases, when a large fish is caught on a boat and is intended to sell at “sushi grade,” it is immediately killed, gutted, and flash frozen until sold.
The fishermen or suppliers, will sell the fish frozen to the vendor. The vendor can deem it sushi grade after checking the eyes, gill coloration, fins, and gut cavity. The vendor sells the fish on ice to a sushi bar at about 34 degrees.
Once the fish is in the hands of the sushi chefs, it is portioned into smaller sections. The chefs freeze what they don’t immediately need, and then thaw one piece at a time as needed.
From Fuzhou, China to Mankato, Minnesota
With a population of more than 7.6 million people, Fuzhou is the capital of southeastern China’s Fujian province. Fuzhou in Chinese means “a city with good luck.” Fuzhou is known as a sprawling industrial and transportation hub. Its downtown includes the “3 Lanes and 7 Alleys” quarter of preserved Ming and Qing dynasty buildings. The mountaintop Yushan Scenic Area features the restored 10th-century White Pagoda. West Lake Park, dating to 282 A.D., is an urban green area with bridges and pavilions.
Fuzhou lies on the north (left) bank of the estuary of Fujian’s largest river, the Min River. In 2015, Fuzhou was ranked as the 10th Fastest Growing Metropolitan Areas in the world by Brookings Institution.
Tokyo Sushi & Hibachi
1829 Adams St, Mankato, MN 56001