Behind his sushi bar, Lou Valente moves with precision: his choreography a result of more than 20 years of faithful repetition. He dips his fingers into water and claps his hands before grabbing a small mound of rice, nimbly stretching it across a crisp sheet of nori. In a matter of seconds, his creation is rolled and ready for a final garnish of sesame seeds. He reaches for the shaker without looking.
The job is all about mise en place, which sometimes inspires Valente to break out into song. “Mise en place is my friend, mise en place is my friend!” he sings, pretending to conduct his workstation. Everything is arranged just so: thinly sliced scallions, cucumber sticks, lemons, whole avocados, pickled ginger, wasabi and shredded daikon that shines like glass.
Valente is chef and owner of Lou’s Sushi, the beloved Midtown neighborhood restaurant. On a Friday night, the line for a table starts forming at about 5:30 p.m. and doesn’t stop until 9 p.m. Exceedingly humble, charismatic and a little goofy, he’s understandably a popular guy.
His path here was simultaneously classic and unusual. Though he spent years apprenticing for Japanese sushi masters, he’s also a big, gregarious Caucasian dude from Philadelphia. He broke into a culinary world known for strict rules, tradition and cultural purity. Today, this would still be a feat, but in the early ’90s? Valente’s presence was a rarity.
His talent, however, is clear. Order omakase-style, and he’ll unleash an epic, nigiri-filled parade: suzuki with a dab of fiery yuzu kosho, kanpachi kissed with lemon, saba heightened with chili oil. But he thrives with Americanized sushi as well, serving bombastic, saucy rolls with bold textural contrasts. His sense of humor, for example, comes through on the dish Tastes Like Beef, which features seared tuna, wasabi cream and fried onions. It really does, miraculously, taste like beef.
Despite already accomplishing what once seemed like the impossible—succeeding as a Caucasian sushi chef and restaurant owner—he’s still on the perpetual quest to perfect his craft. For now, he’s quite proud of his tamago, the omelette known as one method used to dictate how Japanese chefs judge fellow chefs. Valente’s is rich yet delicate, with eight creamy, barely distinct layers.
“Yeah,” he says, nodding and smiling with his eyes. “Not bad for a white guy, right?”
Read the full story here in Sacramento News & Review.
PHOTO BY DARIN BRADFORD