Sushi With a Smile: A Chat with Ellwood Thompson’s Sushi Chef Jeffery Ota

by | Oct 4, 2017 | GOOD EATS

For over 10 years, I have visited Ellwood Thompson’s many times getting lunch, groceries, and even a few of my favorite brews now and again. Often on my visits, have noticed the sushi counter and the interactions of their very animated and fun sushi chef Jeffery Ota.  I can’t help but hang around and snoop a bit and notice him with customers – who often greet him with a hug and laugh. 

He just exudes this very welcoming and fun-loving warmth that makes everyone leave with a smile.  So after some time, I had to ask my friends at Ellwood’s more about this interesting chef that has been with the local grocery store for some time. In the world of sushi chefs, they are usually very traditional and sometimes even guarded.  I wanted to know who this guy was, and what made him such a character that has such a following in RVA.  Sitting down with Ota, it’s easy to see why people like him so much, he has an infectious laugh that’s hard to get across in print.  So I say just go in, meet the man and get some of his yummy sushi – its where he really shines.  Before you do, take a minute to check out my chat with the man behind Ellwood Thompson’s sushi counter, Jeffery Ota, below: 

Reinhold: Tell me a bit about who you are and where you came from? 

Ota: My name is Kuniyasu Ota, but more commonly known here as Jeffery.  I was born and raised in Myanmar and moved to Japan shortly after college to find work.  I finished school and then worked at an office in Tokyo for a company called Mitsui.  I came to America in 2008 to raise my kids in a more opportunistic environment, and have been working at Ellwood Thompson’s since 2009.  

Reinhold: What sparked your interest in sushi, and what kind of training or apprenticeship did you have?

Ota: Making sushi allowed me to show my creative ability as well as my chef skills. Being from Japan, sushi is a very traditional food, however, I didn’t start to make it until coming to America.  I received my training from Mr. James Kyaw from the Richmond area who was a part of various sushi restaurants. He taught me everything from how to make avocado salad, to cutting the fish the right way. 

Reinhold: What inspires you in sushi creation, and what do you find appealing when making your own creations? 

Ota: While making sushi, I focus on making something that not only looks good but tastes good as well.  

Reinhold: What is your favorite fish to work with? And what other favorite ingredients do you find you personally like? My personal favorite is Yellowtail, but customers mostly tend to enjoy salmon and tuna. Recently, I have been working with Poke sauce (spicy mango), which has a very Hawaiian flavor and people really enjoy it. Also, people have been asking for more Mackerel {as} of late, which is something I have been working on having for customers.  

Reinhold: How did you come to work at Ellwood’s?

Ota: After training, I started working at Ellwood’s about 8 years ago. Ellwood’s is a great store and has been a huge supporter of mine always 110 percent.

Reinhold: I have often seen you talking, hugging, laughing and interacting with customers.  What is it with your fans, customers, and people of Richmond that you really enjoy?  I enjoy interacting with customers because they always brighten my day!  They always have a smile, and knowing that they enjoy my sushi makes me very happy.  

Photo by @boldheartmama

Reinhold: Over time I imagine you learn what the customers like here in Richmond. What kind of interesting sushi habits do we have?  

Ota: My customers are always very willing to try new items, and that is why I am constantly expanding the menu and creating new items.  As far as habits, the spicy tuna and salmon is always a favorite.  But everyone seems very open to new ideas, and especially the sushi salads. 

Reinhold: Have you gotten any odd or funny requests over these years in making sushi? 

Ota: I have had a few requests for sushi without any Rice – which is funny because it’s just fish, not really sushi.  But we can do that – usually in salad, which is very American-style.  Oh yes and the sushi doughnut, a fun one!!  

Reinhold: Do you find making sushi here in Richmond differs from traditional ways of making sushi? And is making sushi ahead of time prove to be a more difficult task than serving to order?    

Ota: Yes, it is a little bit different from the traditional ways. Back in Japan, I never saw ingredients such as cream cheese and avocado in sushi. You learn a little more about how to make American style with more sauces and salads. You learn tricks and secrets (oo secrets!), about how to make it ahead of time and in larger amounts. It’s difficult to estimate the amount of boxes I have to make in a day. One of my secrets is to use a little more water and salt to keep it fresh longer.  Oh, and to be aware of the things like weather and events.

Reinhold: Oh wow, so weather can affect that?

Ota: Oh yes yes. Outside temperature and weather can play a role in how people enjoy their sushi.  When it’s rainy, more sushi and miso soup sell, when it’s sunny and hot, more salads and sashimi or light sushi. I always serve to please and get feedback from the customer.   

Reinhold: What time do you start each morning in making the massive amounts of sushi for each day?  What’s your usual day like from ordering fish to planning out the spread of sushi?  

Ota: I start around 6 pm each day.  I start cooking the rice and while rice is cooking, I prepare all my vegetables and fish for the day.  Then I start making sushi. My main objective is to make sure we are ready for the lunch rush around 11:30 each day.  

Reinhold: When not making sushi, what else do you enjoy doing?     

Ota: I enjoy relaxing and spending time with my family and friends and well as a little bit of gardening.   

*Photos by Ellwood Thompson’s

John Reinhold

John Reinhold

John Reinhold is a CEO, shareholder, and President of Inkwell Ventures. Inkwell is the founding company of RVA Magazine, Inkwell also owns and RVA On Tap.

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