Michelin stars aren’t transferable, and the chefs who get these sky-high honors of the restaurant world can’t be cloned (yet). Sushi chefs, in particular, are the skilled luminaries of their own show — so how, exactly, is one seeking to replicate his success at a new, high-end Denny Triangle spot?
The sixth location of Sushi By Scratch opens Thursday in Seattle, with chef Phillip Frankland Lee promising that expansion of his enterprise will not mean less-than-stellar quality. Lee, along with his wife, pastry chef Margarita Kallas-Lee, now owns and operates nine restaurants total, with half of that expansion happening rapidly and recently, since two of their places — Pasta|Bar in Los Angeles and Sushi By Scratch in Montecito, California — each scored a Michelin star last year. Added to the stable since: two Austin, Texas, restaurants; one in Miami; and, now, the one here. If that’s not busyness/business enough, meanwhile, they also welcomed a daughter this past April.
“I’ll be honest,” Lee says of the Michelin-star awards in a phone interview, “this is obviously a goal of ours to continue on this trajectory … for this concept specifically to be the most-starred concept of, you know, ever.” (Seattle’s not going to help with that at the moment, for what it’s worth; the Michelin Guide currently only confers stars in some parts of the U.S., not including the Pacific Northwest.) To maintain quality in pursuit of that goal, Lee says he designed the exclusive, 10-seat-only Sushi By Scratch setup to keep the teams small and executing “at a very, very high level.” He realized fairly early on, he says, that he needed to “teach everybody to not do what I do, but to think the way that I think. And so I stopped teaching recipes [and] I started teaching … approach and philosophy and ideals.” Lee also notes that with these “small, intimate, experientially driven concepts … we’re able to pay our team really, really well” — “six figures,” he details, with health insurance, 401(k) matching, parental leave and more.
The ongoing Sushi By Scratch “new wave” omakase experience in Seattle will be carried out by head chef Julian Tham. Tham takes center stage at the $165-per-person sushi bar having graduated from culinary school just 7½ years ago; he has worked with the company since, save a yearlong internship arranged by Lee at triple-Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn in San Francisco. At this point, Lee says, Tham has been “doing sushi with the company” for four or five years. “He’s a phenomenal kid,” Lee says, then corrects himself, “he’s a phenomenal grown man. Sorry, I still think of him like my son.”
Lee himself has had a restaurant industry trajectory that qualifies as meteoric. Growing up in California, he started in the industry as a dishwasher at age 18, decided not to finish culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu, then went on to stage at Michelin-starred Alinea and open his first restaurant at 25 years old — he’s now 35. Lee’s also been a contestant on “Top Chef,” “Chopped” and more. Of “Top Chef,” however, he now says, “I personally don’t like to talk about it. I feel like at this point … you hear about, ‘Oh, it’s a chef from ‘Top Chef’ [and] it’s not necessarily at the Michelin star — more like world-class — level. And that’s kind of what we’re trying to go for.” The season of “Top Chef” that he was on, Lee points out, was “seven, eight years ago.”
Opening anticipation for Seattle’s Sushi By Scratch is high — Lee says that the online-only reservations for the first month were gone in a few hours, and that the waitlist currently numbers around 40,000. With three 10-person seatings a night, the 17-course opening menu features a half-dozen selections of local seafood — including geoduck and red ocean perch, all sourced to start from Key City Fish Company in Port Townsend — with the rest coming from Japan.
Lee credits his upbringing for the unconventional flavor profiles — e.g., hamachi brushed with a sweet corn pudding and topped with sourdough breadcrumbs, or roasted bone marrow nigiri — featured at the Sushi By Scratches. “I grew up in the San Fernando Valley along Ventura Boulevard, which is pretty famous for the amount of sushi bars — we’re the second-largest concentration of sushi bars per capita in the world still today,” he says. By the time he turned 13, he continues, he knew he wanted to be a sushi chef and began buying books on the subject. “I grew up as a seven-year-old dipping things in soy sauce and wasabi, so those are the flavors of my childhood,” he says, “and I also did grow up eating Nancy Silverton’s La Brea Bakery sourdough … [and] eating grilled corn on the cob in the summer that my dad would grill by the pool.”
Lee says he sees making sushi — and in particular the kind of omakase experience that Sushi By Scratch outlets provide — as telling his story through his flavors and presentations, consciously and respectfully. As a white man making sushi, has he encountered criticism about cultural appropriation? “When we first opened, I did get a little bit of that, but I only got that from white people, which was kind of funny,” he says. “It was also around the time when it was really in vogue to be upset at anyone for doing something that they considered cultural appropriation,” he continues.
“What I really found to be very inspiring to me,” Lee says, “is how often we have Japanese guests who say, ‘This is amazing, and this is really fun and interesting, and this is just like the sushi I remember growing up, but having it from you, and you telling your story.’ “