Munchies

How Being a Former Olympian Runner Turned Me into a DIY Sushi Master

It’s my dream to one day have a party with an all-women sushi team across the street from Sukiyabashi Jiro in Japan and be like, “What up! Look at how much fun we are having over here!”

by Michael Stember
Aug 8 2016, 11:00pm

Alle Fotos mit freundlicher Genehmigung von Upstream Foods

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in November 2015

There is a misconception in the world of endurance sports. People get this notion in their head that goes something like: I can eat whatever I want to eat just because I'm going to burn it off.

From a vanity standpoint, sure, you may not look that much more different, but are you truly going to optimize your performance when you eat like that? Those commercials with Michael Jordan drinking Gatorade and Lebron James eating McDonald's are definitely not helping this belief.

I started to think deeper about this since, at the time, I was one of the fastest runners in the US. I arrived at Japanese food as being the ideal cuisine for an athlete. Sooner than I knew it, I found myself burning through all of my government-funded checks at this sushi restaurant in Palo Alto. I was attending Stanford University on a full ride, but that wasn't nearly enough to fund my diet. I then thought, How do I get this high-quality fish but minus typical Japanese sushi prices?I wanted to cut everything that wasn't necessary from this equation.

That was when I started my speakeasy, direct-trade, sashimi restaurant that used the exact same, crazy-expensive fish as the best sushi restaurants in San Francisco. I called it Upstream Foods.

Upstream Foods chef

I looked around and was surprised how hard it was to get the same quality fish commercially; the only way to get it was through these premium Japanese experiences that I could not afford anymore. I wouldn't take no for an answer, so I cased my local sushi restaurant until the delivery truck arrived one morning and asked the driver, "Hey, can I buy some fish from you for $40? I need this fish that's in your truck and I can't afford to eat it at this restaurant anymore." The guy said, "Sure."

upstream foods sashimi with veggies

One 14-pound king salmon later, I was feeding everybody within earshot in my dorm; we used take-out soy sauce packets and dull butter knives to slice it and eat the ridiculously thick slices as-is. When it was all done, we were so full and I realized that I just fed ten of us for $40. So I called the guy back and told him, "Hey, I'll have $500 for you next time. Can you meet me at a different address"? I did it once a week for the next five years. I took this sushi diet and sashimi lifestyle really seriously, and I ended up being in the American Olympic team for Track and Field five years later.

It's my dream to one day have a party with an all-women sushi team across the street from Sukiyabashi Jiro in Japan and be like, "What up! Look at how much fun we are having over here!"

I revived Upstream Foods three years ago, and instead of raising $3 million and opening a brick and mortar in Los Angeles or New York, I decided to keep my speakeasy dinner-style and really small. I'm using the exact same fish that Urosawa is charging $500 for because we have the same vendors. I'm giving people a lot more of the stuff, too, and cutting out all of the traditional stuff associated with sushi. No sushi tables between us; it's all-you-can-eat-and-drink-style with live music.

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I don't dislike the sushi world but there are a lot of race and gender barriers involved when dealing with raw fish that I don't like. For example, a lot of traditional sushi chefs believe that women can't make sushi because their hands are too small and their blood is too warm. But to say that somebody has a physical deficiency to make sushi rice correctly because of their gender is asinine. I am exposing that. It's my dream to one day have a party with an all-women sushi team across the street from Sukiyabashi Jiro in Japan and be like, "What up! Look at how much fun we are having over here!"

upstream foods uni and cocktail

My casual dinner series is freaking people out because we are creating a new sense of feast with sushi around a premium cocktail setting, and pushing these boundaries is really exciting as a young chef. It's a really difficult project to pull off but very worth it, as long as I can shatter people's perceptions about the sushi world and they have a great time while doing so.

As told to Javier Cabral