A passion for sushi

Owen Ou’s passion for sushi began 20 years ago in the kitchen of famed Iron Chef Morimoto‘s restaurant in Manhattan.

Originally  from China, Ou moved to the US as a teenager with his parents.  At age 17, he had just finished school, and recalls searching the internet for a job just “to make some money.”  With no prior interest in the restaurant industry – he didn’t even know who Morimoto was – he landed a job as one of his dishwashers.

This early experience helped shape the direction of his career.

Morimoto recognized Ou’s hardworking spirit and soon began to train him in various aspects of the business: rolling sushi, working in the kitchen, and restaurant management.  And when Morimoto was cooking, “everybody watched him – he creates amazing food.”

Moving to Alabama

Ou left Morimoto and his parents behind in New York to join his sister and brother-in-law in Decatur, Alabama, in search of a lower cost of living.  He worked in his brother-in-law’s Chinese restaurant and other restaurants for another 5 years, which allowed him to continue to learn the business and practice his skills.

Opening Sushi Village

Ou talks fondly of his time with Morimoto and his brother-in-law.  But he quickly adds, “I’ve always wanted to open a restaurant-that’s my dream….my dream has come true.”

With a business partner, Ou opened the first Sushi Village in Gardendale.  He then worked with an agent to help him find a location in Birmingham.  They tried 280 first, but there was too much competition from other restaurants.  Then they settled on the current location in Irondale.  Ou points out that he is the only Sushi restaurant in this part of town, which has helped to drive business.

Building the team

Making good sushi can’t be learned on the job – it requires years of training.  Ou explains that his sushi chefs must train in New York prior to coming to work for him in Birmingham.  Just like Ou, his staff often come from New York looking for a good job with higher wages and a more affordable cost of living in Birmingham.

In fact, Ou and his staff are mostly from the small town of Fu-Jing in Southern China.  While they didn’t know each other there, people back home know of Ou’s restaurant.  This serves as a sort of pipeline for new and prospective employees.  Once here, Ou not only employs them, he treats them like family. Currently, Ou has 2 sushi chefs, 4 kitchen cooks, 2 dishwashers, and 6 servers.

When asked what the most important thing he learned from Morimoto was, Ou doesn’t hesitate:  “teamwork.”  He explains that in a sushi restaurant, everybody does their own job, and everybody helps each other — a philosophy that he has brought with him to his own business.

Building the business

Sushi Village has a loyal following of repeat customers, who come back again and again, and spread the word to their friends.  This, along with the restaurant’s location, has helped to make it popular.

And of course, there’s the menu.  Ou’s experiences at several restaurants have allowed him to create a menu that includes recipes he has used before, and some that are new.  Ou’s favorite roll on the menu is the Snow Mountain roll, which came directly from Morimoto’s menu.  He asked me mine, which is the Sushi Village roll; this is one of Ou’s original creations.

Next steps

Ou is working to train others to open other Sushi Villages franchise locations….. stay tuned!

For more information

Check out our original Sushi Village 2 post!