Written by Melody Cao
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by Sumo Sushi Boat, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “We make every effort to make vegetarian Japanese food.”
John Chen spent much time during his childhood at the Chinese restaurants run by his father and uncles. However, as he grew and opened his very own restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area, it was Japanese cuisine that became his personal specialty. “People here are more towards healthy food, and during the past 20 years, I’ve developed my restaurant, Sumo Sushi Boat, into a place loved by families and kids in the area.” John has built a strong relationship with Tzu Chi as well, and readily agreed to participate in the Very Veggie Movement to promote access to vegetarian alternatives. His restaurant has a lengthy vegetarian menu abounding with delicious options, all carefully crafted with love. “We can’t avoid raw fish and beef when making Japanese food,” he said when describing the restaurant’s menus, “but we do our best to make our vegetarian sushi to give veggie lovers more choices.” During the pandemic, the restaurant industry has been hit hard. But John still holds onto hope that his restaurant will make it through. He is looking forward to adding more dishes to the vegetarian menu once the pandemic eases, and aims to design a new future for the restaurant.
On the menu at Sumo Sushi Boat, there is a section uniquely designed for vegetarian customers. Unlike many other vegetarian menus that offer only a small selection of options to choose from, Sumo Sushi Boat’s vegetarian menu has more than 60 delicious dishes. These include appetizers, sushi rolls, ramen noodles, bento boxes, and donburi rice bowls. “I started to develop a vegetarian menu a long time ago for my family and friends, and then I discovered that there are actually quite a number of vegetarians among my customers,” said restaurant owner John Chen.
Growing Up in Restaurants
“You can say I grew up in restaurants, and I learned how to manage a restaurant from watching my dad and uncles running their restaurants at an early age.” John Chen said that all the restaurants run by his family members had focused on Chinese cuisine, but when he planned to start his own business in the San Francisco Bay Area, he found that there were very few Chinese restaurants nearby. “Everyone here seems to be more health-conscious. I was afraid that Chinese food tastes too heavy and too oily.” Since John lived in Japan for two years when he was younger, he opted to make Japanese cuisine at his restaurant instead.
On April 17th, 2001, Sumo Sushi Boat was officially opened. “While hiring a master, I was also learning, and I slowly learned how to do Japanese cuisine.” John is an excellent hands-on learner, delving into the differences between Chinese and Japanese restaurants with great interest. “Running a Chinese restaurant is really hard, it took a lot of effort in cooking Chinese food. But the raw materials of Chinese food are relatively cheap. Japanese food is not so hard to cook, but the raw materials are more expensive. Sometimes the purchase price is so high that it is not profitable to sell the dish. It’s a different challenge.” Although it may not be easy to run a restaurant, John said he still enjoys what he’s doing very much. “I like to chat with my customers and meet different people. I find it very interesting and I can learn a lot.”
Together with the support of his dedicated staff, Sumo Sushi Boat Sanyu Japanese Restaurant has become a spot loved by many customers for nearly two decades. “With the sushi bar and sushi boats, my restaurant is a good place for families to eat. I have four children, myself. My restaurant is very kid-friendly and serves like a Disney park for children in this area,” John laughed.
For John, who was often in his family’s restaurants growing up, Sumo Sushi Boat is a place full of warmth where children laugh without worry, and it feels just like home.
Innovative Vegetarian Japanese Cuisine
“The reason why I developed a vegetarian menu is because of my cousin, Jessie,” explained John. “She is a Buddhist and a vegetarian. She lived with us at the time and also helped out in the restaurant. Jessie joined Tzu Chi and started to know more and more friends from Tzu Chi. She and her friends came to the restaurant and asked for vegetarian meals, so I decided to design some veggie Japanese dishes for everyone.” John said that in conventional Japanese cuisine, there are few truly vegetarian dishes since Japanese seasonings often include bonito flakes, an ingredient made with fish. John brought his knowledge and experience in Chinese cuisine into his Japanese dishes. “For example, the Walnut Avocado Sushi on our menu is my own innovation. You often see walnut shrimp on Chinese restaurants’ menus. I like the crunchy walnuts in that dish, very delicious. So I use this method to process the walnuts, mix them with healthy avocados, and wrap them in sushi rolls. The crunchy walnuts are fragrant; with the smooth texture of the avocado, it tastes very good.”
For each veggie sushi dish, ingredients are chosen and prepared with great care. “My favorite is veggie futomaki. Many restaurants have futomaki; the ingredients are not complicated and they don’t look special. But the shiitake mushrooms in our futomaki are specially made and boiled for more than eight hours. It is very tasty.” A single, well-prepared ingredient can deliver an entirely new flavor to futomaki. “There is also another very popular roll called the ‘Jessie Special.’ It is a handmade roll created for my cousin, Jessie.” John said that his cousin is very enthusiastic when it comes to participating in Tzu Chi activities, and made many friends when hosting book clubs. John came up with the idea to name the rolls after her so her friends could easily order her favorite foods. The roll is made with barbecued tofu, fried taro, avocado, and their special veggie teriyaki sauce: “We make our own teriyaki sauce without fish-flavored bonito or green onions. Instead, we use veggie bonito with shiitake mushrooms and miso.” Originally designed for family and friends, the handmade roll is uniquely crafted with love from start to finish.
The restaurant additionally offers assorted tasty vegetarian dishes like ramen, udon noodles, rice bowls, and bento boxes. The special tofu sukiyaki pot for the wintertime is yet another mouthwatering vegetarian menu item. “Vegetarian sukiyaki is relatively light, but the content is very rich, including carrots, broccoli, tofu, and enoki mushrooms. In order to increase the flavor, we added veggie meatballs.”
Looking Forward to the Future
The COVID-19 pandemic delivered a severe blow to business at Sumo Sushi Boat. “We were greatly affected by the pandemic. I don’t know how to say it. This is a natural disaster. Our entire business has fallen by about 60%.” The restaurant used to have eleven employees, and now there are only two. To keep the restaurant going during the pandemic, John takes care of everything from the kitchen to the front desk. His thirteen-year-old daughter also helps out in the restaurant: “She is really smart. She learned everything in two weeks. Now I feel like the restaurant can’t do without her.”
During this deeply challenging time, John received an invitation from Tzu Chi volunteers to join the Very Veggie Movement. While working together to promote access to vegetarian alternatives with Tzu Chi, he also hopes more people will be encouraged to give the vegetarian menu at Sumo Sushi Boat a try. “My cousin Jessie joined Tzu Chi a long time ago, and then my son also went to Tzu Chi Academy, and then my wife also went to Tzu Chi to do volunteer work. I felt that gradually there were more and more Tzu Chi people around me. I also would like to support Tzu Chi.”
Although the pandemic still rages on, John said he hopes that the new vaccines can help contain the spread, and life will slowly regain a sense of normalcy. “Our menu hasn’t changed for a long time. During the pandemic, it is too difficult for us to keep employees. I hope when the pandemic is over, the business will recover. With the help of employees, I can have some time to design new dishes.” John said that he has always wanted to develop a new menu, and that after the pandemic eases, it would be a good time to both redesign the vegetarian menu as well as remodel the future of the restaurant in conjunction with increasingly popular vegetarian trends.
Learn more about the Very Veggie movement and join us by transforming your diet into a vegetarian one, or take part as a partner of the movement!