Regulars at Teppo Yakitori & Sushi Bar know Tomoaki Nishigaya as “Tommy”, the likeable avid Rangers fan who creates some of the best sushi and Japanese dishes in the DFW area. Many reserve the seats directly in front of him to take advantage of his daily specials or Omakase, but most don’t know much about him or how he became the head sushi chef at Teppo. We sat down with him recently to get the skinny.
Tell us about growing up and how you became interested in food.
I was born in Shizuoka, Japan. We lived in the countryside between Mt. Fuji and the Pacific Ocean. Both my parents worked, so anytime I wasn’t outside playing baseball with my friends, I was in the kitchen cooking for myself. I spent a lot of time just looking inside the refrigerator for different things to make.
Where did your ingredients come from and what did you enjoy making as such a young age?
We usually went to the local markets for our groceries. I always liked making things that were unique and more unusual than what others made. I would experiment with ingredients in a bizarre way, like sautéed “natto” (fermented soybeans), which would bring out the neighbors to see where the odor was coming from. I also made a lot of Ramen and fried rice.
What brought you to the United States?
In 1991, I came to help out my cousin’s restaurant, which is now closed. I started out as a waiter, but since I did not understand much English at the time, I switched to cook. I learned how to make sushi from him at the age of 20, and as customers complimented me, it made me feel good about myself, and what I was doing. That feeling continued to grow.
What restaurants have you worked for, and how were those experiences?
I cooked at Mr. Max in Irving and started at Teppo on its opening day in 1995. I left to work at Tei Tei for about 5 years, and then came back to Teppo in 2005. I’ve been here ever since. I was inspired by Teiichi (Teiichi Sakurai, former owner of Tei Tei and Teppo) and his philosophy of being a chef. I learned more sophisticated ways of creating dishes, in simple, as well as advanced ways. He told me to read many books, eat great food, and see beautiful things.
How did you become the head chef at Teppo?
I was lucky. Customers seemed to understand my style and tastes. It happened naturally as more and more people came back to enjoy my dishes. I am still learning from everything that I see, hear, and taste. I do not consider myself a sushi chef, as I do not want to limit myself to just sushi. I make dishes that are unique to myself, but have hints of Japanese tastes. I believe what I can do in the kitchen is endless.
What do you enjoy about working at Teppo, and why has it succeeded all these years?
I get to meet and talk to many foodies that understand and enjoy my style of cooking. Masa (Owner and Executive Chef Masayuki Otaka) pretty much lets me create anything I want, so it’s very comfortable working together. We don’t compromise on the quality of any of our ingredients. I buy vegetables from Tom Spicer, and in the spring and summer, I go to the farmer’s market every day. I have a garden at home, and when good things pop up, I bring them here. We import only the freshest fish possible, with much of it coming from Japan, which our customers appreciate. Yakitori is unique in Dallas so that’s also a huge draw for us.
What other restaurants and chefs do you enjoy in the area?
Tei An and Teiichi Sakurai, who taught me so many things. Sharon Hage is a favorite of mine, as well as Julian Barsotti’s Nonna. I really miss Craft at the W Hotel.
What do you think of the DFW food scene?
I like that many of the area restaurants are focusing on local ingredients. I would like to see more diners branch out and try something new to them, something they have never tried before. Be bold about food!
How do you spend your free time when not at Teppo?
I play golf every chance I get, and I enjoy hanging out with my wife in our kitchen. I go to Rangers games about once a month. I wish I could go more often.
Thank you, Tommy!
You’re welcome. Go Rangers!