David Graham, Geisha Sushi & Japanese Tea House
David Graham had always identified as an environmentalist, which was probably more common than not among his fellow English Literature graduates at UC Santa Cruz. Outside of school, David had developed a passion for Japanese folk medicine, culture, and cuisine. He also wrote music and performed it. So when he was at a crossroads in his career and an ad appeared in a newspaper looking for an apprentice sushi chef, he answered it. To his surprise he found that making sushi inspired his music and fit well with his love of Japanese culture. He quickly rose up the ranks from apprentice to manager of Paradise sushi.
Then in 1998, he read the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Guide and learned that Bluefin tuna was being driven to extinction by sushi restaurants. Not only that, but unagi, or ranched fresh water eel, was an endangered species, and farmed salmon was creating problems for the environment. These were some of the mainstays of sushi restaurants- and still are. He found his values at odds with his passion. He honed his craft at Paradise sushi as well as Mobo Sushi and Aqua Bleu.
In 2011, he went to his employers at Aqua Bleu and asked about opening an eco-friendly sushi restaurant. They liked the idea. He then reached out to FishWise, a non-profit in Santa Cruz that provides expertise on seafood sustainability about starting an eco-friendly sushi restaurant. They responded that they had been waiting for just this sort of phone call. They told him the term they used was “sustainable” seafood and they worked together to form a sustainability statement. David opened Geisha Japanese Restaurant and Tea House in Capitola in 2011 – it was the first sustainable sushi restaurant in the county, and is still one of the few in the nation. The reason there aren’t more sustainable sushi restaurants, David believes, is mostly due to economics.
Sustainable seafood often costs more than unsustainable, and according to David, profit margins are tight in the sushi business. “The best scenario would be if everything we sold came from the Monterey Bay. Unfortunately, that’s just not possible cost-wise.” Though, they do offer albacore tuna on their menu when it’s in season, which is caught with hook-and-line and swims right offshore of Santa Cruz in late summer, early autumn. “This replaces bluefin tuna in our shiro maguro. It’s delicious and our customers love it.” He also serves local blackcod in nigiri and purchases abalone from nearby aquaculture farms. Though he has found it to be challenging to source local wild fish directly from fishermen in Santa Cruz. “We have to buy really fresh fish, so we purchase in small orders, often too small to make it worth it to fishermen,” he explained. “I’d really like one day to have a cooperative of sushi bars in Santa Cruz that get together buy local seafood.” His other dream is that his consumers develop a fondness for Iwashi, or marinated sardines. “These are low on the food chain and delicious,” he said. “In Japan, they’re a delicacy. Here, they are still considered just bycatch.”