Chef Macku Makes You Sushi

Wed. April 8, 2015 12:00 AM
by Jerry Nunn

Located in the heart of Lincoln Park right by Boystown is some of the best sushi in Chicago. Chef and owner Macku Chan has a strong vision of where he wants his business to go. He's opened several other Windy City restaurants in the past including Mirai Sushi, Heat and Kaze all around town.

This current excursion has made him his own boss and he's inspiring new concepts in cuisine.

Nunn talked to Chan about what it all means while sampling some yummy bites at the chef's counter.

JN: (Jerry Nunn) Thanks for the food, Chef. It is excellent.

MC: (Macku Chan) That is the difference between a chef and a cook. A cook plays around with food but when you become a chef you need to know the ingredients in everything. You need to know every single item in your mind and how they work together.

JN: Would you ever be on Bravo's Top Chef?

MC: You know what? I was nominated for Asian's Best Chef last year and they wanted me to go to audition but I didn't do it. Honestly I am not really into the show because I think it takes time to make good food. I am not into racing against the clock. I don't think I would be good at fast cooking like that so that is why I turned it away.

JN: What do you think of celebrity chefs?

MC: Oh yeah, like Girl and the Goat. I am questioning if it is packed because of the food or because of the name.

We have over five thousand Japanese restaurants in Chicago. We have that much but I am not sure if people are doing the right thing or the chefs really know what they are doing.

JN: There are over eight restaurants in Chicago I think in total.

MC: It is so crazy, especially high end sushi blew up the whole market. They open up thai restaurants all over the place and when they don't work they turn it into a sushi restaurant. They are everywhere now.

JN: A lot of sushi restaurants focus on rolls.

MC: Many chefs use spicy mayonnaise and sesame oil. That kills everything. If you eat it then all you taste is mayo. Personally I don't enjoy making a roll but if I am asked to make a special roll then I will make it.

A roll to me is American Japanese food.

JN: Where are you from?

MC: I'm Chinese. I moved to Japan to study with a master and lived there for awhile. I went back and forth until I stayed at my first restaurant in Chicago at Hatsuhana. I was there five years until I opened my very own first restaurant called Mirai Sushi on Division and Damen. It was a yuppie area so we catered to them with a live eel shooter that was still moving!

JN: They liked it?

MC: They loved it. After that I opened a restaurant called Heat. There was not a lot of support for this market in Chicago. It was people coming from out of town, from New York and California. When they wanted a California roll we sent them down the street. The fish from here were in the tank. People sat in the bar and the fish swam under the counter. You picked your own fish then it was fileted on the table still moving. It was still saying, "hi" to everybody!

JN: Sounds wild.

MC: The concept was serving things alive. We had giant king crab and seawater eel shipped live from Japan. I opened in a partnership and we had a little problem so we sold it. The next place we opened was Kaze in Roscoe Village. The week that we closed we were voted Best Sushi Restaurant in the Nation from Bon Appetit. We shut down again because of a partner.

We moved to Clybourn and opened Macku. There is no longer a partner. Now I opened this place. That is the whole story.

It is important to learn and a build a foundation to do anything crazy. It is like a designer and building a house. The same idea works with a chef. Each night we cut different fish. It is a different ballgame. From cutting to making rice, we have to know it. It is all from the traditional way of doing it. Every single thing we do is for a reason.

JN: Why do you give out hot towels?

MC: The reason is that some people don't know how to use chopsticks right. When you eat it that should be done with fingers. It is very important because you can ruin my 20 years of sushi making by eating it wrong.

You pick it up with your fingers, turn the fish upside down and dip it into the soy sauce, then enjoy it with your tongue and mouth. When it comes to sushi I strongly recommend it as a finger food, rolls you can use chopsticks.

It may look like we squeeze a lot with sushi but it is actually made very gently for making a shape. We use 250 to 300 pieces of rice to make a piece of sushi.

JN: Explain the sushi with toppings on the menu.

MC: It means everything that is already on a piece of fish. When me make the nigiri, fish with rice under it, we put the soy sauce on top of it. The diner can just pop it in their mouth without adding anything to it.

JN: Are other people doing this?

MC: No. People will copy it in Chicago, you know how it is. That was the first concept we had to push out into the Chicago market. That is our signature nigiri with topping.

People can order traditional sushi if they don't want the topping as well.

JN: The chef's counter seems like the perfect place to sit in the restaurant.

MC: Diners get the whole experience with fish in their face. You learn what fish you are eating. That is my goal to educate the customers. We learn as chefs so that is part of the process too.

JN: How long has Macku Signature been open?

MC: Just about six months.

JN: It was Erwin before?

MC: It was Erwin for 25 years. I was concerned when I first opened this place because Erwin was more comfort food. Our food is very different being sushi. Some people are worried about eating things raw. We have a ton of variety that is cooked food also. Sushi is not necessarily raw. We have cooked shrimp and smoked salmon.

JN: Did you pick the music for the restaurant?

MC: Yes, and the wine is all my selection too. I'm tasting wine everyday. Sake is the best way to go with the food, wine is good but I don't like beer. Beer brings the fishiness out of the sushi especially eel or mackerel.

If people ask for a dry sake it's not right, you want it as smooth as possible. It is made from polished rice and that makes it smooth. You take all of the white stuff out and get into the middle of the rice to make sake.

Warm sake is better than hot because hot sake kills the flavors.

JN: I'm learning so much sitting at this counter. Being in the gaybourhood do you want to be involved with the LGBT community and serve food at fundraisers?

MC: I definitely want to. People should come to me and I can donate to them. I have gone through a hard time in my life so I know what it's like to need help. My wife has cancer so I helped with that fundraising. She had it three years ago and now it hit again. Life can be hard.

JN: Possibly Chefs in the City with Vital Bridges would be a good cause for you to team up with next year.

MC: Definitely. Send me their information and I will help in any way I can.

Swim over to two locations with Macku, 2239 N. Clybourn Avenue and Macku Signature, 2925 N. Halsted Street with reservation information at