Taka Hirai was once homeless, eating ketchup to survive. Today he is one of New Jersey’s most respected sushi chefs
by Jessica Jones-Gorman • Photos By Robert Nuzzie
Taka Hirai was fresh out of college and working a corporate job in Tokyo when he decided to move to Los Angeles and make a fresh start. He had a backpack, $1,500 in his pocket, and zero knowledge of the English language, but he said goodbye to his family, boarded a plane, and departed Chikuho, a small coal mining village on Japan’s Kyushu Island.
He rented a cheap house, got a part-time job, and spent two years living in one of the LA’s small Japanese communities. “But I felt nothing had improved,” he said. “I was a college graduate and just scraping by. A friend told me I needed to move to a place where I couldn’t rely on the kindness of others.”
So, Hirai packed up what little he had and moved once again, this time to Miami.
“I was homeless there for months,” he said adding that he survived by eating Heinz Ketchup and sleeping on the beach. When he came upon a Japanese restaurant, however, the owners not only gave him food, but offered him a dishwashing job.
“Of course I took it, but I only washed dishes for one day,” Hirai said. “On my second day, the owner came into the kitchen and asked why I was doing the dishes. He asked me ‘Why not learn how to cook?’”
Hirai worked in the back of the kitchen, prepping dishes and soaking up every bit of knowledge he could, working from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. seven days a week, earning $40 a day.
“I realize now it wasn’t great, but after being homeless, I was happy,” he said.
In the wake of a staff shake-up, Hirai became head chef. “This wasn’t a small restaurant,” he said. “There was seating for 200 and we were in the center of Miami.” He worke dthere for another year before moving to Nantucket, Massachusetts, with Yoshi, one of the sous chefs.
Hirai wanted a challenge, so he requested to make sushi at the front of the restaurant. It was the only Japanese eatery on the island, so on most nights there was a packed dining room with a two-hour wait.
“I was working seven days a week just making sushi, and I was so happy,” he said. “I bought myself a 1987 Nissan Pathfinder because that was the same car that my boss in Miami drove. When I was broke, making $40 a day, I thought it was the best car you could own and I told myself one day I would buy one. Yoshi and I became good friends, and when the Massachusetts restaurant closed for the winter, we drove down to Miami in the Pathfinder.”
After visiting the restaurant where he got his start, Hirai was asked to fill in there, so he took back his job for the winter. During that short stint, he met New Jersey residents David Martocci and Bill Kessler.
“ They owned a catering company and were vacationing in Miami when they asked me to work for them,” Hirai said. “And that’s what I did when the winter was over.”
The chef immediately forged a family bond with Martocci and Kessler, the owners of Kessler’s Catering. “ They took me to Manhattan, brought me to Broadway shows…treated me like their son,” Hirai said. “They also sent me to NYU so I could study English, and flew my parents in from Japan because I hadn’t seen them in 10 years. They became more than just bosses; they became my family.”
Martocci and Kessler decided to open a Japanese restaurant. Launched in 2000 and transported to a larger space in 2014, Taka is now the go-to spot for sushi in Asbury Park.
“I still work seven days a week, but I really don’t mind it now,” Hirai laughed. “I have so many blessings in my life. It’s been a wonderful journey.
660 Cookman Avenue, Asbury Park / 732.775.1020 / takaasbury.com