Meet Pearl Steffie, Chef-Owner at Kusaki, LA’s First Vegan Omakase Restaurant

Sushi has been a hit with Americans since the 1970s, and the market is still going strong. In fact, according to the market research platform IbisWorld, there are more than 16,500 sushi restaurants in the US right now. Most of these serve the expected seafood classics, but the vegan sushi market is also on the up. More brands and eateries are proving that the traditional flavors and cooking techniques associated with sushi can be recreated with plant-based ingredients, like cucumber, avocado, carrot, mushrooms, tofu, and so much more.

The sushi capital of the US is, without a doubt, Los Angeles. It makes sense—the city was the first in the country to sell sushi in the 1960s, and its popularity spread from there. Today, you can find an abundance of vegan sushi options in LA. But one new restaurant is doing things differently. Kusaki, located in West LA, offers an innovative, plant-based twist on omakase, a form of Japanese dining experience where chefs create a customized menu for guests based on their preferences and seasonal ingredients.

Matt Herter

Kusaki hasn’t been open very long, but it has already had a tumultuous journey. It first opened in January 2023 but was forced to close its doors in August. In December, however, much to the relief of many, it reopened. And it’s better than ever. In Japanese, “omakase” means “I’ll leave it up to you” or “trust the chef,” and we suggest that you do just that. To convince you even more, below, you can find our chat with the restaurant’s pioneering chef and owner, Pearl Steffie.

VegNews.pearlsteffiekusaki.kusakiKusaki/@_tonybello

VegNews: Hi Pearl! Since its reopening, Kusaki seems to be going from strength to strength. But going back to the beginning, what first inspired you to create this plant-based omakase experience?

Pearl Steffie: I’ve been a chef for almost 12 years, and throughout my culinary journey, I’ve learned about various cuisines and techniques. However, one realm I hadn’t explored was plant-based cuisine. I was driven by my passion for challenges and a desire to continually evolve. Venturing into the realm of plant-based cooking has truly put my skills to the test. This transition has not only sparked creativity but has also pushed me to step outside my comfort zone, fostering growth and innovation in my expertise.

VN: Japanese cuisine is popular across the US right now, but sushi, in particular, is a favorite for so many Americans. What makes your vegan offering stand out from the crowd?

PS: Our commitment to culinary excellence is reflected in our meticulous approach to crafting each dish from scratch. From the vibrant sauces to the flavorful dressings, we use only the finest and freshest ingredients. What sets our food apart and makes it special is the dedicated effort we put into saucing and dressing every piece of sushi. For example, we use sake, shiitake mushrooms, konbu, and brown sugar to make our own house soy sauce. Our burgers are wonderfully enhanced by our aioli and sauces—we blister shishito peppers, deglaze with rice vinegar, and finish with ponzu sauce, salt, and pepper.

VegNews.KusakiKusaki

VN: Can you tell us a little more about the unique and creative ways you use plant-based ingredients at Kusaki?

PS: Beyond our commitment to authenticity, we pride ourselves on innovation. We use a pea-based tuna that mirrors the taste and texture of traditional tuna and our Enoki Nigiri is a stunning play on flavors and textures where mushrooms stand in for squid. Our salmon, skillfully crafted from a blend of seaweed and tapioca starch, boasts a striking resemblance in both appearance and texture to its fish counterpart. The result is so convincing that you’ll find it challenging to discern any difference between our plant-based creation and traditional salmon.

VN: How do you ensure that your vegan sushi omakase appeals to everyone—from vegans to flexitarians to omnivores?

PS: Our focus is on the creation of exceptional food that happens to be crafted without the use of animal products. I’ve been able to draw from my background as a chef trained in authentic Japanese sushi to transform plant-based ingredients into a genuine Japanese sushi experience, recreating the same flavors and meeting the expectations one has when enjoying traditional sushi made from fish.

“At Kusaki, we believe that a memorable dining experience extends beyond the plate. We strive to cultivate a genuine connection with our customers, taking the time to interact and getting to know their tastes. This personal touch allows us to anticipate and accommodate their preferences and needs upon their return, ensuring that their visit is not just a meal but a personalized and gratifying culinary journey.”

VN: Kusaki is a jewel in LA’s thriving plant-based dining scene, there’s no doubt. What has the response been like from customers so far?

PS: Kusaki has been receiving overwhelming praise from our patrons—they describe their experience as nothing short of exceptional. The consensus is that every dish is not only mind-blowing but also a symphony of flavors that captivate the senses. Interestingly, we’ve welcomed many non-vegan customers who were pleasantly surprised to discover that our restaurant is 100 percent plant-based, yet they couldn’t discern any difference in taste.

VegNews.kusakishushi.kusakiKusaki

VN: Before we go, could you share your own favorite dish from the Kusaki menu?

PS: Executive Chef Dillon Bolin’s creation, the Watermelon Granita Nigiri, stands out as one of the most popular items on our menu. This unique dish is a flavor explosion, achieved by baking the watermelon, marinating it in ponzu and sesame oil, and finishing it with yuzu granita and a delicate shiso leaf. The inspiration behind this dish stems from the desire to deliver a refreshing and invigorating nigiri experience. It’s reminiscent of enjoying a cool bite on a warm California summer’s day.

Kusaki is open now. Find out more about the vegan restaurant here.

For more on vegan sushi, read: