Chef Ben Hsu Puts His Heart and Soul on the Plate

Posted by Kimberly Andrade +
Ben Hsu remembers building forts out of the empty cardboard boxes in the dry goods area of his parents’ restaurant. His parents gave him a big spoon so that he could “help” mix ingredients together in the kitchen.

“Restaurant life is the only way to live. My father taught me that,” said Hsu.

Hsu got his calling as a high school freshman. “I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. It’s not a job; it’s a lifestyle. You don’t choose to go into this industry; it chooses you.”  Even though he knew that “there’s an unbelievable amount of stress in this job, I love what I do. I can’t do anything else,” said Hsu.

Early Training
Despite growing up in a restaurant, Hsu said that culinary school taught him many important techniques, starting with knife skills. Being legally blind, Hsu relies on “muscle memory and repetitive motion” to chop and dice vegetables. Even so, “when I got out of culinary school into the real world, I quickly learned that I didn’t know anything,” he said.

Chef Hsu went on to work at a few American-contemporary style restaurants. Eventually, he made his way back to his family’s restaurant, where it all started. To this day, he works with his parents and brother at Sushi 86 in Cleveland, OH. “As a family, we work well. We have a very strong bond. It’s easier to say what you want with family. And when we argue, we let it go and move on.”

The Art of Sushi
The 60-seat restaurant “takes the concept of sushi and does it right. You have to do sushi properly and consistently every time.” When he’s behind the sushi bar, he’s constantly interacting with his customers. “Sushi has a certain mystique, and my goal is to educate my customers on what they are eating,” he said. In fact, Hsu even teaches classes on how to prepare sushi. “I love this style of food. It’s simple, yet intricate. Even after all this time, I still crave sushi,” he said.
Freshness is the name of the game at Sushi 86, and for that, ice and coolers are mandatory. Not to mention his two sushi knives, that he’s named Lucy and Julie. “Even my staff knows to call my knives by their names: Lucy and Julie,” said Hsu.

Praise and Passion
In this age of social media, it’s easy for customers to praise or pan a restaurant. “Everybody thinks they’re a food critic. But it’s important to take the comments—both positive and negative—as valuable feedback. Whenever I get a good review, I read it, think about it for a second and throw it away. Whenever I get a bad review, I read it, think about it for a second and throw it away,” he said.

Owning and operating a restaurant is filled with challenges. “In this business, we’re both Chefs and executives. In culinary school, they don’t teach you about HR or accounting. They don’t teach you how to attract and keep customers,” he said.