Living

The chef of the Triangle's oldest Japanese restaurant serves the meal of a lifetime to 4 diners a night

Like the tragic part of a fairy tale, George Yamazawa was given his life, but robbed of his livelihood.

After his third bout with cancer, the chef and North Carolina sushi pioneer couldn't taste a thing. His hands could cut fish, his eyes could recognize beauty, his ears could hear the sound of his wife's voice.

But gone were salt and bitterness, sweet and savory, the pillars on which he had lived for decades. For months, nothing.

"I was so scared," George said,

Then one day, something slight and subtle — a flicker — returned to his taste buds. The flicker grew to flames and then to a fire that changed everything for George and his wife, Mayumi Yamazawa.

"It was a gradual process," he said. "But little by little (my taste) came back. The amazing thing is it became more alert and aware. I was able to use it again, and it was more robust than it had been before."

For 32 years, Yamazushi, the Triangle's oldest Japanese restaurant, has been in the same unassuming south Durham strip mall off Hope Valley Road.

But it's very different than the restaurant the Yamazawas first opened.

Yamazushi, like its chef, has been on a journey of discovery and refinement, from a conventional sushi restaurant to its present heights as one of the very few kaiseki meals in the South, a traditional and highly technical corner of Japanese cooking.

Every night, just four diners are served a carefully choreographed multi-course meal, prepared with a level of perfection and attention that can transport diners.

"In overcoming cancer, I had a profound appreciation for life, the importance of living in the moment," George Yamazawa said. "It changed my whole perspective towards life."

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The meal at Yamazushi aims at the ideal experience of omotenashi, which means all encompassing hospitality, with every movement in the dining room, every bite on the plate a piece of a larger intent. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Act I

George Yamazawa, 66, trained and apprenticed in Osaka, Japan, working a year without pay, simply observing his mentor. He and Mayumi, 60, met and married in Osaka and came to Durham in 1983. He worked first as a teppanyaki chef at Japanese hibachi steakhouse Kanki before they opened Yamazushi in 1986.

This was the age of Bull Durham in North Carolina, not a spectrum that included trays of raw fish to pick out at Whole Foods or the possibility of M Sushi or Sono, two acclaimed sushi restaurants in Durham and Raleigh, respectively.

"Sushi was not popular in 1986," George Yamazawa said. "People didn't want to try it. We had to give it away."

But eventually, diners discovered Yamazushi, though George Yamazawa said what he served was not his sushi ideal. It was more heavily sauced than he preferred, some rolls dotted with mayonnaise.

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Chef George Yamazawa hand-builds pottery for his Durham restaurant, Yamazushi, July 13, 2017. Yamazawa goes to painstaking lengths to ensure the guest's dining experience lives up to his standards at his kaiseki restaurant. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Yamazawa said he's grateful for that first act of Yamazushi. For more than 20 years, it provided for his family and helped raise his children.

But after leukemia and cancer, he said he wanted something new.

Act II

In 2010, he and Mayumi closed and remade Yamazushi into a kaiseki house, moving from a typical a la carte menu to set courses.

Kaiseki is a formal Japanese dinner going back centuries. At Yamazushi, the rigors of tradition and the exacting demands of an artistic vision converge. The meal takes two days to prepare and three hours to eat, culminating in something of an edible mandala for just four diners a night.

For George Yamazawa, the drive is control and expression. George prepares the meal, and Mayumi handles much of the business, taking reservations months in advance and acting as the lone server.

As they share their story one morning, the couple sits on the same side of a table draped in a pristine white tablecloth, Mayumi translating for her husband, the two sometimes pausing to negotiate his words.

"Listen," Mayumi says in English one time after a misunderstanding.

"Yes, ma'am," George returns, laughing.

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George, right, and Mayumi Yamazawa work on ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, with their teacher at their Durham restaurant June 26, 2017. The couple run Yamazushi, the oldest Japanese restaurant in Durham, which went from a conventional sushi restaurant to an eight-course kaiseki, the height of Japanese cuisine. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

George goes to painstaking lengths to ensure the experience lives up to his standards. He grows herbs and edible flowers to use in the meal. His preparations for dinner start the day before and begin in earnest early each morning. He learned how to make pottery so he could control not just what he served on the plates, but the plates themselves.

Once, a neon sign hung in the window blazing "Japanese Restaurant" out into the Woodcroft Shopping Center. Now the windows are shielded with paper, the dining room divided by bamboo, creating tiny nooks to disappear into the world created by George and Mayumi's meal.

The experience, though exquisite, initially found little support among the regulars Yamazushi had collected over the years.

"They told us we were crazy people," George Yamazawa said. "They just didn't want to come. Gradually, we lost all of our customers."

Over the years, the number of diners dropped as the number of courses and level of detail increased, going from three courses to five to eight as the number of diners dropped from 12 to 10 to six and finally to four.

The eight courses — for $110 a person — change with the seasons, focusing on seafood and vegetables, following a set progression: an appetizer, sashimi, a dish of the season, a fried dish, a grilled dish, a soup dish, a rice dish and dessert.

The meal aims at the ideal experience of omotenashi, which means all-encompassing hospitality, with every movement in the dining room, every bite on the plate a piece of a larger intent.

The progression symbolizes the Yamazawas clarifying a vision, refining their art and hospitality. They don't do it for glory or money, but simply to share something special with diners who are interested.

"It's the true sense of entertaining," Yamazawa said. "It's not only how it tastes, but how it looks. It's not just about filling up. It's not just about eating, it's a meal with a purpose."

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George Yamazawa holds a tea bowl after a tea ceremony lesson at his Durham restaurant, Yamazushi, July 10, 2017. This year, the Yamazawa's are opening up the kaiseki restaurant a little more and offering classes in traditional tea ceremony, an intricate and subtle dance of tradition and tea-making. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Act III

Perhaps the only unintentional or uncontrollable thing about Yamazushi is where it sits today, a postage stamp of tranquility and peace next door to a dog grooming salon and across the way from a Food Lion, situated amidst the trappings of everyday life as something extraordinary.

George Yamazawa's dream is to take this experience that final step further, to one day purchase a small piece of land in Durham and build a farm, growing all the vegetables for the meal — his own farm to table.

For now, he's building a tea room inside the restaurant this year that will eventually host tea ceremony classes by a trained teacher.

Until then, he continues to focus on the day at hand.

"The spirit of the artist exists within themselves," Yamazawa said. "My focus is on doing the best I can to offer the cuisine I'm capable of offering."

Details

Yamazushi is at 4711 Hope Valley Road #6A, Durham. For information and reservations, call 919-493-7748 or go to yamazushirestaurant.com.

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