With more than two decades of top-tier sushi experience under her belt, you might say Michelle Carpenter is on a roll. As executive chef and owner of Zen Sushi, the latest addition to the Bishop Arts District dining scene, she’s melding traditional sushi techniques with southwestern flavors — and her out-of-the-bento-box combinations are hooking CliffDwellers with a yen for exotic flavor.
When Carpenter opened Zen Sushi in July, the naysayers were lining the streets. “A lot of people doubted us,” she chuckles. “Sushi south of the Trinity? It’ll never happen. Then we opened our doors and we were packed, night after night.” Is Carpenter surprised by Zen’s early traction? “Not at all,” she says, smiling. “People like good food. They like flavor. And people in Oak Cliff are no different.”
Maybe not, but in a section of Dallas famous for its tamales and barbacoa, Carpenter – whose mother is from Japan and father is from Louisiana — might be the only sushi chef in America with the right stuff to make wasabi and sashimi stick in the local lexicon. “People love their traditional spice, so you really have to take into account the regional tastes,” she asserts. “Cilantro. Lime. Jalapeño. Those are strong local flavors – but they work well with the traditional elements of sushi.”
A Man’s World?
Carpenter’s iconoclastic approach to the art of sushi may start with the fact that she’s a woman in what is almost exclusively a man’s world. “Yeah, it was tough at first,” she allows. “Being a woman in sushi, it’s a hard thing. All of the classically-trained sushi chefs I trained with are Japanese men, and it was a challenge to break through.”
It was a journey she began, improbably, in San Antonio and her training has taken her from Texas to San Diego, from Narezushi to Edo-styled sushi, from purist to innovator. “I realized early on that, as much as I needed the training, I wanted to take it to a different place,” she recalls.
“Every place I worked there were three or four classically trained Japanese chefs that didn’t speak any English — and I learned a lot. Over the years, I learned 10 or 15 different styles, and I’ve incorporated something from all of them into my own style. It was the best possible way to learn this business.”
After two decades of traditional sushi, Carpenter was ready to strike out on her own. “I knew I needed to modernize Japanese food in my own way,” she explains. “If you take a look at most Japanese menus, they’re the same. I wanted to update within the context of classical traditions. It’s that moment of creation that I love.”
Keep it Simple, Sushi
Much as Carpenter is forging her own style of sushi, she’s reverential about some of the basics of her traditional training, chief among them, Japanese cuisine’s single-minded celebration of culinary simplicity. “There’s a trend among chefs today to dump every trick they have into a dish,” she bemoans. “They throw in 35 ingredients, and they think that’s what makes something special.
“It doesn’t. To me, simple is special. Like our name, Zen. I didn’t just pull that name out of thin air — it’s really my philosophy. Adding more stuff? That drives me crazy.”
Carpenter credits her success in crafting innovative sushi with this almost religious insistence on culinary streamlining. “You can be creative, yes, but you still have to follow some basic rules,” she explains. “There’s a reason some of the traditional guidelines have lasted thousands of years, and it’s because certain things really do not mix.”
Watch her in action behind the bar at Zen, and you can see every minute of her 20 years in sushi in motion, creating her signature Zen rolls or crafting a custom menu for a client that uses every part of the fish. “We make it look easy, but it’s really not,” she explains. “It eventually becomes part of the cell memory in your body.”
Given how traditional the world of sushi is, one wonders what Carpenter’s Japanese mother thinks about her daughter’s career choice. “She’s always been very supportive,” she says, then laughs, “although she may have wanted me to be an engineer.” Her mother visited Zen for the first time a few weeks ago. “She loved it!” she reports, happily.
Oshizushi Meets Oak Cliff
Cliff foodies are grateful that Carpenter followed a different path, and they let her know it every day. “The energy down here is fantastic,” she says. “Everyone I run into is so friendly, so supportive. It’s very, very nice. I love it here!”
Having said that, she acknowledges that Zen’s long-term success will depend on widespread community acceptance, something she believes will happen as word of mouth about the restaurant spreads, and as sushi neophytes come in and give her menu a chance. “Much as I believe in what we’re doing here, I’m fully aware that sushi is new to many people here in Dallas,” Carpenter says. “I want people to come in and try it and be happy, then tell three or four of their friends. Some people have some funny ideas about sushi, and that’s the way we’re going to change their minds.”
One of the first “funny ideas” she hopes to challenge is the notion that everything on her menu is raw. “We have tempura, we have yakisoba, we have rolls where the ingredients are cooked,” she explains. “We have vegetarian rolls and tofu for people who don’t eat meat or fish. We’ve designed the menu with a little something for everybody.”
She recommends that the uninitiated start with California rolls and other sushi created from cooked products, and then ask for recommendations from the chef. It’s rare, Carpenter says, that she encounters somebody unwilling to at least try even a little something new. “I just haven’t met anybody that reluctant,” she says. “I’ve had people tell me that they wouldn’t eat anything raw, and by the end of the meal I’ve been able to change their mind.”
Another goal? Teaching sushi fans the proper way to use wasabi. What’s that, you ask? Put a dab of wasabi in the dish first, add just enough soy to make a paste, then lightly dab the sushi, fish-side down, in the mixture. “A lot of people drown their sushi in soy,” she explains. Using her tips, “the fish maintains its integrity.”
Carpenter also proselytizes on the role of ginger. “The ginger is there to cleanse the palate,” she explains. “I see people pile it on and, when you do, you’re really just deadening your palate.”
And her top tip? “Trust your chef,” she urges. “Nothing makes me happier than when somebody comes in and says, ‘I’ve never had sushi before. Get me started. Educate me.’ And if you’re an experienced sushi fan, your best bet is still to go to your chef and say, ‘What’s the best stuff you have today?’ and that’s what you eat. Trust your chef.”
It’s good advice, if the experience of one lucky table of diners is anything to judge by. “I got a call from some people who know me and the way I work, and they told me they wanted something special,” she relates. “I was able to pick up a beautiful whole snapper, and I used every part of the snapper as part of their meal.
I prepared my version of ceviche, some sashimi, I fried the skeleton and used it as part of the presentation. They were delighted by that.”