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Sustenance and survival: the story of Yamazushi

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Printed at the top of the menu at Yamazushi are the words: "Ichigo ichie. Treasure every encounter for it may never recur."

It is a saying that deeply resonates with George Yamazawa and his wife, Mayumi.

From 1986 until 2010, the couple operated Yamazushi, in Durham's Woodcroft shopping center, as a typical sushi joint familiar to American palates. The restaurant was successful: It allowed the Yamazawas to put two children through college, and it helped a number of aspiring Japanese chefs find a stable life in America in its narrow kitchen; many eventually opened their own restaurants.

But the couple made a bold move three years ago, eliminating the original menu, hours of operation and even seating capacity to offer a very traditional option: kaiseki.

Kaiseki is considered the highest level of Japanese fine dining and hospitality, rooted in a deep spiritual tradition. Written with two Japanese characters, one version of the word kaiseki translates to "belly stone." Zen Buddhist monks carried a warm stone in the crease of their robe, right at the fabric that wrapped around the belly and continued over the shoulder. The warmth comforted them during long fasts.

The Yamazawas' approach to the kaiseki tradition is guided by their own celebratory approach to life.

George wears a black chef's coat, its boxy collar pressed flat against his slight frame, giving his quiet persona an aura of commanding, peaceful stillness.

In June 2002, at age 51, George was diagnosed with leukemia. Six months later, he received a bone marrow transplant that saved his life.

He returned to the kitchen a year later, as did his energy, in full force. He focused his spare time on helping others cope with cancer.

But in the kitchen, George felt the gaudy interpretation of his authentic cuisine didn't align with his values. And, he says, it was a disservice to the public. His newfound appreciation for life left him with a desire for more profound cuisine.

George had always cooked to earn a living, starting at age 18 in the Japanese military. His first trip to the U.S. landed him in Florida. There he "did teppanyaki"— performing knife and fire tricks over a hibachi—"to get a green card," he says, chuckling.

More valuable was a short stint with his mentor, Mr. Morimura, in Osaka, Japan. The days were long, beginning at 5 a.m. and ending at 1 the next morning. But there, as a 30-year-old who was finally serious about cooking, George learned the artistry of fresh nigiri, the patience to prepare perfect rice and the dedication and desire of a chef.

"You cannot learn from cooking school, especially Japanese food. No recipe. Use your tongue," he says, pointing. "Watch. Then learn."

George thought about this a lot as he recovered from the transplant. But three years ago, the cancer returned. It was in his tongue.

Doctors performed two surgeries, carving out a 1-inch piece of flesh from the right side. They told George he would never be able to speak—or taste—again.

"It felt like a death sentence," he recalls. "I'm a chef."

The doctors were wrong.

This spurred the Yamazawas to persist in their dream to honor the complex culinary foodways of Japan or, as Mayumi puts it, "the flavors and textures of home."

As such, a meal at Yamazushi is unrivaled by any other restaurant in the area. There is no comparison or competitor. And George can taste it.

"Now, I taste better than before, every tiny, tiny thing."

Yamazushi presents a grandiose eight-course tasting menu priced at $85 per person. It's an almost impossible notion to serve a largely unfamiliar cuisine at what is likely the most expensive restaurant in South Durham. But George's patient artistry and impeccable attention to detail is worth the splurge.

Only 10 people are seated each night.

"I don't want to do a sloppy job," he says.

Reservations are highly recommended. With them comes a follow-up phone call, usually by Mayumi, to ensure that all diet specifications are met.

"The essence of kaiseki is the heart of hospitality, to treat your guests with the utmost respect and preparation," Mayumi says.

George and Mayumi giggle as they speak about their strategy at work. Mayumi runs the floor, reporting back to George so he can get the pacing right for each customer.

"I'd like to know, are they are a young couple in love, holding hands and getting lost?" he says. "Or are they, you know, older like us. With their heads in their iPhones."

Hilary Ragin, a longtime barista, heard about Yamazushi from her coworker at Scratch Baking, chef Stuart Hancher. "In a conversation about the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, [Hancher] brought up Yamazushi as the closest thing Durham had," she says. "It's a completely unexpected venue for amazing, delicately crafted food."

In the kitchen, George does not have the global reach that Jiro commands. But he is quickly enchanting an audience that can finally appreciate his work. He tied with Oakleaf in Pittsboro as The News & Observer's Best Restaurant of 2012.

"There are descriptions on the menu, but until the plate is in front of you, there's this element of suspense at how all of these seemingly simple flavors are going to come together," Ragin says. "And even then, one of the most enjoyable things for me was being guided on how to best experience the food, rather than consume it."

Everything on the table, except for the linens and silverware, is handmade: the restaurant boasts more than 250 pieces of pottery crafted by George. Chopstick rests come in various earth tones, the dip in the surface smoothed by George's fingertips.

A collection of small sake cups, 1 to 2 inches tall, and carafes with different diameters give sake new life. Placemats are artistic pottery, too, as is every plate, bowl and accompanying utensil, such as a clay soup spoon fastened to a bamboo handle.

A kaiseki dinner at Yamazushi can last as long as three hours. The experience is designed to focus your concentration on every morsel using all five senses.

An orange rose in a vase matches the bright-orange sea urchin presented during the raw course. That soft dollop, foreign to most American palates, pops a numbing, fragrant flavor as it hits the tongue. Mayumi serves this dish and advises to put the wasabi on the fish, not the soy sauce. Wrap the salmon in the shiso mint leaf for a crisp complement. Pay attention to the bonito fish's fin, which is sweeter.

Additional courses demonstrate George's deft craftsmanship with crisp soft-shell crab, a charred fin over a velvety piece of cod, sweet eggplant, homemade creamy tofu and a hot pot. Notes of plum, bonito stock, black sesame and ginger dance through the meal.

The Yamazawas have begun to buy ingredients from Jason and Haruka Oatis at Edible Earthscapes, a local farm and one of the first in the region to grow rice. George sources seafood from Maine, North Carolina and directly from Japan through a New York supplier. He says the whole fish comes via FedEx straight from his home country. He processes it all himself, but he is becoming more spiritual as he does. Soon, he says, Yamazushi will be all-vegan.

"I've been living 35 years in the U.S.," George says. "Work and work just like everyone else, to make money in order to raise my family. But the situation is different than before. I don't have to worry about anything. It's not about money. I enjoy it every day."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Treasure the moment."

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