When you picture a sushi chef from Japan coming to the United States to seek opportunity, Minnesota – and specifically Chanhassen – doesn’t necessarily seem like the most logical place for that chef to end up. But that’s what happened to Kai Tho, owner and chef at Chanhassen’s Kai’s Sushi, and he couldn’t be more pleased about it.
Not that it didn’t take him some time to wind his way into the Midwest. He left Japan when he was just 19 years old. His destination? “New York—the land of opportunity,” Tho says, laughing.
It turned out to be a good starting place. He wanted to get into sushi restaurants, doing work similar to what he’d done in Japan, and ended up working in New York sushi restaurants for almost 10 years before moving first to Pennsylvania, then to New Jersey, and finally to Las Vegas, working his way up from the bottom of the line to chef.
What did he cook during all that time? “Sushi, sushi, sushi!” he says. His passion for sushi has never dissipated, and his favorite versions include salmon.
So what brought him to Chanhassen, after roaming from coast to coast? “Location, location and a nice population,” he says.
By this time he was married with a young daughter (whom he affectionately refers to as “the troublemaker”), and he and his wife were looking for a home and a place of business. “We wanted an opportunity for education for our daughter,” Tho says. “We wanted to find a place to live and work where there were people like us—young, a family, a place that was affordable, a place with good schools.”
Chanhassen turned out to fit the bill in every way. “It’s such a good area,” Tho says. “It’s a good community with nice neighborhoods, nice neighbors, friendly people.”
And, as it turns out, a community with people who like sushi and are more than happy to embrace a sushi restaurant. “We’re growing and growing and growing,” he says.
Kai’s Sushi opened in Chanhassen in October 2012, and within two years he needed to expand, opening up the restaurant and adding on the space next door. When asked what’s made his restaurant a success, he has several answers.
“Our space is convenient,” he says. “People can just park and walk right in, sit down, or pick up takeout. That’s why we had to expand—we had people standing in line outside. That’s not good in winter. We needed room for them to sit or wait inside.”
But when it comes to sushi, it takes more than convenience. People are eating raw fish, after all, so there’s another factor: trust. “We make Kai’s so people trust us,” Tho says. “Our employees trust us, our customers trust us. We keep the quality consistent, always use the freshest fish.”
As chef, Tho has several years of experience to help him gauge the quality of his ingredients and find the freshest. He sees that experience mirrored in his customers’ faces: “I like to see the customer, when they have fresh, good food. They have very satisfied, happy faces. That’s the best part of my work, seeing those faces. Sometimes they even close their eyes, they’re so happy. And they keep coming.”
Tho feels that he has developed a niche that works well in Chanhassen. “I’m doing a neighborhood business,” he says. “I’m not doing high-end gourmet, but I’m also not doing the cheaper route. I’m doing the good quality right in the middle. People can afford to come multiple times a week and know they’re getting quality sushi. People think, ‘When you want sushi, go to Kai’s.’”
The problem with going high-end, he says, is that business is a roller coaster. “It’s always up and down, so many factors. With the middle, it’s more stable.”
Sushi is not all that’s served at Kai’s, though it’s his favorite part. “I also serve very traditional Japanese food,” he says. “These are all dishes I created at home.”
Those dishes include teriyaki, tempura, hibachi and noodle dishes, as well as bento box lunches.
Tho continues to run the kitchen, heading up the cooking every day, even though he now has several sous chefs. His family visits him daily, including the “troublemaker” who has a second home in the restaurant. Does he ever think about taking days off? “I do, but no matter what, wherever you go, your heart is still in the restaurant,” he says. “You’re thinking all the time about it, wondering what’s happening, if everything is OK. I might as well be here.”
But that’s not to say he wouldn’t consider adding a second location, even knowing he can’t be in two places at one time. “I do think about expanding,” he says. “I’ve done some research, have some ideas.”
He declines to share any specifics; for now, those ideas stay in his head. And for now, he’s happy and content putting out his sushi and traditional Japanese meals for his neighbors and community. “I really like this area, this community,” he says. “I can keep doing my restaurant, take care of my daughter, my family. We live a simple life, and it’s a good one.”
(Chef Tho’s favorite sushi rolls typically include salmon, like this Zesty Salmon roll, which features salmon and jalapenos.)