Photo by Tiffany Lam
Since its debut in November 2013, Sakanaya Restaurant has established a high standard for refined, authentic Japanese cuisine in CU. Offering hungry university students a wide variety of mouthwatering dishes, Sakanaya has thrived in the otherwise hostile Green Street environment. Unsurprisingly, the restaurant’s first-rate performance hinges on the work of its excellent sushi chefs, among them Ricky Mechelke.
buzz: What made you become interested in being a sushi chef, and how did you start learning to make sushi?
RM: Well, I started right after high school as a hibachi chef but, at the same time, the restaurant that I worked at had a sushi bar. At that point, I started learning how to make rolls from the sushi bar chef, while simultaneously working as a hibachi chef. Eventually, I thought that making sushi was a little bit more fun, so that’s why switched from being a hibachi chef to a sushi chef.
buzz: What brought you to Champaign?
RM: I used to work at a restaurant in Wisconsin, and one of the chefs there knew someone who worked over here. Eventually, he began working here and, later on Sakanaya needed more sushi chefs, so then the chef that I worked with in Wisconsin called me up and I came here to work. So, I guess that I was brought to Champaign about six months ago through a friend.
buzz: What would say is the most popular roll in Champaign-Urbana, as in which roll do you have to make most often?
RM: I would say that a lot of people like the OMG roll. We wrap it in tin foil, and it’s sent out on a plate that is set on fire. A lot of the kids like the fire, so a lot of those OMG rolls go out.
buzz: What is your personal favorite roll from Sakanaya and why?
RM: Hmm… That’s a hard question. I like the Gold Rush. It is one of the trickiest rolls to make; it’s actually kind of annoying to make, but you know…I enjoy the challenge. Plus, it’s actually sprinkled with real gold leaf.
buzz: Can you tell me about the best sushi you’ve ever eaten?
RM: Well, I took a trip to New York once, and I got the chance to eat at Morimoto’s restaurant. That was really great; my girlfriend and I ended up spending around $200 for the both of us. When we were there, we ordered some nigiri and then we also had a tuna tartar appetizer, which was also really good.
buzz: What do you like most about your job?
RM: I like the rush at the beginning. It kind of pumps me up. I like being busy because it’s better than just standing around and doing nothing. Usually around 5 p.m., the line here is pretty long, so that is exciting.
buzz: If you weren’t a sushi chef, what would you be?
RM: Well, prior to being a sushi chef, I was thinking about being a teacher. I actually took a semester at Marquette University for education. I wanted to be an English-as-a-second-language teacher.
buzz: If you had a signature roll named after you, what would be in it and why?
RM: Well, I like seared items. If I had a signature roll, I would probably include a lot of fresh foods. Also, I would probably add something citrusy along with something seared on top because making a good roll is about the texture and contrast between the various ingredients.
Sakanaya is located at 403 E. Green St. in Champaign.