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Sushi Chef back home in Nyack
Leigh Flayton

For nearly a decade, chef-restaurateur Masao “Umi” Umezaki tried to get back home.

No, not to the place of his birth, Okawa, a fishing community in Japan, but to Nyack, where he spent his early years in the United States and became a renowned sushi chef – much to his father’s chargrin. (Umi’s father wanted him to go into plumbing, the family business, but his brother took over instead.)

An admirer of 11th-century Japanese literature, Umi’s culinary odyssey could be a modern-day plotline of one of its heroes, and like most classic tales, his adventure worked out in the end. Last fall, after eight years of searching for a space, he opened his new restaurant Murasaki, which he named for the ancient author. The word murasaki means purple wisteria blossom in the Japanese language, and its slang for soy sauce.

“I like Nyack”, he says “I missed Nyack. It’s a very impressive town for me.”

Umi lives in Pearl River, but his love affair with Nyack began nearly a quarter-century ago. After studying mechanical engineering in Tokyo, where he worked as a “Sushi helper” to earn money for college. He originally came to the U.S. to vacation, but he ended up loving it and stayed as a ski bum in the Rockies. His experience in making sushi turned out to be a good way to keep his lifestyle going, but eventually, he became a full-time chef and skied in his spare time. In the mid-1980s, he moved to Nyack and honed his skills at the village’s first sushi restaurant, Ichi Riki, before branching out on his own.

“I do it my way,” he says. “That’s it.”

Umi named his first Nyack eatery Toshiko for his wife before relocating to Orangeburg, where he opened Hikaru, so named for the hero known as “Shining Prince”—a charming ladies man—in a Murasaki story. Umi enjoys sharing the ledend with visitors to his new restaurant, which is just a few storefronts from the former site of Ichi Riki, now Wasabi, another local sushi restaurant.

Umi says he doesn’t mind the competition, though.

“There is more business opportunity in Nyack,” he says. “Room for many more sushi restaurants.”

And, in a fitting twist in his ever-unfolding story, a new generation
provides grist for the literary mill. Umi’s 20-year-old daughter
is following in her father’s footsteps. Not as a sushi chef, at least
for the time being, but as a college student,
studying—yup—mechanical engineering.