Shinsei sushi chef Shuji Sugawara is known as something of a cult icon. This rockabilly rides a vintage motorcycle while donning a “wind-proof” pompadour. His tresses mirror those of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’: jet black, bushy sideburns, ducktail and all. As a result, neighbors have affectionately dubbed him “Elvis” — and in fact, Shinsei co-owner Tracy Rathbun has honored him with his own entrée, the “Elvis Mack Sashimi”.
I understand you moved here from Japan. Did you come here with the intention of becoming a sushi chef?
I moved to the U.S. in 1990 and studied English at the University of North Texas. I got a job serving food at the dorm cafeteria. I was the only Japanese guy there. That’s how I picked up my English.
So how’d you go from working in a dorm cafeteria to a topnotch restaurant?
I started with restaurant prep work, I did not go to culinary school — only training on the job. I started at Nakamoto Japanese restaurant in Plano, training under master sushi chef Soda Takashi, who is now owner of Sushi Sake in Richardson.
I hear they’ve dubbed you “Elvis”, due to your pompadour hairstyle. When did that rockabilly influence happen?
During the summer of 1985 in Japan, an American ’50s movement happened when people started listening to oldies music. There was this rockabilly clothing shop in Japan, which I always went to as a teenager. My style has been the same since I left Japan.
So when you moved from Japan you already had the Elvis look. When did you get the nickname?
The customers in America started calling me “Elvis” when I first started working as a chef about 17 years ago — I guess it’s easier for people to remember since sushi chefs don’t wear nametags. I suppose it’s an inevitable thing because of my hair.
How do you feel about being called “Elvis”? Are you a fan of his music?
I’m a fan of Elvis’ early years, when he was in the Army and a three-piece band. My favorite Elvis song is “That’s All Right, Mama.” I don’t dance, or sing, or play guitar — but I like being called “Elvis”.
And have you made the trek to Graceland?
I visited Graceland in the summer of 1991. It was on the anniversary of his death, so there was a memorial celebration. Lots of people complimented my hair. I was the only Asian Elvis there.
I hear you can be spotted around the neighborhood riding a motorcycle.
I own three motorcycles: a 1989 Harley, an ’82 Honda, and a ’69 Honda Israel. My dad and uncle both ride motorcycles, so I grew up around them. They used to put me on the gas tank when I was a kid.
How long does it take to do your hair every morning?
It only takes 10 to 12 minutes to style my hair. Because I’ve worn it like this for a long time, it’s really easy to style. I just use hair gel. My hair is wind-proof; I’ve never had any bad hair days.