"The Future of Sushi? Fish-Free and 100% Vegan," Chef Erik Aplin's Vision

Alessandra Meldolesi
copertina sushi vegano erik aplin

It's not your typical sushi at Erik Aplin's Chīsai in Bernal Heights, San Francisco. Since its opening in 2021, the restaurant offers an entirely vegan omakase that is creative, sustainable, and less expensive, yet it appeals to only 5% of the clientele.

Photo Credits:  Marc Fiorito, Gamma Nine Photography

The News

In 2021, fourth-generation Japanese-American chef Erik Aplin embarked on a unique culinary venture with the opening of his unusual sushi restaurant. His mission was clear: to introduce a vegan option to the sushi scene. This innovative approach addressed a growing trend but, as Aplin soon discovered, required significant effort. Replacing a succulent slice of tuna with a carefully crafted tomato is no small feat, especially when the sequence includes 13 tastings.

erik aplin

Up until then, Aplin had handled tons of fish at top sushi establishments in Los Angeles, initially in traditional Japanese style, later blending it with American culinary touches, and hints of Indian and Italian cuisines. However, it was common for vegetarian customers at the sushi counter to face the sushi masters' disapproval, who would reluctantly serve cucumber and avocado rolls while shaking their heads. “Each time they thought: why did they even come here? We then had to think about what to serve, usually just an avocado roll. When I opened Chīsai, I saw the chance to be creative and attract new customers,” he shares with The San Francisco Standard.

erik aplin sushi vegano carota pomodoro e avocado

Aplin's motives aren't just artistic or commercial. “Ninety percent of global fish populations are currently fished at their sustainability limit or beyond,” he asserts. Meanwhile, the plant kingdom, posing no such threats, offers endless creative possibilities. For instance, consider leek on rice, cooked confit style, topped with faux caviar made from summer cypress seeds and umami-driven black truffle pâté. But that's just one example of how, with the right treatment, vegetables can emulate the finest fish.

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erik aplin sushi vegano

Then there's the matter of economic sustainability. “Since I started working in sushi restaurants in 2006, prices have shot up by 200%.” Nevertheless, Alpin hasn't done away with tuna belly and salmon fillets; in fact, the vegan option, priced at $70, is chosen by only 5% of guests, while 95% opt for the traditional $95 omakase. “My goal, however, is to incorporate vegan tastings into the fish course and to have people excited and aware that they are receiving quality.”

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