Chef Nuria Miguel

Kyoto Calling – Nuria Morell of Nozomi Sushi Bar

Some of my favorite stories involve people making big life decisions while drinking.  For most, it’s just a matter of big statements that lead to no real action; the only tangible outcome being the hours of subsequent, entertaining ridicule by those who were present.  But for some, a bold decision over a cocktail or two can turn dreams into reality, changing their lives forever.  That’s just what happened a decade ago to Nuria Morell and her husband José Miguel, both young, successful lawyers, while they were ringing in the New Year over “several bottles of champagne.”   The sushi that Nuria had made for their dinner party was so good that their friends suggested they start their own sushi restaurant.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Tuna rolls

Tuna rolls at Nozomi Sushi Bar

But before we can understand how one leaves behind a lucrative and stable legal career to chase their dream of becoming a chef, we must first understand, why sushi?  This is a bold course of study, that few non-Japanese cooks dare venture.  Learning how to properly make rice, slice fish, and roll sushi can take years of practice, and is considered a high art form in Japan.  But for Spanish born Nuria Morell, it seems that there was never any other option.

“20 years ago, I tried sushi for the first time and it blew my mind,” she says.  “I didn’t know anything about it, so I tried it all.”  After that first bite , Nuria was sold.  She had to eat it every week.  When she and José were on their honeymoon, they spent 4 nights in New York City and as Jose recalls, “every single night ate sushi, at the same restaurant.”

“20 years ago, I tried sushi for the first time and it blew my mind”

But simply eating sushi was not enough.  Soon Nuria started reading books and began learning how to make it herself.  And eventually, she got good.  Really good.

And that’s what leads us to that fateful night, when a group of friends, all well paid, successful professionals, decided to start a sushi restaurant.  A decision that led to the opening of Valencia’s famed Sushi Home just a few months later.

Salmon and Tuna sushi

The basics: Salmon and Tuna Nigiri

Sushi Home was begun as more of a pet project than a hopeful enterprise.   Its foundation for greatness, however, was laid early on.  On a business trip in Madrid, José and Nuria were invited to dinner at the famed Kabuki, the first Japanese restaurant in Spain to earn a Michelin star.  To their surprise, another dinner guest at the table, not only introduced them to famous sushi chef, Mario Rayan, but shared with him that the couple were starting their own restaurant.  It was a chance of fate that led to an intense apprenticeship for Nuria, in which she worked side by side with Rayan for almost an entire month.  As José recalls, “Nuria trained with Mario from 9am to 1am every day…he was like a big brother.”

After opening, Sushi Home enjoyed a steady climb to success.  What started as delivery service only, soon evolved into a tiny, and very popular restaurant, in the Barrio del Carmen.  At the time they were one of only three restaurants in Valencia serving Japanese food.  It was grueling work, as both José and Nuria still kept their day jobs as lawyers.

Then, in 2009, Nuria realized it was time for a change.  Not only was the stress of trying to run two businesses too much, but more importantly, she was changing as a person.  She had realized that what she wanted as a lifestyle, she could not attain while working at her legal firm.  She approached José and told him that she wanted to quit practicing law, and give Sushi Home her full attention.  José was supportive, but can’t deny he was a bit nervous.  Sushi Home was growing, but not yet profitable.  “Wow, okay…” he assured her, “Keep calm…I’ll keep on going (as a lawyer)…(you) go for it.”

Mackerel Nigiri

Mackerel Nigiri

As a result, Sushi Home took off and the couples’ commitment to honest, authentic Japanese cuisine only grew stronger.  Nuria spent more time with Mario Rayan, sharpening her skills, this time at Madrid’s Kabuki and she and José began taking trips to Japan at least once a year, to study the culture and restaurant scene.  “For us the most important thing is to meet people, to understand how they live, how they eat…to understand the essence of the origin of sushi.”

“For us the most important thing is to meet people, to understand how they live, how they eat…to understand the essence of the origin of sushi.”

You could say that things were going swimmingly.  But as often is the case, the couple was not completely satisfied.  Unbeknownst to their dedicated customers, they were ready to open a bigger, better location.  In August of 2014 Nuria and José announced they would close Sushi Home at the end of the year.  News spread like wildfire, and from the very next day, the restaurant stayed completely booked every single night, until they officially shut their doors, on December 28th, 2014.

Luckily, for Valencia sushi lovers, the couple did not waste much time.  Renovations for their new project had already begun a year before.  Nuria and José tapped design firm Masquespacio for the overhaul of the space in Ruzafa; a decision that helped capture their inspiration from the ancient backstreets of Kyoto’s geisha district, Gion.  Then in January of 2015, from the ashes of its former self, arose the highly anticipated, Nozomi Sushi Bar.  

Perhaps more Tokyo chic than Kyoto charm, it’s symmetrical lines of blonde wood, concrete walls and floor, ample glass, and origami studded ceiling were magazine ready; which was a good thing, since the space itself was awarded one of the top 10 most beautiful restaurants in Europe almost immediately after opening.

Nozomi_Ceiling

View from above, Nozomi Sushi Bar

While the change took some getting used to for José and Nuria, their loyal customers apparently didn’t notice.  The new space has stayed full since their opening, and shows no signs of slowing down.  In its first year, it was named Valencia’s Restaurant of Year by La Cadena de Ondas Populares Españolas (COPE).   Today, if you want a table during the week or on Sunday, you’ll need to call at least a week in advance.  For weekend reservations, the current wait time is about 2 months.

“When I’m making sushi, I get transported to another world.”

Step into Nozomi today and you will find Nuria Morell at center stage, behind the sushi bar, leading her kitchen in complete silence.  True to Japanese form, she and her staff work harmoniously, like a well choreographed ballet, churning out sashimi, nigiri, maki and other umami laden works of art.   At a distance, it appears to be all business.  But if you happen to catch Nuria’s eye, she will likely return a smile; a genuine sign that she has found her place, no longer carrying the burden of the wrong career.  As she says, “When I’m making sushi, I get transported to another world.”  And for this we are grateful.  For this is exactly the experience she and Jose have managed to create with the temple they call Nozomi.

Tuna Tartare

Tuna Tartare

 

To read more about Nozomi Sushi Bar, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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