Jordan Trent Harris is a Michelin Man.
As executive sous chef at Sushi Ginza Onodera in Tokyo and New York, working alongside legendary master sushi chef Masaki Saito, he was a key part of the team that earned two Michelin stars. He also got a star as the chef de cuisine for New York’s acclaimed Aldea, the venerable Portuguese restaurant that closed at the beginning of the pandemic.
Born in Kentucky, which is a long way physically and psychically from Tokyo where he learned the magic arts of sushi and Japanese cuisine, Jordan has come full circle from his Southern upbringing to wind up back in the South. He will be the executive chef at Mujō, an upscale traditional Japanese restaurant in Atlanta, which opens this fall. Mujō means “impermanence” in Japanese and is a core tenet in Buddhist thinking, that whereas life appears to be a continuous flow, in fact it’s made up of uncountable acts of cause and effect. So, as restaurant names go, that’s pretty thoughtful.
Mujō—continuing the Buddhist theme—has already had several lives in Atlanta with Harris. It was first a pop-up restaurant, which shut down from the pandemic, and then it morphed into a takeout and delivery establishment, which also closed. Now, it will be reincarnated as a restaurant on 14th Street.
How did a kid from Kentucky wind up in Tokyo and become a sushi master, I ask?
“Well, I wouldn’t say that I am a master. I would say that I am still a student and always will be. Learning in this profession never stops. I was fortunate to work with great Japanese chefs, who wanted to share their culture and traditions with me.”
What correlation, I asked, is there between Southern food and culture and Japanese food and culture? To which he replied: “I think Southern and Japanese food both have an appreciation for simplicity and seasonality; great ingredients prepared without too much fuss at the peak of their flavor. Culturally, there is the idea of omotenashi in Japan, this kind of selfless, genuine hospitality that I think you see in the South as well.”
The secret to great sushi, as you may have heard by now, is not the fish but the rice. “Sushi literally means vinegared rice, so if you don’t learn how to make great rice, you can’t have great sushi.”
After sushi, his favorite foods are Sichuan Chinese and Spanish.
These are his five favorite meals!
I grew up in Kentucky and spent most of my time in the summer and fall as a kid running around in the hills surrounding Auxier, Kentucky, where my grandfather’s small farm was and my mother had grown up. Around 1995, I was staying in a small house with my uncle, right near the mouth of a holler [a small valley, so-called in the South]. A friend of my uncle’s brought over some venison from a deer he had shot bow hunting and my uncle was going to prepare it for dinner for a group of us, including some cousins and neighbors. After getting a fire going, he set a large cast iron pot (that I can only describe as looking like a witch’s cauldron) full of water to boil. He added the venison shoulder broken down into large fist sized chunks, a handful of spices and dry chili, some whole potatoes, halved ears of corn and squash. I still remember the smell of all those flavors coming together across the yard, carried on a waft of wood smoke. Every so often, he would stir the pot with a large stick, skim off the top and adjust the fire underneath to keep it a low heat, just under a boil. He must have cooked that stew for at least eight hours, as it was rapidly approaching dusk by the time he finished it by adding salt, black pepper, some chopped wild onions and thickened it a bit with acorn flour. I still remember the taste of that first bite, how I could really taste where we were at that moment, the simple purity of the ingredients, the wood smoke, even the life of the deer in subtle notes of all the grass, nuts and weeds it had eaten. That meal really informed my love for honesty and simplicity in cooking, and it was in large part this love that resonated with me when I began studying Japanese cooking. I had a sort of epiphanic moment realizing that even though some of the flavors were new, I recognized that feeling that the food gave me.
I had the great fortune while traveling in Thailand to be taken to a coconut farm by a friend of mine, Chin Chongtong (who now runs an excellent food tour business). This part of Thailand is often called the Venice of Asia, as so much of life and travel is done via boat down small canals. We arrived at the home of an old, widowed grandmother, still living on the family coconut farm. Most of her income came from the sale of coconuts and palm sugar. Having purchased some local seafood at the floating market, we set out around the farm to gather things we would need to prepare a meal. Coconuts we split and ground into shreds, then boiled to make fresh coconut milk. We gathered some herbs and eggplants and coconut buds. When it came time to do the cooking, it was clear who was in charge and our kun yaai (Thai for grandmother) took control of the show. I have to say, as a chef, as much as I love cooking, I love to sit back and let someone else who is a master get to work! Our seafood curry was a perfect blend of hot, sour, salty and sweet. Sharing this food and feeling the hospitality of the Thai people was truly an amazing moment.
My mother worked as a waitress for a number of years in a Chinese restaurant when I was growing up. Some of my earliest memories are of spending Saturday mornings and after-school evenings hanging out in the kitchen eating family meal with the cooks. When Chinese New Year came around, we would have a huge celebration dinner in the restaurant with the whole staff. Those are some of my earliest food memories, Cantonese and Taiwanese dishes intermixed with American Chinese food staples. I was fortunate to be able to spend some time in Beijing to learn about Chinese cooking shortly after the Olympics were held there. A friend took me to one of their favorite spots for lunch, a low-key spot with just a couple of tables and only one thing on the menu: braised lamb sandwiches on shaobing bread. The lamb is chopped with green chili, chunks of the cooked fat, onions and cilantro, tossed with an incredible fragrant blend of chili, cumin, Sichuan pepper and other spices and served on a flaky laminated flatbread called shaobing. The only accompaniment is a very light soup of egg and scallions, but it’s the perfect foil to the rich, fatty, spiced lamb meat. It could have been the baijiu we were drinking, but I think it really was just that good! You really get a feel for the history and tremendous age of Chinese food culture when you are able to eat foods like this, which have been eaten for hundreds if not thousands of years.
When I first moved to New York, I rented a room in Bushwick, Brooklyn, quite a few years before the inevitable spread of gentrification made its way out that deep down the L train line. The first month in the city, I was a stagiaire (a kitchen intern) at a really great Michelin starred restaurant on the Upper West Side. The days were long and the ride home some nights could take an eternity. I definitely needed a beer on my last night of work before the day off. Since I wasn’t getting paid as a stagiaire, I usually opted to grab a couple of cans at the bodega and a slice of pizza. After the first week in New York, I came home, grabbed my supplies, walked to the top of my building and took the ladder to the roof through a small hatch. I think this was the first time I had really seen the whole skyline lit up at night, and from Brooklyn you can see almost all Manhattan. It is really an incredible view! Sitting there on a milk crate, drinking cheap beer, eating my dollar slice of pizza, I can honestly say I felt like a million bucks just taking in the view and feeling excited about what the future would hold.
Having Saito San’s sushi for the first time is probably how people felt when they heard Eddie Van Halen play guitar for the first time. The rice was so good! The texture, the seasoning, the temperature! The way each neta was cut, the balance of the wasabi and nikiri shoyu, the laser focus of the flavors… After having Saito San’s sushi, I knew I needed to work for him. Fortunately, he saw something in this hakujin and agreed to let me train under him. I was able to learn so much from him, and even had the opportunity to train with his teacher Akifumi Sakagami (who runs the main shop of Sushi Ginza Onodera in Tokyo) as well. I’m still not Eddie Van Halen, but I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am without them. Arigato gozaimashita!
My Five Favorite Meals features the most cherished dining experiences of bartenders, chefs, distillers and celebrities.
Interview has been condensed and edited.