For the first decade of the 21st century, people who loved sushi in Los Angeles made a pilgrimage to Mori Sushi, a minimalist restaurant on Pico Boulevard. There, owner and sushi chef Morihiro Onodera prepared gorgeous dishes of albacore with yuzu, lozenges of raw baby barracuda and Santa Barbara spot prawns like beautiful, pink Tinkertoys. The sushi was immaculate, sourced that morning from downtown L.A.'s International Marine, where the fish is flown in daily from Japan; the rice was just as perfect, brought in from Onodera's own rice fields in Sacramento.
But then, in 2011, Onodera abruptly sold his restaurant and disappeared, leaving a Mori-shaped hole in the city's restaurant scene. The hole's large dimensions are metaphorical rather than literal, for Onodera is not a big man in real life. He's built like a distance runner. In his trim denim apron, he moves around the Pasadena ceramics studio where he now spends his days like he's still on the line, his movements efficient and lithe.
Onodera, 48, left his sushi restaurant not to retire ("no, no no") but to work on his pottery, a vocation he found 18 years ago, when he was cooking at the venerable New York City sushi restaurant Hatsuhana.
Unsurprisingly, the sushi chef is not throwing coffee mugs. Instead he's making stunning, mottled purple plates, breathtaking bowls shaped like lotus leaves, serving plates shaped like woven baskets. He made the plates himself for Mori Sushi; now he's making them for the kitchens of his chef friends, who are putting them on the tables of some of the best restaurants in Los Angeles, including Providence, Mélisse, Il Grano and La Botte, as well as David Kinch's Manresa in Los Gatos.
Onodera, who lives in Silver Lake, was born in Fujisawa, in Iwate prefecture, to a family that grew or made most of its own food. "Miso, rice, everything," Onodera says. He inherited the same predispositions, not only for rice and soy sauce and tofu but also for the plates and dishes used to serve them. He now designs and makes his ceramics by himself, with no pottery version of a commis or sous chef.
Onodera unstacks the gorgeous plates that soon will grace the tables of Mélisse. "White is boring," he says.
He's found that Japanese chefs in this country are far less interested in experimenting with pottery than Western chefs.
His biggest inspiration is Rosanjin Kitaoji, the legendary Japanese ceramicist who also owned a Tokyo restaurant. Another influence is Mineo Mizuno, an artist whose pottery began appearing at Masaru Michite's sushi restaurant, Katsu on Hillhurst, when Onodera worked there in the '80s.
His goal, he says, is "beautiful food" and seasonal food, both of which extend to the plates. As for returning to the kitchen, he will, he says. "I miss cooking."
Since selling Mori Sushi, Onodera has been doing more than throwing pots. He and his business partner have sold their Sacramento rice business and have purchased another rice field, in Uruguay. Its harvest soon will be available in Los Angeles, and Onodera says he'll do more events and pop-ups as soon as he can cook with his own rice.
When he does return to the kitchen, he'll have a whole studio full of dishes, just waiting for a new restaurant.One of the fascinating Angelenos featured in L.A. Weekly's People 2013 issue. Check out our entire People 2013 issue here.