Happy to have another casual dining option in the neighborhood, I’ve been popping in to the new sushi place in Corn Hill Center frequently since it opened in December. Keep It Rollin’ Sushi Bar shares a space with Roc City Ramen between Panzari’s and the Corn Hill Exchange Market, and while the atmosphere is indeed fun and casual, the consistent quality of the sushi surprised and intrigued me. I recently sat down with Rochester-area natives Maria Whitney and Brenda Perkins, best friends, co-owners, and master sushi chefs behind Keep It Rollin’, to find out how the restaurant came to be.
How did you get involved in the sushi-making business?
Brenda: I started when I was 14 as a dishwasher at California Rollin’.
Maria: I started as a waitress at California Rollin’ when I was 18. That’s how we both learned, from the owner, Tom Beaman. Over time Tom was like “Make your own food.” And so if we wanted to eat sushi we had to make it on our own. And he saw something in us. So at that point he would ask us to make a little bit more, and a little bit more here and there. Traditionally women don’t make sushi. As California Rollin’ became more popular and Tom made the move to Village Gate, he decided he was going to do something different – “I’m going to train these women how to make sushi!” That started our journey.
What does it take to become a master sushi chef?
Maria: It takes a lot of time. In order to be a master sushi chef, you’re looking at five plus years of training. You start out at the bottom and you work your way up.
Brenda: You learn how to make rice. Once you’ve got the rice down, you can start doing other things. When we started, just telling all the different fish apart was difficult.
Maria: It was a giant challenge. You have to be all in and eager to learn. You learn how to put the rice on the sushi mat. If you are good at doing that…
Brenda: …you get to learn how to roll it. You get to learn how to cut it. Then you get to learn the nigiri, and you get to make a million rice balls, and then sashimi, which is really fun because it’s an art form. We’re still learning new things to this day.
Maria: I think my hardest thing in training was learning how to fillet all the different fish that we were serving.
Brenda: You start with easy fish and make your way up.
Maria: Like cutting a 350-pound tuna — I had to stand on top of a bucket to reach the top of the tuna! So once you’re shown, then that’s the real hard part. Because fish is expensive. You have some guy over your shoulder—“don’t mess it up!” So that creates a lot of intimidation and fear, that you’re going to do it wrong and you’re going to ruin his fish – he’s not going to be able to use it the way he needs to. It takes years of practice…
Brenda: …to fillet a fish without wasting a lot of meat. Making sure all the bones are out so no one chokes on a bone.
Maria: You’re also learning the food safety precautions as you’re going.
Maria: It’s a very difficult trade to learn. Anyone can do it, but…
Brenda: …Well, I don’t know about that…
Maria: But to do it up to restaurant level, in order to get the speed you need to make it in a restaurant, you need constant repetition.
Brenda: The beauty, the speed, it all comes together after so many years. I think my training lasted eight years.
Maria: It’s all done by apprenticeship – we never went to school for it. We were taught in-house by the master chef himself.
How did you decide to open your own restaurant?
Brenda: We worked for California Rollin’ for 22, 23 years. After the Village Gate location closed, we were working for people we had trained there. It’s hard when you can see their flaws!
Maria: Coronavirus did it. I wasn’t happy at my job, and in April last year Brenda suggested we do this. Our first hurdle was to figure out a name for our business, our DBA, and getting that secured. Then all the planning began. It took us from May last year until December 14 to open our doors.
Brenda: I was working here [in the former sushi business on the premises] for a while, and Michael [Goode, owner of Roc City Ramen] offered the space when the former sushi business left.
So you decided even though it’s COVID times, we’re still going to do this. Did you have concerns about that?
Brenda: It was terrifying. Six days before we opened, they put us in the orange, so we could only do takeout. It was scary, because we were putting all our assets on the line.
Maria: Regardless of how scary it was, we both knew that this place [Roc City Ramen with the former sushi business] was still thriving because it’s not a huge restaurant doing fine dining. They had already acclimated to doing takeout. Brenda already knew the business that was coming in. And after 23 years in the business, we have such a huge following that we felt that we couldn’t fail.
How did you design your menu? Did you decide to make your favorite things?
Brenda: Mostly our favorite things. Some of them are rolls that we’ve been making for years that we know people really like and we wanted to be able to offer those to them. We’ve created hundreds of different rolls in the last 20 years. If it’s delicious it goes on the board!
Maria: We often make things that we want to eat. Like our Medusa roll that’s a special right now – that’s something I had never made until I got here. I was hungry one day so I started creating it: tempura shrimp, Japanese mayonnaise, sriracha, hot chili oil, habanero, spicy tuna, avocado, tomato, rolled up into a futomaki roll, then drizzled in eel sauce and topped with onion crunchies. It’s been very popular – you will feel the burn! Creating these new rolls and naming them is such a fun part of the job. We have customers that make up their own rolls that eventually become so popular they make it onto the menu. Like our Carly roll, that roll was made up by Carly, a waitress at California Rollin’.
Brenda: A lot of rolls have come from customers or staff.
I noticed that some of your rolls are made with cooked, not raw fish.
Brenda: We’re a very Americanized sushi bar. So we have a lot of nontraditional sushi rolls with cooked fish, like tempura shrimp with bacon and cream cheese and avocado and hot sauce. A lot of things that are really delicious, especially for the American palate. That’s the road that we went down.
Do you anticipate changing the menu over time?
Brenda: We’d like to add more vegetarian and vegan options because the clientele for that is just amazing. People are into eating more healthy and less meat.