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People Watching: Sangsoo “Sam” Lee, sushi chef and restaurant owner

  • Sangsoo “Sam” Lee, owner of Moshi Moshi, in his downtown Northampton restaurant. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The exterior of Moshi Moshi is shown March 23, 2018 in downtown Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Striped bass sushi with avocado and pickled onion from Moshi Moshi. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • "Sam" Sangsoo Lee, owner of Moshi Moshi, makes striped bass sushi with avocado and pickled onion March 23, 2018 in his downtown Northampton restaurant. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



For the Gazette/Hampshire Life
Thursday, April 05, 2018

 

If you’ve ever gone to Moshi Moshi for a quick sushi lunch or a full Japanese-style dinner, there is a good chance you’ve met Sangsoo Lee, better known to his customers as Sam, the restaurant’s charismatic chef-owner who greets his customers with the welcoming crash of a gong. (He’s also been known to strum the guitar behind the counter.) If you’re a really loyal customer, you might even have your own pair of chopsticks hanging on the wall.   

Lee, who has lived in Northampton for around 15 years (before that, he lived in Nebraska and Louisiana), has been a chef for almost his entire adult life. His sushi chef career started back in Seoul, Korea, where he grew up. Now, Lee entertains customers with good food, music and of course, sake. We recently sat down at Moshi Moshi to chat with Lee, whose wife, Soyoun Kim, works at the restaurant. They have two children — Jeremy and Christiana — who also help out.

Nickname: “Sam-I-Am.”  

Position at Moshi Moshi: “Superman [laughs]. Owner, head chef.”

Morning ritual: “I meditate. I think about what I am supposed to do today, and what’s my goal? Who’s going to come in?”

How do you pick the names for the special rolls? “It really just depends on my mood that day, and it’s about combining whatever I have experience on, so I’m choosing what I like to do. If I make something a little experimental and the customer likes it, I will add it to the menu.” 

Roll you’re proudest of inventing? “Sam-I-Am Roll!”

How did you learn how to make sushi? “One of my friends had a Japanese restaurant in Seoul. I just hung out with my friend, and through extension, I got it. But when I got out of high school, I never realistically thought I would be in the food business. Incidentally, when I came to the states, one of my friends brought me into working hibachi or sushi in Omaha, Nebraska, so that’s how I became a chef.”

Was it difficult to pick up? “Some parts, yes. I had a big language barrier at the time, so I was studying English and learning to work in the kitchen. It’s a little hard, but I like dealing with the customers.”

When you were a kid, what did you want to do when you grew up? “Architecture! Actually, though, I had no dream. I liked playing soccer a lot. At the time, my country was so poor, I had no money to buy a big soccer ball, so I found a tennis ball to play with friends.” 

How long have you played guitar? “When I took over this business ... there was just a little tiny table and basic rolls like a white rice ball with some fish on top. Lunchtime, it was OK, but dinnertime there were no customers. When I had no customer, I had to kill some time — I was so bored by myself. So, I brought in my guitar, and whenever a customer showed up, I would make them food. And then, one day, there was blackout. It was a rainy day, I think wintertime, I took out the guitar and played and was having some fun. Then some customers came in … you know, the people like it. I’m not so good at it, though. I only have a couple American songs like “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” or “[Take Me Home,] Country Roads.” 

How do you decide what music to play? “I’ve worked in so many restaurants and especially Japanese restaurants that have this old traditional music. I feel, since we’re living in the United States, I like to give a chance to listen to music from another country. Anyway, I like reggae music …  I listen to reggae all the time, but I don’t know what they’re talking about.”

What’s the difference in sushi here compared to sushi from Korea? “Some sushi restaurants in South Korea have little tiny aquariums of fish in them, live, and the customer walks in and can choose their fish from the freshest possible. Here, it’s not a live fish. You don’t have the head and the eyeball, watching you. People don’t like that here — it’s more of a Korean thing to do. Over here, it’s more American-style, fusion-style, always adding something, adding new flavors.”

How long have you been working in Northampton? “I took over this business 14 years ago. I was in Omaha, Nebraska, then I went down to Louisiana and worked in my sister’s restaurant sushi/hibachi restaurant. My kids were growing,  and I was thinking about their education, and I had friends that were living in Westfield. I came over here, looked for a job, looked at the school system, and it was a lot better than Louisiana, so we just decided to move here.” 

Aside from here, where’s your favorite place to grab a bite to eat in the area? “I went to the Bamboo House in Springfield, a Vietnamese restaurant. It’s a small space place like me. They’re working really hard; it’s a family business.” 

What do you do for fun, when you’re not working? “Play golf, especially in the summertime. Or I’m playing internet “Go.” It’s very famous in Asian culture.”

How did you come up with the idea for the chopsticks on the wall? “My rule is, if I don’t know the customer’s name, I cannot give them chopsticks. I’m trying to remember all of my regular customers’ names. I still have a little struggle to remember 400 of them.”

What’s your favorite part of the job? “Drinking sake with my customers.”