Winter Short Story Award Honorable Mention: “The Crown Prince of Koi” by Daniel Abiva Hunt

October 17, 2022

We are excited to share the honorable mention of our 2021-2022 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers! “The Crown Prince of Koi” by Daniel Abiva Hunt follows a head sushi chef in his push for a James Beard Award, complicated by issues he’s facing with his wakiita, his assistant chef, who also happens to be his father, a former head sushi chef in his own right. Hunt’s narrator, The Crown Price of Koi, has to now decide between his own ambition and honoring his father—a decision that will weigh heavy on him.


Before the first seating of the night, I beg my assistant chef—my wakiita—to refrain from correcting any of the customers tonight. He can come off curt when explaining how to properly enjoy premium sushi. We can’t afford to upset anyone at the moment. Our restaurant’s in a tight race for a James Beard Award. Any customer can be a critic.

“Are we on the same page?” I ask. I’m the owner. The head sushi chef. The itamae.

My wakiita stares at me. I never know what he’s thinking. He’s not only my assistant. He’s my father.

Before answering, he heads to the front of the house, leaving me alone in the kitchen. My mom says the men of our family aren’t very open, emotionally.

* * *

The restaurant seats 12, all at a stained-wood bar, the dining room enclosed by gold-leaf screens and shoji doors. My side of the counter is soon covered in raw fish, a bowl of warm rice, and a blowtorch. The customer side is crowded with pickled ginger, dishes of soy, and bottles of sake. The hostess takes drink orders. She’s my mom. At the other end of the bar, my father handles seats 7 through 12.

“Where’s the blood?” asks the brunette in Seat 1, when I plate her otoro. Fatty tuna.

“It’s removed,” I say.

She bites her piece in two.

“One bite,” I remind her.

The bald man in Seat 2 balks. “One can achieve double satisfaction with two.” He bites his piece in half. The nigiri crumbles on contact and spills down his suit. “Shouldn’t the rice be stickier?” he says.

The brunette says, “Can you make the one with the cream cheese?”

My father’s knife thwacks the cutting board. He gives me a withering glare. I divert the customers’ attention by revealing the next fish. Aji. Japanese mackerel.

“We’ve always loved exotic food,” says the brunette.

The man in Seat 3 with the mustache chimes in, “You ought to try sheep’s head soup.”

The woman in Seat 4 with the pearls adds, “They boil the brain whole and serve it with mashed rutabaga.”

Something tells me these aren’t critics.

I plate the aji. My father’s still on the last round, the finale of the tuna flight. At sixty-three, he moves slower than he once did. I can tell his customers are growing impatient. I wipe the counter between rounds, but I work best at my own cadence.

The brunette tries the aji and gags. “Is this fresh?”

“Yes,” I say.

She knocks back her sake. “That’s too fishy for me.”

The bald man chomps his piece in two. “Yes,” he says. “Quite fishy.”

The man with the mustache asks, “Where do you source your fish?”

“Tsukiji Market,” I say.

“How often do you travel to Japan?”

“We order online.”

“When’s the last time you went back?”

“I’ve never been. I’m from South Jersey.”

My father elbows me when he digs through the bowl of rice. The grains stiffen as they cool, become suitable only for certain pieces. The rice is no longer ready for his round. His jaw clenches. He’s going to blame the apprentices. He’s driven two to quit in the last six months.

The man with the mustache quaffs his wine. “We’ve only been to Okinawa.”

And,” adds the brunette. “Tokyo’s interesting, but it’s very crowded and—well, honey, how would you describe it?”

“Emotionally constipated.”

I slice the next fish. Ika. Cuttlefish.

The brunette points to my blade. “Is that very sharp?”


“Do you ever cut yourself?”


“If I’m ever short a surgeon,” says the man with the mustache, “I’m hiring you!”

The customers laugh as I concentrate on the cut. Sushi knives can slice wet sponges into thin strips. You have to maintain total focus on the work at hand. You can’t think about awards or customers who could be critics or the liability that is your father.

The woman with the pearls asks, “Have you ever prepared pufferfish?”

“Fugu can only be prepared in Japan,” I say.

“Is that the one that can kill you?” asks the bald man.

The woman nods ominously. “We tried it, but it tasted like rubber bands, so I gave it to the man on my left.”

“If your lips go numb,” says the man on her left, “you’re dead.”

“But his lips didn’t go numb so he lived.”

The man strokes his mustache. “Pufferfish, what’s interesting is: they have eyelashes.”

As I plate the tamago, the twelfth and final round, my father is still on the aji. His customers look ready to walk out. I’m ready to eat a pufferfish and pray my lips go numb. I have to fire my dad.

* * *

When I was a kid, I wanted to be just like my father. He and my mom opened up one of the first Japanese restaurants in South Jersey. They called it Shiro, the castle, and they were king and queen. I spent most of my childhood there, doing homework in the back office with the rolodex and the business paperwork, arranging table settings before the first seating, and if I was behaved, helping cook the rice on the weekends. I remember my first bite of bluefin tuna. The purity of rice and fish, the combination of flavors, delicate and sweet, a hint of beef just perceptible to the tongue. I remember watching my father, built like Colossus, heave a hundred-pound tuna top loin onto the counter and carve the purple flesh with ease. To me, he wasn’t a king. He was a creator. A god. I never thought I would surpass him. Then one day I did.

* * *

Rich, my business partner-slash-financier, called a board meeting. I normally don’t give these corporate matters a second thought—that’s Rich’s side of the business—but today’s agenda: Vote on the replacement of my father.

On the top floor of a skyscraper on the edge of Center City’s corporate canyons, glass panels overlook the landscaped square, where the bubbling fountain looks, from so high up, like a bidet that won’t go down. Inside a freezing conference room, Rich sits at one end of a mahogany table, sporting a blue blazer. He’s the top restaurateur in town. A kingmaker. Several of his chef-partners have become New York Times bestsellers and Food Network stars. He dined at my parents’ restaurant for months when I was my father’s wakiita. One night, he took me aside, told me who he was, offered me a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

At the other end of the table sits my father in the same suit he wears to every wedding and funeral. My parents sold Shiro after I told them I was leaving. My mom said they wouldn’t have been able to run it without me. My dad never said anything. Out of the ashes of their restaurant, mine was born. The new family business. Only now we had Rich. He came up with the name. Sushi Avec Moi. My father never said anything, but I knew he hated the French. That was the first of several unspoken disagreements over the direction of the restaurant.

In the conference room, we run through routine business matters. Confirm expenses. Approve another salmon vendor. Then we get to the heart of the matter, and I feign ignorance.

“We never talked about this,” I say.

My father’s eyes settle on me. Rich clicks his pen. Since he pointed it out, I can’t unsee the picture he painted. My father has lost a step. He is too slow, too hard on the staff, too uncompromising for a customer-facing role. He could cost us the James Beard.

He’s also the hardest worker I know. All he wants is to work. He came to America with $1,000 to his name and a dream to open a sushi restaurant. He passed down his work ethic and his dream to me.

I was supposed to talk to him first. Convince him to retire. Assure him there was no grand plot to depose him. This isn’t a Greek myth or a Shakespeare play. This is a sushi restaurant in Philadelphia, 7,000 miles from Japan.

I thought I had more time.

Rich clears his throat. “I have great respect for you, Mr. Nakadai,” he says, “but if we want to be recognized as one of the best restaurants in the country, we have to focus on the things that matter. We can’t waste resources or drive the prep cooks to quit or alienate our customer base.”

I don’t disagree. That’s the impossible part.

Rich turns to me. “Anything to add, Kenny?”

The sunlight pouring in from the glass panels reflects off the table gloss.

Rich continues, “Mr. Nakadai, we hope you’ll carry on with us in other capacities. Executive consultant. Sushi chef emeritus. How’s that sound?”

My father’s eyes remain on me. “I only work behind the bar,” he says.

Before I can stop him, he exits the conference room. I catch up by the elevators.

“We’ll work something out,” I say. He gazes at the pedestrian square below. His monk’s tonsure of a bald spot has grown the last few years. His suit sags on his thinning frame. “I should’ve talked to your first.” In our shared language that amounts to an apology.

The elevator opens. He steps on. “Your customers don’t respect you,” he says, “because you don’t respect yourself.”

I don’t need to explain what that means in our shared language. I stare down at the square, where the people are smaller than the fleck of bird shit on the window.

The door closes before I can respond. The elevator chimes softly on the descent. I listen until I hear nothing at all. Then I return to the conference room and sign the board resolution.

* * *

My father is shokunin, a master craftsman obsessed with routine, like his father before him. My grandfather opened his restaurant in the Medaka district of Tokyo on a cobblestone road too narrow for cars. Factory workers would stop in for nigiri and beer before heading to the public bath. The restaurant had a single countertop, a tin rice dispenser, and a cigarette machine. Every morning, my grandfather biked to the fish market, while my grandmother prepped the restaurant and my father cooked the rice.

The ramen restaurant next door closed first. The pubs soon followed. My grandfather’s restaurant survived for a few years, but caught between conveyer-belt sushi and premium omakases, they couldn’t afford to keep going. My father, eighteen at the time, flew to Guam and joined the U.S Navy, where he met the daughter of a Chief Petty Officer, my mom. He sent money to his parents every month for the rest of their lives.

I never met my grandfather. We only spoke once over the phone. I asked him to send me a 10,000-yen banknote through the telephone lines. At six years old, I didn’t understand the concept of wiring money or that we were an ocean and land mass apart.

He succumbed to kidney failure a few years later at the age of sixty-nine. As a child, I pictured his body in a casket, clutching a knife to his heart, like a warrior buried with his sword. The reality was too frightening to imagine. Like most of the dead in Japan, he was cremated, his bone fragments picked with chopsticks by mourners and placed into an urn. Unlike most of the dead, his remaining ashes were scattered in the sea.

We didn’t attend the funeral. We didn’t pick his bones. Mom thinks my grandfather practiced corporal discipline on his apprentices. My father refuses to speak about that. Mom’s right. The male line of House Nakadai isn’t very open.

* * *

Our weekly fish shipment got delayed. I get a rare night off. I call in favors to secure reservations to the most popular new restaurant in the city. Barely lit by string lights, the subterranean dining room features graffitied walls, science-lab tables, and plastic school chairs. They’re trying too hard, if you ask me. Kaily sits across from me, sipping a smoking brown cocktail. It’s our third date. Everyone told me I had to get back in the dating pool—including my mom. I haven’t been in a serious relationship since I became an itamae.

Kaily and I met over coffee. I taught her how to mask a bitter brew with a pinch of salt. She described herself as a foodie, which I forgave when she kissed me as we said goodbye.

“What are you thinking about?” she asks over the static hum of a hundred conversations.

“Fish,” I say. I can’t stop thinking about the restaurant. The award. My father.

She brushes back a dark lock of hair. “Someone once told me, don’t do today what you can put off until tomorrow.”

I spread herb butter over seeded rye. “You don’t love what you do?”

“No one loves what they do all the time.” She’s a lawyer. She had to bail halfway through our second date, in the middle of a movie, because she received an urgent email from her boss. Maybe we’ll work out.

I take a bite of the bread. It’s stale.

The first appetizer arrives. Seared foie gras blanketed in horseradish snow. Kaily tries the first bite. “Amazing,” she says.

I try some. “No, it’s not. It sat on the heat too long.”

“Oh—should we send it back?”

I wrestle down a forkful. “Never send food back.”

“Tastes good to me,” Kaily says. A smudge of fatty liver glistens on her lip.

The main course arrives. Duck breast in fig sauce with caramelized parsnips.

The duck’s clearly undercooked.

“Don’t eat that,” I say. “Rare duck’s full of bacterial contaminations.”

Kaily drops her knife. “What do we do?”

I already hailed the waiter. I ask him to bring us a box and the check.

“Are we really leaving?” Kaily asks.

“I have no idea how this place won best new restaurant,” I say. I tell her about this beautiful piece of bluefin I have, how I can make her the best tuna flight she’s ever had.

Kaily wipes her lips and checks her phone. She has to go, she says. Work emergency. She stands up and gives me a side hug and leaves before the bill arrives.

At the school table, I box the duck and pay with the restaurant’s AmEx. Before I go, I ask the waiter to give my compliments to the chef.

* * *

“Is that your boss?” asks the woman in Seat 4 with the blue hair, pointing to Takashi, my new wakiita. He’s faster than my father. Quieter too. Almost feels like I’m working alone.

“No,” I say.

“Are you equals?”

I sprinkle caviar over a piece of uni. “Something like that.”

“One day, you’ll have his job,” she says, snapping pictures of her piece with her phone.

The restaurant hasn’t been the same since the nomination. Rich had us featured in local magazines and food blogs. One article called me the Crown Prince of Koi. They said it was only a matter of time before my coronation. Since then, we’ve had a flood of customers who come for Instagram material and who think sushi is imitation crab and cream cheese. I can’t complain. This is the dream.

As I plate the tamago, the Korean woman in Seat 5 thanks me. “What a wonderful meal,” she says. She bows respectfully, and I return the gesture. Tonight hasn’t been too bad.

When I go to clean my knife, someone yells, What the hell!

Down the bar, a man with a prominent butt chin looms over the counter. Takashi waves me over. “Chef, we just informed this gentleman he enjoyed his twelfth and final round.”

The man points to the couple next to him. “Then how come they got more?”

Takashi says they ordered extra before leaving me alone with the belligerent butt chin.

“I pay $400 and have to order extra?” he says, his partner tugging at his sleeve. “I thought this was premium sushi. This isn’t premium. There weren’t even any rolls. I could’ve gone to Crazy Sushi for half the price.”

My father insists that an itamae’s job is to teach the customers. How to eat each piece. What they should taste. Why there’s a right and wrong way to enjoy raw fish. But these days, most people want what they want. They think they know better, and they can usually find something on Google that proves them right. Rich says you don’t win awards with negative Yelp reviews. These days, every customer is a critic. That’s why I prefer to focus on the food.

“I can make you a roll,” I say. “What kind do you like?”

At the Wawa down the block, an old woman holds up the line. The clerk can’t figure out how to ring up Doritos with food stamps. I quickly swipe the AmEx and rush back to the kitchen, where I smother an expensive cut of king salmon in store-bought cream cheese.

* * *

After the final seating, the remaining fish needs to be sorted into two containers: one for reuse and one for cooked items at Rich’s other restaurants. This part is important. We can’t trust the apprentices. Takashi and I perform the chore together, like my father and I once did.

In the back kitchen, Takashi points to the bamboo roller and open tub of cream cheese. He worked at an award-winning restaurant in Manhattan. He’s technically proficient, but he’s never been in charge. He wouldn’t understand. “One time only,” I say.

He shrugs. “You’re the itamae.”

“Be honest with me,” I say. “Do we have a shot at the Beard?” I’ve been trying not to think about it, but the announcement looms.

Takashi says, “If I say yes, do I get a raise?”

“You want to win too, right? You’re shokunin.”

Takashi shakes his head. “I’m not shokunin. This is just my job.”

When we interviewed him, he claimed sushi was his life. I thought he was like my father. Like me. “You don’t love it?”

“I love it,” he says. “I just love other things more.”

When we finish sorting, he heads home. His son stayed up late to watch the new Marvel movie with him.

I store the containers in the walk-in fridge full of the uncut carcasses of fish. After that, I wipe down the work tables, mop the floor, and do one final round. In the restroom, the toilet runs. I manage to stop it, but the valve needs to be replaced.

* * *

Now that we’re open seven days a week, every day is the same. Except today. Mom asked me over for breakfast. She’s not being subtle. My father and I haven’t spoken. He hasn’t even come to the restaurant.

The first time he refused to speak to me was when I brought home my first B in high school. He used to double check my math every night, and he would make me re-do the entire problem set if I got one question wrong. After that report card, he stopped checking. We both became accustomed to Bs. He eventually let me work at the restaurant after school. I started where all apprentices do—cleaning the toilets.

The last time he refused to speak to me was when I dropped out of college. School was a waste of time, I told him. I didn’t need an engineering degree to be an itamae.

He fired me. I spent the next two years working nights at a place called Sushi A Go Go crafting colorful, syrupy rolls. During those years, I taught myself all the things my father couldn’t. Modern techniques like dry aging and tools like blowtorches. Rare fish from the Sea of Japan and next-level ingredients like gold leaf and royal caviar. I learned everything I could about the art of sushi.

My mom finally convinced him to re-hire me only when he started having back pain and high blood pressure. Both can be early signs of kidney disease, according to WebMD.

We got along well for a while. We met in the middle. He was still young enough, and I was still too young. We were equals more or less. He gave me greater and greater discretion behind the bar. He didn’t always agree with my innovations, but we made a good team. We used to sharpen our knives together each morning, even after moving from his restaurant to mine. We performed the same ritual every day. Soak the whetstones in water. Flatten the surface with glass lapping plates embedded with diamonds. Glide the blades over the grit for five minutes, twice on each side. For those twenty minutes, neither of us would speak, as we honed our instruments of destruction and creation.

My dad took his knife roll with him when he left. He didn’t take his whetstone, but Takashi brought his own, so now we have an extra.

* * *

The stove warms my parents’ kitchen. Mom asks me to grill the salmon filets while she finishes the miso soup. She’s masterful at whipping up a Japanese breakfast for being white.

I combine ginger, spring onion, and soy to coat the filets. She drops cold water into the pan, and I place the fish down as the steam floats up. The silver skin crackles and the oil perfumes the air and the flesh turns from orange to pink, as the heat works its magic.

I’ve always enjoyed cooking with mom. She goes by feel. Once, when I was home sick with chicken pox, she stuck hot dogs in the broiler on a whim. When she took them out, they’d burst open, meat bulging from the top like the flesh of a lobster tail balanced on its shell. To this day, I’m still convinced hot dogs are best eaten inside-out.

After we finish cooking, she piles rice onto my plate. She asks when she’ll finally get to meet the infamous Kaily. I ask if she has the number for a plumber.

“Did you break up?”

“The employee toilet,” I say. “The valve’s about to bust.”

She loads my plate with more fish. I don’t know why I told her about Kaily. I should’ve known we wouldn’t work out.

Mom rummages through the drawer full of stamps, postcards, used batteries, foreign coins, gift certificates, and the business cards of plumbers. She times her exit perfectly. Number must be in the office, she claims, right as my father enters.

He sits at the table across from me and spoons rice onto his plate. “Yesterday,” he says, “your rice was overmixed.”

He must have come in when he picked Mom up. He must not have wanted to see me.

“The rice was fine,” I say.

“The grain was too young.”

“It was fine.”

“It was overmixed.”

I knock over the mountain of rice on my plate. To my father, there’s no dignity in praise. There’s only dignity in work.

“Rich told me about this rice cooker from China that can make any grain twice as fast.”

He stares at me. I can never tell what he’s thinking.

“I’m kidding,” I say.

“You shouldn’t make something unless you make it right.”

He tells the apprentices the same thing when they inevitably screw up the tamago.

“I make it right,” I say.

“Treat customers with respect. Don’t bow to their demands. Listen to them. To them, their meal is a story. You have to teach them how to read it.”

He’s been telling me the same thing since I was a kid. He used to be able to tell customers what to do. People came to his restaurant to listen to him. Then one day those customers stopped coming, and the next generation didn’t want an old man telling them what to do. His restaurant didn’t stand out. Shiro became just another Japanese place. It wouldn’t have survived. He had to come work for me.

“The food should speak for itself,” I say.

“Then you are not an itamae,” he says. “You are just their cook.”

“Didn’t you see the article?” I say. “I’m the itamae.”

He doesn’t respond.

“I’m kidding,” I say—though the article did say that.

“Sushi is more than food. That’s what you don’t understand.”

The salmon’s gone cold. I stick a chopstick through the pink flesh. I’m not a student anymore. I don’t need his lessons. This isn’t a fable. This is the real world. There’s no one right way. I take the best of the old and the new. That’s what he doesn’t understand.

“You had a restaurant,” I say. “Enlighten me, what is sushi?”

“I sold my restaurant.”

I know,” I say. “Then you worked at mine.”

I never know what my father is thinking. Somehow, he always seems to know what I’m thinking. A grain of rice falls into the abyss between the panels of the kitchen table. He shuffles to the sink. His wrinkled hands shake as he washes his plate.

In the living room, there’s a portrait of my parents on their wedding day. The artist depicted them both with porcelain skin. My mom, she looks basically the same. My father, he looks so young.

On a shelf, beneath the painting, sits his leather knife roll.

* * *

“You’re marvelous with a knife.”

“If you’re ever short a surgeon, come find me.”

The customers laugh as I use the blowtorch to sear the top of the salmon.

“That’s gorgeous,” says the woman in Seat 4, who looks like a bird.

I nod in agreement. The James Beard winners are being announced tonight. I haven’t been able to think about anything else. To calm my nerves, I went to Crazy Sushi before the first seating and ordered an entire boat of colorful, syrupy rolls. I never said they didn’t taste good.

“What are you cutting up next?” the bird asks.

“Ika,” I tell her. “A type of squid,” I teach her.

“I love calamari,” says the man in Seat 2, who looks like a shark.

I slide the knife over the firm white flesh. “For this fish, I have to cut tiny slits. Not too deep. Not too shallow. But necessary to enjoy the softness.”

“How long did you practice to get so good?” asks the bird.

“Guess,” I say.

“A year?”

“My whole life. I’ve trained my entire life for this.”

“My goodness. You must really love it.”

“I can’t complain.”

“Are you the best?”

I glance up from the cutting board. “You can always be better,” I say. As I do, something slips. At first, I don’t feel anything, but I hear the customers gasp, and on the cutting board before me, as if by magic, the ika turns from white to red.

“I am so sorry,” I say.

* * *

A few years back, when I was still wakiita at Shiro, the Phillies rented out the entire restaurant. I’d been a baseball fan my whole life, just like my father. All week long, I dreamed about making sushi for my favorite players.

The night before, I came down with a cold. I had just moved out of my parents’ house, and my father came over after work with a jug of tamagosake, a traditional home remedy made of heated sake, sugar, and egg, which always warmed me up when I was young. Between the two of us, we drained the whole jug. He finally told me all about Tokyo, his father’s restaurant. I fell asleep as he explained the intricacy of feudal Japan while re-watching Ran.

Unfortunately, there’s no medical proof of the efficacy of tamagosake. The fever didn’t break. I missed the most important day of my young career.

* * *

By the time mom drives me back from the hospital, it’s midnight, the last seating long over. From the looks of it, everyone’s already gone. Takashi. The staff. Rich.

He called while I was in the emergency room. I needed four stitches, I told him, but they said my hand would heal. That’s great, he said, before breaking the news.

Empty champagne bottles, paper hats, and party horns crowd the countertops of the back kitchen. A picture of the famous chef is taped to the wall with a hand drawn piece of purple nigiri in his mouth. A plastic crown sits on my personal work table.

Mom and I toss the remains of the celebration in the garbage. With my good hand, I wipe down the counters and check the fridge. No one sorted the night’s fish.

Mom goes to lock up—just as my father enters from the front of the house.

I called him on the way to the hospital. We were finally on the same page about something: Takashi’s a joke. We couldn’t trust him on his own.

My father’s eyes settle on me. My gloved hand. My stitched-up finger.

He shuffles over and sets his knife roll down. He washes his hand, and for several minutes, neither of us speak as we perform the chore together.

When we finish, he grabs the containers before I can. He carries them across the kitchen by himself. As he does, his jaw clenches, and when he gets to the fridge, he struggles to open the steel door.

My wound will heal in time. I’ll be back behind the bar. My father, he will never be an itamae again. One day in the not-too-distant future, he will don the same black suit he wears to every wedding and funeral, clutching a knife to his heart, no longer capable of creation.

I open the door for him. I try to take the containers—but as I do, he shrugs me off. He lugs them deep into the fridge next to the uncut carcasses of fish.

Who am I kidding? He won’t let us bury him. His bones will be picked with chopsticks, and like his father before him, his ashes scattered in the sea.

Daniel Abiva Hunt is a writer from South Jersey. His other work appears or is forthcoming in
Grist, Portland Review, New Hibernia Review, and elsewhere. He received his MFA from the University of Houston, and he is currently a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati, where he teaches and studies fiction.


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