Jesse Ito on Addiction, Takeout, and the Thing He Can’t Stand at His Omakase

Nearly two decades into his career, the chef of Royal Sushi and Izakaya is navigating sobriety, setting boundaries, and a post-COVID restaurant industry.

Jesse Ito / Photograph by Casey Robinson

Behind the Line is Foobooz’s interview series with the people who make up Philly’s dynamic bar and restaurant scene. For the complete archives, go here.

Jesse Ito is the chef and owner of Royal Sushi and Izakaya, a celebrated Japanese restaurant that opened its doors to fish-loving Philadelphians in 2016 in Queen Village. Six years and a near-infinite number of takeout boxes later, Royal is still one of the most exciting places to eat dinner. Between its opening and now, though, much of the restaurant’s operations have shifted. Late-night hours were pared down, for example, and takeout is here to stay. Jesse himself has been through his own changes. In December of 2021, he came out publicly about his struggle with alcohol and drug addiction. To date, Jesse is nearly two years sober. He’s sharing his recovery story to empower others in the Philly restaurant industry and beyond it.

We meet on a bench in Rittenhouse Square on a Thursday in September. Iced coffee, black, for both of us. He’s in sunglasses and Nike high-tops, procrastinating in the sunshine before packing for a week-long trip to Paris. Here’s what we talked about.

I grew up in … Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

My parents opened their restaurant … in 1979. My dad was one of the opening chefs for Sagami, they brought him over here to work. After three years, he went off and did his own thing, which was Fuji. It used to be in Cinnaminson on Route 130. It was a weird location because it was right behind this no-tell motel — like, it advertised ceiling mirrors. I grew up in the restaurant as a child. I couldn’t have a babysitter, so I was always there. I remember people used to come into the restaurant like, “Hey Mr. Fuji” (That’s my dad.) “Yeah, can I get some like butter?” Now thinking back, some of these people were crackheads and prostitutes. But because the type of chef my dad was, the parking lot was full of amazing cars like Porsches and Ferraris during lunch service. So it was this really wealthy clientele coming to the restaurant, surrounded by all this.

I started working at Fuji when I was … 14. I actually started working when my parents got divorced. My dad had to move out, so I think he wanted to see me. I started as a dishwasher for a whole year, and I did the pastries, and I started on the line. And then I got put in the sushi bar when I was 16. Just to start rolling; but for the full-time sushi bar, I got put in when I was 18.

If you want to be an omakase chef … someone essentially has to accept you as an apprentice and devote so much time to you. It’s very expensive, all of the product you’re working with, you can’t mess it up. And there’s so much discipline, like just washing rice for a year or two, and cutting scallion for a year. But you do it so much that you get to become a master. It’s a very specific route, and it’s very hard to get into.

The first day I was in the sushi bar … I was so embarrassed. I had rice stuck all over my hands. But now thinking about it, it’s just funny. Now all that stuff seems so easy to me because I’ve been doing it for 17 years. But it’s like an art. It’s tradition. It’s a craft. You need to master it by just doing the same thing over and over again. There are so many rules. That’s why if you go to the upper echelon of omakase in New York, there are a lot of similarities [between them]. Like the menu, and the progression, and the sauces. Because they’re following this format that’s almost like a perfect meal. So why would you change it? But to make it the best, you have to execute it with perfection. It’s a little crazy.

We sold Fuji … At the end of 2015. My mom retired and my dad came along with me to open Royal Izakaya.

Toro with caviar at Royal Sushi / Photograph by Jesse Ito

I never wanted to offer takeout at Royal because … sushi and Asian food generally have a weird relationship to takeout and delivery. There’s this connotation that they kind of go hand in hand. And, in some ways, they do … almost. At Fuji, takeout was I think 15 percent of the business. It was huge — we were in the suburbs. There were problems with the systems at Fuji. My parents were just doing the best they could. And they did an amazing job. But takeout is essentially adding tables to your restaurant, that’s how you have to think about it. It can be an infinite amount of tables unless you limit it. I hated takeout. I didn’t want to ever do it again. So when we opened Royal, there was no takeout. I just wanted to focus on the people there. And if you wanted your food to-go, you had to come into the bar and order there. There was no calling in or anything.

Then COVID happened and … we had to completely restructure everything. Fortunately, the people I had on board, as limited as it was, were so good at system-building that we became really good at takeout. And there’s still demand, especially as it starts to get colder.

Now we’re keeping takeout at Royal Izakaya because … pre-COVID, we were open seven days a week, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., food till 1 a.m. every night. It was crazy, but it was fun. I mean, if you’re living in insanity you don’t know you’re insane. It was that type of time. But since we reopened with dine-in, we’re only open five days a week, closed on Sundays and Mondays, and the kitchen closes at 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends. And what helps offset that loss in business is the takeout. I mean we have more employees than before, obviously, and we pay a lot more than before because all the rates have gone up, food costs more, and we pay more benefits. There are so many more expenses. And the takeout really allows us to maintain that, while maintaining this nice work-life balance for myself and for the employees. COVID taught everyone to respect their time and value their time.

The thing you don’t know about my sushi omakase is … At this point, about 75 percent of my omakase guests are repeats. It could be 100 percent if I wanted the same people, but I don’t want that. There are new people every night. Some people have a monthly reservation, but they’ve been coming for years and years. That’s very few. Everyone else is allowed the re-book once you’re in. I also pick the seats every night. I get an info list. I know my regulars, I know their personalities. And people talk to each other and become friends. People hang out outside of the omakase after they meet there. Because you’re spending two hours together. It’s intimate and it can be a lot of fun.

I don’t like that it’s hard to get into the omakase, but … I feel like it kind of cuts out a lot of people who are used to just complaining their way in. We do get that, and I say no. At my parents’ restaurant, we had a lot of regulars. I just saw my parents — especially my mom, who’s the nicest, sweetest person — get verbally abused and taken advantage of, and coerced by regulars into doing things they didn’t want to do. So I set a boundary for myself. I’m never gonna put up with that.

Geoduck at Royal Sushi / Photograph by Jesse Ito

During the omakase, I’m judging diners in my head when they … wait to eat their sushi. I always say everything is best eaten in the first 30 seconds. There’s a four-minute time difference between each piece. Why wouldn’t you just eat it, instead of after four minutes when the temperature is off? Like why won’t you just eat it? Also, one bite is very important. Because you get all of the flavors in your mouth. The wasabi might only be under one part [of the piece]. I make the rice smaller for people who are struggling with it.

When we opened Izakaya, I didn’t know … many industry people because I worked in my dad’s restaurant in New Jersey. I knew of older chefs through my dad but I didn’t know anyone my age to go out with. But then I immersed myself into this like [scene], with all these amazing people with their arms wide open. And it was fun. I loved hosting the party. So many nights spent at Townsend and all those late-night spots. I was always out with people, so I never saw it as a problem that I would drink a lot. And I loved sharing, right? To me, that made [drinking] okay. Like I’d buy bottles of wine and I’d buy shots for the whole bar. But over the years, the pressures of the restaurant became harder and harder. And we were open seven days a week, late night. Plus doing an omakase that had a 10 p.m. seating. It was a lot.

Before COVID, I had this house in South Philly and I … would have just entire crews of restaurants over to my place. Like we’d be at Fountain Porter and then everyone would come to my house. That would happen often, like I’d just have 30 people in my home until 4 a.m. I do have to say there were drugs, too. But when COVID hit, the behaviors changed. I started doing things that I told myself I’d never do. I would drink before work and wake up on my day off at like 10 a.m. and smoke a huge bong and get plastered drunk, like, “What am I doing?” The usage became different, because it used to always be social, which I always said was fine. But then, when you take away the social, if you’re still doing it, there’s something wrong. And obviously, I was going through so much anxiety about the restaurant in jeopardy. Like, “What am I gonna do? How am I gonna afford my house? How am I gonna pay? How am I going to support my parents?” So it got to a point where I had to ask for help.

I sobered up on … December 1, 2020. So almost two years. I called a good friend who I knew had been sober for a while. And he was like, immediately, “We’re going to AA.” I was like, “Why? No, I’m not fucking going to AA, what the fuck, no.” But I did.

In the restaurant industry, I feel like you’re either … sober or you’re an addict, and there are very few people in between. But it’s one of those things where you can’t just go up to somebody, like, “You have a problem.” People have told me that in the past and I just brushed them off. It took me actually getting to that point of self-realization, where you say: “I want to change.” You have to want to change and you have to see how bad it is, unfortunately. I mean, the thing is, I didn’t lose everything. That’s what I also saw. My parents depend on me, my staff depends on me and my partners, like, I didn’t want to fuck it all up. I felt if I continued down that path, it would eventually get there.

I waited a year to be open about my sobriety because … I didn’t want it to be for social media. Not that there’s anything wrong with people who love posting. But, for me, the first year, it was very private and it was very personal. And it’s very hard, and still is very hard. Posting about it, talking about it created a huge pressure on me to not relapse. And I didn’t want to make any promises, because I didn’t know what was going to happen. But after a year, I felt more comfortable. And then I felt like if someone like me could do it, then I think other people could do it.

It’s important for me to be talk publicly about my experiences … so other people could see that this doesn’t have to be the way of your life. People who know me see the changes. I’ve changed a lot. I know I have changed. I’m all about taking care of myself. My employees take care of themselves. It’s top down.

As for more restaurant projects in the future … I have a couple of things that I’d be passionate about. But I do have to say, for the next few years, I’m just focusing on my life. Just living a healthy life, that’s what I’m interested in.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.