Nearly two decades after her graduation from Japanese Culinary School, a sushi chef has finally come full circle and opened her own Japanese restaurant in Langley.
Joan Samson is the chef behind Mommafish, a small-scale restaurant on First Street offering “bespoke” sushi bowls, boxes and hand rolls to go. Though currently open only three days a week, a lot goes on behind the scenes at this one-woman operation, including trips to the mainland to purchase the fresh fish highlighted in Samson’s dishes.
“Sushi and Japanese food is my favorite food, and it was hard to find anything here on the island,” said Samson, who moved to Whidbey with her family in 2019.
Mommafish is Samson’s fourth restaurant, and something she wasn’t exactly expecting to open when she moved to the Pacific Northwest for a change of pace following a busy career in California. Her last restaurant, Starling Diner, appeared on the Food Network TV show “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” in 2014.
“That was the pinnacle of my restaurant career, being on that show,” she said. “It was really awesome.”
Host Guy Fieri, who she said some may perceive as being over the top and bombastic, was down to earth, funny and kind.
Her Long Beach cafe experienced an explosion in popularity after its TV debut.
“It was a juggernaut that we were just kind of holding onto,” Samson said. “It was a lot, and it took a lot to keep those plates spinning.”
So she and her husband let go of the business and moved north to raise their young son. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunity arose to open a new restaurant on South Whidbey. It was either that, or put her law school degree to use and sit for the bar exam.
“Instead of practicing law, I wanted to open a cafe and my parents thought I was crazy,” Samson said of her first time starting a restaurant business, which was a brunch concept in San Francisco.
In the end, the food won out, and this time, it’s sushi.
Samson has been yearning to open a sushi restaurant since attending Japanese Culinary School in Los Angeles in 2003. The schooling was intense, hierarchical and male-dominated, with only two other women in her class. Students learned knife skills, which resulted in a lot of cuts to the hands.
“It was tougher in some parts than law school but more rewarding,” she said with a laugh.
After graduating, Samson struggled to find a job not only as a female sushi chef, but also as a left-handed person, due to some existing mythology that left-handed chefs run hotter and it’s bad for the sushi.
She finally succeeded in finding a job at a nontraditional Japanese restaurant, whose owner was grateful for the thank-you card she sent after her interview.
At Mommafish, Samson assumes the roles of head chef, sous chef, dishwasher, janitor and bookkeeper, while husband Ed Hodson handles the front of house operations.
“I’ve worked hours where I’ve actually slept at my restaurant and then opened it again, and I never want to do that,” she said. “Everything that we do here at Mommafish is designed to be lean and nimble and just a labor of love. And above all, it has to be fun for us.”
Seating within Mommafish is limited, and there is no table service. Samson started hosting supper clubs as a way to more intimately connect with fans of her cuisine. Through this leisurely experience, participants enjoy a meal and prepare food to bring home. A recent class instructed attendees how to make poke bowls. Upcoming sessions in August focus on hamachi and sushi rice and rolls.
“I look at the world as, are you a producer or are you a consumer?” Samson said. “And if you can make things that add value to people’s lives, then your life is considered a win, even if it’s very small.”
This summer, Mommafish is open from 3:33-7:00 p.m. on Monday and Friday and noon to 7 p.m. on Saturday. Visit mommafish.com for more information. Additionally, the restaurant has Facebook and Instagram pages.