For regular patrons of the sushi bar at Epicurean and Company, the dining experience is inseparable from its head chef, Peter Tran. Famous among customers for his creative sushi designs and limitless sense of humor, Tran is easily one of the most recognizable faces at the eatery.
Tran joined Epi in August 2008 after he moved from Hawaii to D.C. with his family, which is part Vietnamese and part American. Born and raised in Vietnam, Tran moved to Hawaii at age 23 when he first learned to make sushi at a hibachi restaurant.
“I worked in a hibachi restaurant, so my friend was a head sushi chef there,” Tran said. “He taught me how take care of the fish – how to keep it fresh, how to clean the fish, how to not mess up the fish.”
Tran decided to move to D.C. because of the better educational opportunities the city’s schools offered for his daughter, who is now 21. He first discovered a job vacancy at Epi in a newspaper advertisement. He initially started out as manager, and after taking on an array of different tasks, Tran ultimately settled as a sushi chef.
The skills Peter learned about handling raw fish in Hawaii have remained key to his sushi-making at Epi, as he attributes the quality of the sushi to the freshness of its ingredients.
“You take care of your fish like you take care of your girlfriend,” Tran said. “When I clean the fish, we try not to move it too much, we don’t try to touch too much. We try to not bend the fish, because if you bend it the meat will be broken, and the juice from the meat will come out and the taste will be gone. They spoil very fast and then they smell fishy. That means it’s not fresh.”
According to Tran, the most popular type of sushi with Georgetown students is salmon, which is also his favorite fish. While he enjoys making sushi with raw fish, he has also expanded his repertoire to include special items — what he calls “American sushi” — such as a sushi roll that uses cream cheese.
Ensuring fresh fish requires an extensive procedure. The kitchen buys its ingredients from the same wholesale market in D.C. each day, sometimes even returning subpar products. Peter oversees this process, arriving at Epi at 11 a.m. and staying until the sushi bar closes at 10 p.m. His daily routine consists of examining fish for freshness, preparing it for sushi and conversing with customers, which he said is one of his favorite parts of the job.
“I love the young people here,” Tran said. “I think young people here feel like my kids. So I love to talk with them. So I think they are smart — they are more smart than me. But I am older than them. So I talk about school and the street, and I love talking to them.”
Comparing Georgetown to Hawaii, Tran said he finds the campus environment less warm than his home state, though he tries to be friendly to everyone.
“Students here are from all over the world,” Peter said. “Hawaii is more friendly, more cool, more laid-back than here. Here I feel like they’re more to themselves. But for me, I’m nice to everyone, so I think everyone is nice to me.”
Tran especially enjoys getting to know regular customers, of whom he has too many to keep track. Paola Capo (SFS ’17), one such patron, said she became a regular at the sushi bar during her sophomore year, when she began frequenting it after exams and started talking to Tran, who soon nicknamed her Sweet Home after hearing she was from Alabama.
Like other regulars at the sushi bar, Capo often receives special sushi rolls from Tran, such as swan-shaped sushi rolls and other designs.
“Since I go so much and we always talk a lot, he just started giving me these extra tokens of friendship,” Capo said. “Really, what he does is art, and it’s fun for him. He really enjoys doing creative things.”
Tran attributes his creative sushi designs to a childhood pastime.
“When I was a boy, I lived on my own. I didn’t have toys, so I made my own toys,” Tran said. “So now when I do the sushi, I look and I think ‘Oh today’s a slow day, so I’ll make a swan.’”
According to Tran, his sushi designs change depending on his mood, customer preferences and the time of year. Prior to this interview, he made a specialty “kangaroo roll” for a customer at the sushi bar who was Australian. Tran’s designs are also inspired by holidays, from flower designs during Valentine’s Day to cats at Halloween to turkeys at Thanksgiving.
Looking ahead, Tran anticipates that he will continue working at Epi, where he has fostered friendships with many of his patrons.
“I’ve worked here almost eight years,” Tran said. “So far, I love the students here, and I love the people here, and I love my job too. So I’ll stick around.”