More Than Tradition: Meet the Ke family behind Wilmington staple, Genki Sushi

BY • Nov 2 • 525 Views • No Comments on More Than Tradition: Meet the Ke family behind Wilmington staple, Genki Sushi

The Kes have owned Genki for more than two years now, but have been (in some way or another) in the sushi business for much longer. Chef Danny has been working on his craft for more than two decades. After moving from China to New York City, he started busing tables and worked his way up to “assistant” to his Japanese mentor. He soon became sous chef before relocating to Myrtle Beach, SC, where he met Lana—a native to the area.

Genki sushi sampler. Photo by Lindsey A. Miller Photography

BITES OF DELIGHT: Genki sushi sampler. Photo by Lindsey A. Miller Photography

“He worked at this place called  and he had this wild, crazy blonde hair,” she describes of Danny’s ever-so brief time away from his normally clean-cut, dark quaff.

They were married within six months. The couple moved from Myrtle Beach in 2003 so Danny could help open Hiro. Genki (then located in the current Wasabi Sushi on S. College Road) always was a favorite spot for their “date night.” “We had a good relationship with [the previous owners],” Lana tells. “In 2005 (after they moved to the New Centre location), I applied for a job.”

While Lana was serving tables, her boss at the time heard a lot about Chef Danny over at Hiro’s. It wasn’t long before he was “head hunted” and brought on to Genki as well. “She told me, ‘I know Danny is very good at sushi,’” Lana recalls upon Danny’s hire.

A few years went by and hints of the owners retiring began. When it came down to “passing the torch,” it wasn’t as simple as writing a check and signing the deed. Though the four were close, there was an extensive interview process to ensure a few things: the traditional menu would be preserved and loyal customers would be taken care of.

“This was their baby, it was personal,” Lana explains. “And we didn’t want to change anything. This was our favorite restaurant [and] they already had an established clientele that ate with them every week.”

At the end of the day, and a meal between the two couples, a simple gesture gave an informal approval. “Danny said in the car on the way home, ‘I think it’s going to be OK because they gave me the last piece of sushi,’” Lana remembers. “For Danny, that was them signaling, ‘I approve of you.’”

About three months later Lana and Chef Danny walked through Genki’s doors as its new owners. Lana says it was an almost seamless transfer from the previous owners, who also took time to train her in the kitchen. It’s been an invaluable skill expected in the restaurant industry to help when short-handed at the last minute. “It has been a lifesaver,” she tells. “I learned how to do everything in the kitchen the Japanese way, too—the Japanese-style. I learned a lot about the culture that way.”

The philosophy with which Lana was trained, and one she and Chef Danny still subscribe to, is that people eat with their eyes, hands and nose before their mouths. It also provided reasoning and the “why” behind the process. At the end of the day, Lana is front-house leader of the operation and Chef Danny handles back of the house and what’s on the menu.

Everything is authentic on Genki’s traditional menu, with very few fried offerings or mayo-based sauces found at many modern hibachi/sushi restaurants. Dishes like Hijiki seaweed salad are favorites for many who seek a taste of authenticity. “Hijiki is an old traditional way,” Chef Danny says. “You can go into a hundred restaurants and people don’t do it anymore. You don’t see it.”

The specials lists allow them to cater to diners looking for nontraditional items, like the crunchy crab roll.

“My honey made that for me,” Lana says while hugging Danny’s arm. In fact, it’s her favorite roll. “It’s made with pink soy paper—kind of a spin off of crunchy lobster . . . because I like cilantro, which some people don’t like, but he puts extra on mine.”

Aside from daily specials, not a lot has changed with the main menu. The chef’s favorite buckwheat soba noodles is still a healthy option of spinach, green onion, crabstick, and boiled egg in a broth made fresh daily. Chef Danny creates practically everything in house, including his own soy-sauce blend based on a traditional Japanese recipe. It starts with a salty concentrated base and is mixed with various (secret) ingredients—a process which brings its sodium level lower than store-bought low-sodium sauce. It’s a blend especially for sushi. “It’s not overpowering,” Chef Danny adds, “but not too light to bring the taste out of the fish. If it’s too strong, it takes over the fish.”

Chef Danny has a fine palate for seafood. He can tell how long a tuna’s been out of water just by looking at its eyeballs. “Eyes, the skin,” he clarifies. “The eyes should be shiny; when they’re cloudy, it’s not sashimi grade. . . . You still can eat it, but it’s not sashimi grade.”

“He’s very particular,” Lana continues. “I’ve seen him turn away a 400-pound tuna when we needed tuna that week. . . . Quality means so much; he’s willing to not serve it or turn it away if it’s not up to par.”

Chef Danny says a fish’s taste can change even with the slightest rise in temperature. Not just in taste or smell but texture—even if the rice the fish sits upon is too warm. “It tastes different from there traveling to here,” Chef Danny says, gesturing from the sushi bar back to the table in the dining area. “When you take it to go, also the tastes change because the temperatures change.”

Quality standards don’t end at fresh fish and vegetables, either. Chef Danny uses his own favorite (undisclosed) brand of short-grain rice. While any brand, and perhaps longer-grain rice, could be used for sushi, none of it would be found in Genki’s kitchen. “The brand that we use specializes in sushi rice only,” Chef Danny divulges. “It’s more fat, plumper; the texture is better. The quality is better than the other brand of rice.”

Assembly and cooking method are just as important as quality of ingredients. If Chef Danny’s too-heavy handed or forceful with the rice, it could break down. Measurements, too, are key. Finding the right ratios of rice to other ingredients isn’t always easy for a novice, but Danny’s able to eyeball the process.

“I can control and figure it out by hand,” he describes with gestures that mimick his process.

They are techniques he teaches students in sushi workshops at the restaurant. For folks who want to learn more about the artistry of  sushi, Danny emphasizes everything from how to eat sushi to preparation details, which start with proper tools.

“Just like when teaching people from beginning to the end, preparation is very important for the food,” he says. “If the knife is not sharp enough, you not cut the veggie. I squeeze the veggie . . . When the knife is good, I can cut the veggies very fine and the texture in the end is different.”

Lana and Danny have been married for 15 years now. The two seem to effortlessly complement one another; finishing each other’s sentences. However, marriage and owning a restaurant are admittedly not always ideal bedfellows.

“It has added stress,” Lana admits, “but it’s also helped us in the sense that we get to spend more time with each other. We never used to see each other. Now we have to figure out when we have a day off [laughs].”

“[Lana’s] sometime difficult to work with,” Chef Danny jokes. Lana snickers beside him. “It’s a different kind of mind, and how we do stuff. I have my way and she has her ways of doing things. She’s tough.”

“I’m a tough boss?” Lana interjects. “I think he’s a tough boss. I’m tactful.”

Lana jokes she has to warn new hires of Danny’s blunt, straightforward feedback and particular standards and work ethic. In a way, it makes it tough to find people when there are vacancies within, but all worthwhile once they find a good fit. What she’s been most thankful for in these past few years has been stellar staffing.

“I cannot even begin to tell you about the people who God has put in my path to help me with our restaurant,” she tells. “They want to work, they care about us, we care about them; they have become a part of our family.”

Those relationships, Lana says, continue to grow and thrive because of a few reasons. There’s no micromanaging and they all have fun as a team. Genki staff also are paid a living wage. Sustainable income equals a sustainable workforce.

“We don’t have a lot of people, but we pay them well,” Lana states, “so they hang out with us for a long time. We tell them our numbers, and they help us reach our goals. Every night when we close out, they’ll say, ‘What did we make?’ And if we’ve missed [our goal,] they’re upset. If we’ve met or exceeded it, we all jump and have a party.  . . . That just makes my heart jump because they care that much.”

As the self-proclaimed “people person,” Lana is also Genki’s full-time customer-service department. She’ll stop by a table to make sure there was nothing wrong with two pieces of sushi left on a platter. If an online review is negative, she’ll reach out to understand what happened and rectify the situation if she can.

“Nobody is allowed to leave unhappy,” Lana asserts. “Just trying to make sure every person has a good time and has nothing bad to say is so important to me. It’s important you care enough about your customers because you’re customers are your business.”

“You care for people first, money will come,” Chef Danny adds.

A lot of restaurants would take regular business, loyal staff and clientele as a sign to open another location. Right now their 14-year-old daughter Sophia and younger son Levi keep the restaurateurs busy as well. Chef Danny teases the idea of expansion, but until he and Lana can be in two kitchens at once, folks will have to wait indefinitely for another Genki.

Genki is located at 4724 New Centre Dr. #5; (910) 796-8687.

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