Jesse Ito has known sushi all his life. As a 14-year-old high school student at Cherry Hill High School West, he got a job as a dishwasher at his family’s Japanese restaurant, Fuji, located first in Cinnaminson and later in Haddonfield. He worked his way up to line cook and apprenticed under his father, Masaharu, to learn the art of sushi-making. While studying at the Rutgers School of Business–Camden, Ito continued full-time at Fuji. “My life was class and work,” he said.
As he learned more about business plans, operations management, and marketing strategies, Ito began to think about opening a restaurant. Shortly after he graduated in 2012, two of his regular customers asked if he would be interested in partnering to open a Japanese restaurant in Philadelphia. It took three years for that plan to come to fruition—a time period that included the sale of his father’s restaurant—but in September 2016, Ito’s Royal Sushi & Izakaya debuted in Philadelphia’s Queen Village neighborhood.
Since opening, it has earned much praise for changing the way Philadelphia does sushi. In 2017, Craig LaBan, restaurant critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, named Ito as the city’s rising star chef. That same year, Ito also made Zagat’s 30 Under 30 list. In 2019, Ito was a nominee in the finals of the Rising Star Chef category in the national James Beard Awards.
Essentially a Japanese-style pub, Royal Izakaya has a menu that goes beyond sushi. Tucked behind a curtain behind the bar is Ito’s 10-seat sushi counter, known as Royal Sushi, which serves omakase tasting menus—a sushi chef ’s choice set menu—five nights a week. It’s an intimate experience, one that allows Ito to price out and plan every piece of fish, many of which are rare and expensive. The planning is a business skill that Rutgers–Camden helped him develop. “I had some great professors,” Ito said. “The best class I took was a pricing course. That certainly helped me build my omakase menu.”
For Ito, the journey from dishwasher at Fuji to chef and co-owner at Royal Sushi & Izakya has been hard work, though he admits he has made good decisions along the way. “I’m glad that I went to business school instead of culinary school,” Ito said. “At the end of the day, a restaurant is a business. And I can say that my business is successful.”
Story originally appeared in Rutgers Camden Magazine