They say being a waiter in New York City is tough, but at least in most restaurants, the food stays still.
At the Japanese restaurant Zauo, opening Monday, servers help their customers catch their own dinner. Using a fishing rod, patrons lure in live fish from an indoor tank, then send it to the kitchen to be prepared.
The concept has some pretty unique staffing requirements: Fish attendants, as the servers are called at Zauo, were hired based on their experience, patience, and — perhaps most importantly — their willingness to grab a slippery, slimy fish and release it from a hook.
“There wasn’t one person who didn’t freak out when they had to touch the fish,” the restaurant’s manager, Rui Higuchi, tells The Post. He’s spent the past month teaching his staff to fish so they can help guests struggling to make the catch.
When guests arrive at the nautical Chelsea restaurant, they first have to decide what kind of fish they want. If they’re in the mood for rainbow trout, striped bass or salmon trout (a hybrid between the two), they head to a large tank on the ground floor of the three-story restaurant. Customers then attach bait to a small rod and cast their line. Upstairs, it’s fluke, flounder, rockfish, lobster, abalone or prawns, which anglers can strategically hook, since they don’t move around too much.
Customers can also opt not to wait for a bite, but they’ll have to pay a little extra if they want a fish attendant to make the catch for them. A striped bass, for instance, is $55 if a staff member fetches it, but $45 if the patron reels it in themselves.“Upstairs is all about aim,” says bartender and fish attendant Patrice Taylor, 26. “Down here,” she says, pointing to the vast tank of trout and bass, “is a waiting game.”
But the savings come with a catch: You have to eat what you reel in. And that could cost you. The foot-and-a-half-long salmon trout costs a whopping $110 — more than double the smaller rainbow trout ($38) and striped bass ($48) swimming in the same tank.
If you hook a salmon trout, “there is no catch and release,” Higuchi says. “You don’t want to weaken the fish by putting it back in the tank.”
When the customer makes a catch, an attendant swoops in with a net, and then detaches the fish from the hook before sending it off to be prepared in one of four ways: sashimi-style, grilled, simmered or tempura-fried. Higuchi says he usually recommends sashimi, since the fish is so fresh.
The fishing process takes some skill — and previous experience doesn’t make it much easier, attendants say.
Zauo has 13 locations in Japan, but this is their first US outpost. Takuya Takahashi, whose father opened the original Zauo in 1993, was present for training this past month. He says the hardest part of the job isn’t catching a fish — it’s keeping morale high in the dining room.“I’ve been squid fishing in the ocean before, but I haven’t ever had to touch the fish to get the hook out,” says fish attendant Sandy Peng, 24. “I definitely panicked a little bit at first, but after about a week I got used to it.”
“The biggest part of the job is to have energy to cheer on the customers,” Takahashi, president of the restaurant’s New York City branch, tells The Post. “But I don’t think that will be a problem here. New Yorkers seem to be more cheerful than customers in Japan.”
That goes for the New York staff, too. Even after catching some 100 fish during training, the attendants still beam with pride when they land a big one.
“We’ll be just as excited as the customers,” Higuchi says.