Tawni Bannister // THRILLIST
Tawni Bannister // THRILLIST

Meet the Sushi Chef Who Ditched Restaurants to Forage Full-Time

Chef Taku Kondo wants people to make the most of what's in their backyards

EDITOR’S NOTE: A lot of car owners are precious with their mileage. To MINI drivers and Thrillist readers, though, watching that odometer tick up is proof of an adventure well spent. That’s why we created The Extra Mile, a series of videos where we took the MINI Countryman across the country to take on challenges with interesting people -- like Taku Kondo, who took the Countryman on a foraging race against the tides in Pacifica. Read on to find out more about what drives him to take on this unique passion and to check out his episode. 

There isn't a coastline in the world that Taku Kondo, a former sushi chef, full-time forager, and YouTube star doesn't have his sights set on. He’s traversed up and down the California coast, to the shores of Hawaii, and across the globe to Japan — while documenting how to forage seafood and plants sustainably for his YouTube channel, Outdoor Chef Life. In every video, Kondo's 400,000-plus subscribers watch him take the protein and vegetation he’s found and transform it into elegant dishes using simple (and sometimes no other) ingredients. 

"Foraging is just a great way for us to connect with the land and be more appreciative of what we have," Kondo, 29, tells Thrillist.

Connecting with the land and inspiring people to find adventures in their backyards has been top of mind for Kondo since starting his channel, and was especially true in 2020. During a year when travel was all but halted, Kondo reconnected with his home base of Northern California. For his most recent adventure foraging mussels, seaweed, and sea urchins, he set the navigation in the MINI Cooper S ALL 4 Countryman to take him from the city streets of San Francisco to Rockaway Beach in Pacifica and timed his arrival to match the tides. While a small camera crew documented all the action of the trip, Kondo has been foraging, filleting, and fishing long before his online audience even knew he existed. 

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From the ground up

Kondo grew up in the Bay Area and was enamored with the ocean for as long as he can remember. He first began fishing with his dad when he was around five years old, then started cooking with his mom as a teenager, slowly falling in love with preparing food as he learned knife and plating skills. He later became interested in the idea of foraging thanks to randomly picking up the book, The Bay Area Forager by Mia Andler and Kevin Feinstein.

"It talked about many of the weeds that we have in the area,” Kondo says. “Mainly, many people just don't think twice about [the weeds]. But actually, all these things are edible around you. They talked about the philosophy of how you want to be sustainable and respectful, and I liked all of that."

As a college student at San Francisco State University, Kondo couldn't afford to eat out in the city’s dining scene, so he cooked nonstop instead. His knife skills were getting better, and after foraging for plants for a few years, he tried out ocean foraging. By 2016, Kondo knew he wanted to become a sushi chef. Thanks to a connection, he finally scored an interview with high-end omakase restaurant Roka Akor in SF. 

"They told me, 'All right, we'll give you a shot for a month, but no pay,” Kondo recalls. “And if we think you're good enough we might think about hiring you. If not, then you got to go.’”

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Kondo was working at the restaurant for 10 hours a day, finishing up school, and delivering food on the side to make ends meet. Meanwhile, the chefs at the restaurant didn't understand the benefits of his foraging skills quite yet. 

"I was harvesting a bunch of little greens and stuff; miner's lettuce and nasturtium and these weeds, basically,” he says. “I told one of my colleagues about it, the chef, and he was like, 'Why are you so weird? Why don't you just go buy something?'"

Despite the naysayers, Kondo quickly became one of the best sushi chefs in the restaurant, which allowed him more creative license to incorporate his foraging finds. He would often surprise guests with small ocean treats, including fresh uni and herring roe. 

"We had this beautiful platter for sashimi, and I would get the seaweed and make [the platter] look more like the sea, just trying to make it more unique and more like the environment that the fish come from,” he says.

Kondo slowly earned the other chefs’ respect, giving him the confidence he needed to take his foraging to the next level.

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Betting on himself

Kondo scored a paid job at San Francisco’s Hinata in 2018. In this upscale omakase-style restaurant, diners would sit down in front of Kondo as he served sashimi and sushi piece by piece. It was during this time that Kondo began filming his weekend foraging excursions. 

He created the Outdoor Chef Life YouTube channel that same year, after receiving encouragement from other international foragers on the platform whose videos he watched. From catching, to filleting, to grilling, Kondo's entire foraging process goes down live on camera with the roar of the ocean crashing behind him. This start-to-finish point-of-view, as well as his skills as a sushi chef, set him apart from other fishing video series.

"Nobody was taking advantage of the foraging aspect of the [Pacific] coast,” he says. “So, I saw an opening there. I figured with my background, I could make everything look and taste amazing, as best as I can."

Kondo made a lofty bet with Hinata’s owner in 2019: If he hit 200,000 subscribers, he would quit and forage full-time.

 “At the time, I had maybe a hundred subscribers, right?” he says. “Before I know it, I'm there… I was like, 'OK, well. I actually quit!'”

“I took that leap of faith… you just sometimes got to go for it.”

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Where in the world is Taku?

Kondo's laidback narration and expert knowledge of the ocean and land earned him his loyal, engaged fanbase (some of his videos have gotten millions of views and thousands of comments). The deep connection he has with his fans, who range from foodies to foragers to fishers, often turn into entirely new adventures worldwide — think fishing for squid in Kagoshima, Japan, foraging fresh uni with master Sushi chef Hiroyuki Terada,  and freediving for crab, scallops, and clams to make seafood paella. 

"I feel like I have a friend everywhere I go," Kondo says with a laugh. "Somebody will invite me to do something on a regular basis." 

During the road trip down the California coast with MINI, Kondo set out chasing low tide to find sea urchin. But, he veered off his original course and discovered a surprise roadside turnoff along the Pacific where mussels were abundant. In classic Kondo fashion, the environment inspired him to get spontaneous and prepare his sushi dish right there next to the ocean. 

Another recent trip included truffle hunting outside of Seattle with a subscriber and his very own truffle-hunting dog. The truffles turned into truffle-infused oil and butter used in risotto and linguine (and then there were whole truffles put on top of a crab sandwich). He even traveled to his parents’ hometown of Kagoshima, Japan and foraged for lobster and went spearfishing in Hawaii for a month alongside a friend.

"Everybody that I've met has been so cool and so down-to-earth, and all like-minded, who like food, who like foraging and, of course, fishing,” he says. “And that's been great."

For the love of the land

There's no foraging adventure too challenging for Kondo. A few of his favorites include night diving in Los Angeles for spiny lobster that walk the ocean floor in the dark and searching for king salmon in Half Moon Bay. "This summer was the first time where I caught king salmon on a kayak," he says. It may have taken him six trips to accomplish this fishing feat, but the hard work turned into a two-part series on how to create mouth-watering salmon sashimi, nigiri, and sushi.

This year might bring Kondo some of his most exciting trips yet. Because of Outdoor Chef Life’s success, the show is hitting the road: Kondo is outfitting a vehicle with a mobile kitchen, so he can take his foraging across the US alongside his girlfriend, Jocelyn, who helps him film.

"It is a dream come true for us," he says.

Kondo continues to feel connected to the ocean and land through foraging — and sometimes, he still goes out just for himself and doesn't document it. Every foraging mission Kondo embarks on, especially his solo ones, helps him feel more connected to why he got into it in the first place. He hopes his YouTube series inspires others to appreciate their local environment just like he does.

"I hope people see what's available around us and take that, and also take the message of sustainability and being able to explore and harvest these amazing ingredients we have in the area," he says. "At the same time, think about sustainability and how you would only take what you need. That's the motto, right, to just take what you need."