Visit Puerto Rico and chances are a sushi dinner is not on your bucket list of things to do. Well, time to change the itinerary. For the past 15 years, the Ritz Carlton Isla Verde has been serving their guests the unmistakable flavors of Puerto Rico in an interesting way. And it’s all thanks to Chef Keiko Yabuuchi, a pioneer of Japanese food in Puerto Rico.
Yabuuchi, who was was born in Tokushima, Japan, didn't set out to be a chef. She first started cooking for her family at 11 years old after the unexpected death of her father. She had to start taking over all the household chores for her mother, cooking included. “Unfortunate at the time,” she reflects, “ but such golden training for my life.”
That ultimately turned into a lifelong career. She describes her training as completely “on-the-job.” She worked hard to learn everything she possibly could from some of the great masters of sushi, all while holding down a job as general manager for the restaurants she worked at.
Then while spending time in New York, Yabuuchi met a “wonderful Puerto Rican man” and together they moved to the island in 1975. Her first job was at the legendary Hotel San Juan. Then, she helped to open Blossom Restaurant at the El Conquistador Hotel, Yamata Restaurant in Hotel El San Juan, and Mandalay Restaurant in the Condado Plaza Hotel.”
She is happy to call Puerto Rico home, now.
“I love it here,
I love the people, I love our natural beauty, and after so many years, even the
staff here at the Ritz say I’m more Puerto Rican than Japanese! 39 years here
and I still love it so much,” said Yabuuchi.
She’s been at the Ritz Carlton for 15 years and considers it her “greatest honor” to be there. Every day brings something new and exciting for her. “Forgive me for gushing a little bit, but I was so honored to serve customers such as Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Jerry Rivera, so many Miss Universes – I’ve loved serving them all, and thankfully, they all loved my sushi," said Yabuuchi. "I also had the honor of catering the sushi for Don Omar’s wedding! What a great experience."