Chef Spotlight: James Sargent

The following column appears in the 2024 spring issue of The Food & Wine Guide for South Walton presented by 30A Food & Wine, available now on news racks around the area.

Shaka Sushi and Cocktail Bar

By Michelle Farnham
March 26, 2024

INLET BEACH – Coming up on its fifth anniversary in town, Shaka Sushi and Cocktail Bar has had one constant: Executive Chef James Sargent. We chatted with the man behind the sushi counter about his well-timed path to becoming a sushi chef, battling rice, and what keeps him, well, rolling.

Chef James Sargent
Chef James Sargent

Q: Where did you grow up and how did you end up on the Emerald Coast?

A: My father was in the Marine Corps and I was born in Okinawa, Japan. We were there until I was 5 and of course every three years after that, we got sent to a different location. We were in Washington, D.C., and then we went to San Diego for three years, back to Okinawa, then we stayed in Hawaii for five years, and then after that was Pensacola, which is how I ended up in the area.

Q: How did you land a career in a sushi shop?

A: In Pensacola my mom was waiter in a Japanese restaurant called Yamato, and I became a busboy and dishwasher there very young. My parents got stationed back to Hawaii but the owners asked me to stay there and become a hibachi chef, which I did. I lived with them for a year or so and they taught me the business. We opened a restaurant in Fort Walton Beach in 1988 called Yamato. When my parents got back from Hawaii, we purchased that restaurant. Then in 2005, I went to work at Old Florida Fish House, and that’s how I ended up in this area. I had a great experience there and we built that place up, sushi-wise. I was approached by the LCRG (Last Call Restaurant Group) group to open a shop in 2019, and we opened in April of that year.

Q: You’ve been in the business for decades now, what has kept you going?

A: When I first started, I was a hibachi chef before I became a full-time sushi chef. It was not that popular back then; it was brand new and people were afraid of it. I remember walking around with a tray with cooked rolls like crunchy shrimp rolls and cowboy rolls, just trying to get people to try it. Once they tried it, it seemed like they loved it, and I moved them into more advanced things: tuna, yellowtail, salmon. We didn’t know where it was going to go, but it became so popular. I feel like I was very lucky to get in on the ground floor of the sushi explosion. It’s all I’ve ever done.

Shaka Sushi

Q: What has influenced your approach to food?

A: I’ve had a lot of influence from the chefs that I worked with over the years. I worked with a lot with a Korean background and that’s probably one of my favorite foods. They were excellent Korean chefs and there have been other influences, but I think Korean is my favorite type of food besides Japanese.

Q: What is your favorite item on the Shaka menu to eat and to make?

A: To eat, that’s a very tough question because sushi is one of my favorite foods, but the Bulgogi and the short ribs are my other favorite food. To make, Kimchi is an all-day or two-day process. That’s one of my funner things to make because it’s not 100% exact every time, you know, something’s always a little bit different.

Q: Talking tools of the trade, what kitchen tool couldn’t you live without?

A: For sure, our rice cookers. I think we have a total of five or six and during the season, they’re all being put to use. Just the measurements on that alone, it’s not just the water measurement, it’s the rice that you get in. They have something called new crop: the new crop and the older crop have different measurements, so even when you’ve been doing it for this long, you still have to adjust as you go. All the chefs are always talking about, “Hey, I think we need a little more water or a little less water, and it’s a constant battle with the rice. It’s crazy. Of course undercooked is bad but sometimes overcooked can be rough also. Any sushi chef will tell you, we always battle on the rice.

Shaka Sushi

Q: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you would be doing?

A: When I was younger, I wanted to be a police officer or go into the military. My dad’s background is Marine Corps, but he asked maybe I pick something a little different. I never knew I was going to be doing this for 40 years. It can be grueling at times, but it’s also instant gratification when you make something for a customer that you can tell right away they’re happy or when you see a happy face or the head nod, that is what we look for when they’re eating.

Q: What is one thing you wish patrons knew about Shaka?

A: That would be the amount of work we put into getting fish daily. It’s a lot, and we always have fish coming in. The one thing that they can be sure of when they come to Shaka is the quality is going to be there. They’re going to get the best fish.

Shaka Sushi and Cocktail Bar is now owned by Spell Restaurant Group and is located at 13625 U.S. Highway 98 East, Suites 5, 6, in Inlet Beach. Find them online at www.shaka30a.com or call 850-909-0030.