Sublimely fresh chunks of tuna were stacked up against a mound of guacamole ringed by pools of sweet soy dappled with herby green oil. Two pearlescent ribbons of hamachi, each cut from different parts of the fish, curled around balls of perfectly toothy rice with two-toned stripes of silver and black skin. Delicate slices of pink albacore - "poor man's o-toro," says Jesse - melted across my tongue with a buttery omega-3 glow. A live scallop twitched the moment it met Jesse's blade, then appeared seconds later over the counter unfolded like an ivory flower glossed with a chopstick dab of truffle oil.
"He's really got Matt's talent," says longtime customer Sam Cohen, who's been eating at Fuji for 30 years. "And I've known him since he was a rugrat."
For regular customers like Cohen - who's had a standing reservation at the sushi bar each Friday night, culminating in a round of "wasabi roulette" (one piece on the platter spiked with a tear-inducing dose of horseradish) - Jesse's presence beside his father is "a statement of continuity." Jesse's mother, Yeonghui, also still runs the front of the house as a partner in the restaurant (though she and Matt are now divorced).
But no one is under any illusion that working so closely with a parent always goes smoothly, especially with a boss as exacting as Matt Ito.
"Who wants to work for their father?" says Cohen. "Didn't you read Oedipus?"
Jesse does not hesitate to agree: "I think [my father] is definitely a great chef. . . . But it's not the easiest working with your dad all the time," especially when it came to learning the craft. "If I cut the fish too big, or I cut it too small, or a style he didn't like, or if I made the rice too big, he'd be mad about that: 'Too big rice,' he'd say. 'It ruins the balance. This isn't supermarket sushi.' Or sometimes it's just a nod: the Japanese shame."
Ah, the delicate - and elaborate - art of handling sushi rice, a task that in Japan can take years to master.
"When you make maki rolls," insists Matt, "you have to leave air in the rice. You can't push the rice too much."
The intense focus on the father and son's working relationship shouldn't be mistaken for a lack of personal closeness.
"Don't forget," Cohen says, "Matt is a Japanese man. He's restrained in his emotions - at least in what he will show. You won't hear Matt go, 'That's my boy!' like this is an Italian restaurant where the father beams. That's just not going to happen. And Jesse, he's not going to say 'That's my pop!' either."
Matt concedes that his mentoring style is an understated "show, not tell" approach, but is clearly pleased with his student's progress: "I'm very happy. The way I teach anybody - I just show them how to cut, how to pan-fry this and this. If they're not doing it right, then I go back and show them again. Jesse just naturally goes and does things. He doesn't ask me too much. I don't say too much. He's a very cool boy - he takes responsibility, and does things by himself."
The father-son kitchen relationship wasn't necessarily preordained. As a child, Jesse recalls many meals at the restaurant when Matt would put so much wasabi in the sushi, "I'd get one piece of nigiri that would make me cry," says Jesse. "I think he enjoys it."
The heavy hand with the horseradish is just habit, insists Matt, innocently: "He always says, 'You put too much wasabi!' And I say, 'I'm sorry, I can't help it!' That's the traditional way we do it here."
Their tastes may differ, but it wasn't long before Matt saw a special spark in Jesse as he took to tasks in the kitchen, working his way up as a teenager from dishwasher to tempura cook, learning to master his father's delicate technique of splashing extra batter atop vegetables for added texture once they float in the fryer: "He started making tempura, then he tried to make a better tempura, and then he tried to make the best. I found out then: He has a passion."
From the other side of the counter, Cohen often sees the father in the son's work ethic.
"What I see in Jesse is Matt's overwhelming desire for perfection," says Cohen. "I've watched Jesse practice cutting when things slow up a little bit, and he'll practice on a cucumber while we're just sitting there between courses. He is just constantly striving to get it better, to get it to the point where it's perfect, where there's nothing beyond the green and the skin of the cucumber coming off. That's where they're exactly the same.
"Where they are different is that Jesse is an American kid," says Cohen.
A graduate of Cherry Hill West just about to finish his marketing degree at Rutgers University in Camden, Jesse has embraced the task of using social media to promote the family's 33-year-old restaurant, which has largely thrived under the radar on a core of devoted gastronomes and consistent three-bell reviews.
"My dad doesn't really understand what Facebook is," said Jesse, whose artful photos fill the restaurant's page with images of his father preparing a bluefin tuna-head feast, a butterfly-like flying fish, king crabs, and fiddlehead ferns. Jesse prepares the e-mail blasts to inform regulars when special ingredients arrive or special menus are created. A new website is being designed.
Despite their cultural and generational divide, Ito the elder sees some parallels between his own story and that of his son. As a boy growing up on Kyushu island in southern Japan, Matt knew early on that he wanted to be a chef. He, too, was inspired by time spent with his father, Hideo, a schoolteacher and former army cook, whose homey chicken stews and frequent trips to local sushi restaurants were eye-opening, to say the least.
When Matt decided to forgo traditional high school for culinary school, though, his father disapproved: "He said, 'No.' I had to go to high school. Once I graduate high school and university, then I could do what I want."
One year later, when the 15-year-old Matt visited his seriously ill father in the hospital, Hideo had a change of heart.
"He told me, 'You can do whatever you want. You can become a cook. But under one condition: just be the best.' The next day he passed away. But I had his blessing."
Decades later, history was replayed when Jesse told his mother that he wanted to go to culinary school instead of traditional college.
"I stepped in and said, 'No, no, no, you're going to college first, and then you can do what you want,' " says Matt. "I'd totally forgotten my father had said the same thing to me."
As Jesse rounds the corner on that college degree, the question hangs above each artful plate of fish he slices: Will he stay behind the sushi bar at Fuji?
"Matt's given him the keys to the sushi bar, and he's letting him drive it his own way," says Cohen. "And that's his way of showing respect. Because if things weren't going well, he wouldn't tolerate that in his restaurant - son or no son. If Jesse weren't cutting it, he wouldn't be there."
Papa Ito says he won't be the one to push.
"I don't know what will happen, but I wish, whatever he does, that it's the best for him," says Matt. "He's a young man with multiple talents that I want him to develop. If he decides to stay in the business that's fine - but I want him to pursue what he wants. I'm very happy with that."
Jesse, it seems, is in no rush to decide.
"I'm not sure yet. Sometimes I think yes, sometimes I think no. Our regulars are amazing, and I love the restaurant business. Sometimes I hate the restaurant business, but this is what I know," he says. "I have a lot of pride in our restaurant. And the good thing is, if I mess up he can't fire me, and I can't quit on him, either - it's family."
Fuji Japanese Restaurant
116 E. Kings Highway, Haddonfield; 856-354-8200, www.fujirestaurant.com.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682, email@example.com, or @CraigLaBan on Twitter.