In Japan, would-be sushi chefs suffer for their art

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  • 0

    Yubaru

    There is sushi and then there is 寿司 and to the connoisseur there is a difference! If I had the time I would love to go to this school and learn the right way! Good Luck!

    I wonder who gets to eat the "mistakes" lol!

  • -2

    gaijinfo

    Self congratulatory hogwash.The most vital ingredient for any "connoisseur" to enjoy any of this claptrap is to be told it's "special" so they can fawn all over it and pretend they "see" how "special" it is.

  • 4

    Tamarama

    The Japanese methods of teaching might seem harsh to those of us from a nice, fluffy 'student centered' educational system, but many of these things are veritable art forms and the expectations of the highest standards from trainees is, I guess, part and parcel of the education. I know plenty of people who could have done with a little more...'military' in their lives....

  • -1

    ChibaChick

    Discipline, yes, but this shouting and yelling and telling everyone how crap they are nonsense just smacks again to me of Japan's culture of bullying and abuse of position.

    This isn't the army. It's fish. Delicious artistically presented fish, but still - fish. Would love to understand the mentality that screaming at and humiliating someone makes them a better anything.

  • 5

    ben4short

    I feel sorry for those making negative comments (especially those who have lived here any reasonable length of time) for failing to grasp the critical role the *shokunin *mentality/tradition plays in most aspects of contemporary Japanese life.

    This no-compromise striving for perfection (while acknowledging that perfection does not exist) is firmly rooted in Buddhistic thought. Those who criticize this *shokunin *culture are, knowingly or not, insulting the foundation upon which Japanese culture is built. Time to remove the hate blinders and accept Japan for what it is, not what you'd like it to be.

  • 2

    Seawolf

    ben4short - it's not that much a cultural thing actually. Go to any restaurant kitchen in Europe and you will hear lot's of shouting and, esp in the higher level French and Italian ones, sometimes a hand or foot moving...because preparing food takes a lot of concentration. I have been working in a dozen restaurants (albeit service) and recently started in a hotel restaurant for the first time: that kitchen staff is the worst bunch I have encountered, ever. Because there is no shouting or hard words, they are forgetful as high-school students, it's just irritating.

  • -5

    Seawolf

    Too much rice and it will be more than a mouthful; too little and it will be overpowered by the fish; too much pressure and it will be hard; too little and the pellet will fall apart.

    That's what sushi robots are for, all problems mentioned above solved. Only point of worry would be regular cleaning, otherwise it could get unhygienic. And these machines are actually the single most reason that sushi restaurants spread this much in Europe.

  • 1

    Seawolf

    gaijinfo - are you maybe mistaking this for an article about French wine?

  • -5

    AKBfan

    I like sushi and enjoy going to a top end sushi restaurant for the whole experience. however i would venture to say that 80% of what differentiates excellent from justgood is the quality of the fish. I get the whole "want to do it as well as possible", but the whole takes 30 years to be even good seems excessive to me. 29 years and still learning - I think he is just a slow learner.

  • -7

    smithinjapan

    Yubaru: "There is sushi and then there is 寿司 and to the connoisseur there is a difference!"

    No, there isn't, actually, and it's been proven time and again. You prove it yourself, in fact, with your statement; if TOLD you are eating 寿司 and not just 'sushi', then you will believe it's more delicious. If told you are eating Hokkaido crab when you are eating crab flavoured kamaboko (100 yen for six or more sticks), you'll believe it and say how delicious it is. If told you are eating a Yubari melon worth 200,000 yen when in fact it's a 300 yen piece of melon from your local Izumiya you'll take a bite, sigh and close your eyes, and two seconds later say, "Umai!". And by 'you' I don't necessarily mean 'Yubari' but people here in general.

    This whole, "You must train for 30 years or you are not a real 寿司 chef thing is crap. Some people are more talented than others, and there is no placing a time limit on developing skills. It is likewise crap for someone who is bad at it but becomes a 'sushi chef' because they put in the requisite time. Believe it or not there's not a whole lot of skill involved in cutting the fish -- it's more the freshness and quality of the fish. Presentation plays a large part, of course, but again the idea that it looks prettier means it tastes better is more of the same hogwash.

  • 3

    shawnth

    I think its a combination of several things. No denying that no matter how talented you are, if you have low quality fish you can't hope to serve good sushi. But to say majority of what makes good sushi is the freshness and quality of the fish just speaks to your ignorance. From my experience eating out and cutting fish at home. - Cutting raw fish is extremely difficult to get right, you'll be amazed how difficult it is even with expensive specialized knives sold for this purpose in Tsukiji. I can definitely tell the difference when eating at a restaurant between people who cut fish well and people who shouldn't be cutting it to begin with. - Making the rice ball isn't as easy as you think. There are machines specialized for this that are used in the sushi bento sold at markets.. but anybody beyond a 2 year sushi trainee can do better. - One important aspect I think not mentioned in this article is its almost as crucial for the sushi chef (or buyer if its a large restaurant) to have a good eye for picking fish to buy. Again you can't hope to serve good sushi w/o good ingredients.

  • -4

    Ian Duncan

    Well now...bullies shouting at people whilst taking money from them. I'm not entirely convinced that's a feature unique to Japanese sushi school. I'm pretty sure it happens everywhere there are bullies and people scared to stand up to them.

  • 4

    ben4short

    @smithinjapan

    It's really quite a shame, Smith, that your taste buds are so undeveloped as not to be able to tell the difference between good Hokkaido crab and kamaboko, to say nothing of your sense of smell. You are missing so much of the culinary joy Japan has to offer.

    Your second comment shows you really don't get it at all.

  • 1

    sourpuss

    Hey guys, if you can't take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

    Funny, but it makes sense even for raw fish. All of those complaining about the reality of becoming a sushi chef, really shouldn't try to, and never will attain any level of perfection in anything. Mastery of any subject or skill takes dedication and strict levels of self control, whether it be sushi or soccer. Being able to put up with a certain level of verbal abuse without giving up shows determination and an ability to control one's own emotions.

  • 3

    sourpuss

    Smithinjapan,

    I understand the typical anti-snobbery position, but it doesn't stand when it comes to becoming a gourmet or a master of anything. Understanding and appreciating the minutia of food is what makes a gourmet. Say "whiskey is whiskey" to a whiskey gourmet, and all you'll get is a smirk. And justifiably so. Sushi may be sushi to the vast majority of people, but just like wine, whiskey, pasta or poutine, to the connoisseur a "sushi is sushi" comment is just ignorance on display.

  • 0

    ben4short

    sourpuss,

    Two excellent posts. Thank you.

  • 1

    Yubaru

    No, there isn't, actually, and it's been proven time and again. You prove it yourself, in fact, with your statement; if TOLD you are eating 寿司 and not just 'sushi', then you will believe it's more delicious

    Yes there is a difference, and we in my family have tried it before, getting the same types of sushi from different establishments.....there was a DISTINCTLY different taste and texture.

  • 0

    shirokuma2011

    At my income level, the real connoisseurship lies in being able to tell a decent 120-yen-a-plate sushi place from a dangerously iffy one.

    But I'm still looking forward to seeing "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," which is finally showing in Tokyo. A shokunin in the best sense of the word.

  • 3

    wipeout

    If told you are eating Hokkaido crab when you are eating crab flavoured kamaboko (100 yen for six or more sticks), you'll believe it and say how delicious it is.

    You'll have to do better than that. It's not difficult to distinguish real crab from crab sticks.

  • 1

    Tamarama

    This whole, "You must train for 30 years or you are not a real 寿司 chef thing is crap.

    This just shows an ignorance to the idea that perfecting an artform takes many, many years of training, experience and cumulative skill. Dismissing such practices are what bought wonders like McDonalds to the world.

    This approach is the long term commitment to strive for perfection over a career. It's the mastery of a craft, and the belief that mastery is truly achieved through sustained commitment. I absolutely believe that to be true and I believe the Japanese have a fantastic appreciation of what it takes to achieve it.

  • -5

    oikawa

    Most people who are any good at anything were good at it immediately. You think Eddie van Halen struggled for years until he finally got a G chord down? You think Einstein was in remedial Physics class when he was 17? Of course not, and the same goes for suchi chefs. It's just the same style of"education" that sees baseball team members in school practice for hours and hours every day just throwing and hitting, and hardly gettting any better at all because, actually, they're not very good. If you've got it you're going to be a great chef, musician, or whatever. If not, you're not. And it's no wonder the suicide rate is so high when people's self esteem is so derided. It ain't rocket science. Or perhaps it is judging from some replies here.

    As for food, to each their own. Some people can taste the difference in quality depending on the food, but on one of the few mildly interesting programs on TV here they showed peole tasting blind ordinary foods and the supposed creme de la creme of the respective food type. There was no consistency at all in their answers.There were only about 15 people but I don't see why that shouldn't be pretty representative of the overall population seeing as they were chosen pretty randomly by dint of their "celebrity status". It's a private matter of taste, that's why it's so snobbish to say what is better. If you like something it's incredibly rude and arrogant for someone else to say it's rubbish and something else is "better". Taste, like beauty, is in the mouth of the consumer.

  • 2

    Tamarama

    You think Eddie van Halen struggled for years until he finally got a G chord down?

    EVH's father was a musician and he was classically trained as a child. He had his first #1 hit with Van Halen in 1984 - he was 29 years old.

    The sushi teacher in the article has been making sushi for....29 years. Just thought I'd point that out.

  • 3

    sourpuss

    Oikawa,

    On your first point, skills can be learned by anyone. Cooking is a skill. Wine tasters can train their palates. Besides, there are not enough Joel Robuchons out there to feed the masses, if you insist only geniuses can be chefs.

    On your second, being a connoisseur of food does not necessarily mean you are a snob. For the most part, the word snob is used by those who resent their own lack of knowledge, and envy those who have it. The connoisseur is someone who knows a lot than the average person about the subject in question. Merely knowing doesn't make one a snob. Calling someone else's taste rubbish, now that IS snobbery. I agree with you there.

  • 1

    lucabrasi

    @sourpuss

    But what's the point of being a connoisseur? It just means you can't enjoy everyday food, because it's not "good enough". The more you train your palate to appreciate good stuff, the more you're going to be dissatisfied. I had a friend who couldn't enjoy music unless it was played on the very best hi-fi equipment (literally, hundreds of thousands of yen's worth); he'd trained his ears to the point where perfection was his default setting.

    Sad place to be.

  • 0

    keika1628

    You are not allowed to handle food in Europe unless you are wearing food prep gloves. The guys in the photos above look immaculate and would be out of place in a top end greasy spoon in London or Paris

  • 2

    mrkobayashi

    As long as there are people with "okochama" tastes like mr. smith, 100 yen rotating sushi shops like kappazushi will stay in business. Some people don't understand that the same meat is totally different if you cut it with or against the grain. Same goes for sushi or any kind of food for that matter.

  • -2

    oikawa

    Sourpuss, my point was if people are good at something I don't believe it takes time for that to show, all other things being equal. Or indeed whatever their talent level is, I think it's quite evident from a very early stage what level people are at. I think a sushi chef, or anyone in any field, will be almost at their potential very soon after they start that activity, and the years and years of practice afterwards add a miniscule amount extra. It's not a linear development. There are so many things in Japan where length of service equates to an expectation of quality and knowledge that is just not true. That's why there are so many English teachers too, because selling a school based on having a "native speaker" appeals to the same mistaken assumption that quantity equals quality, aside from the fact that speaking and teaching a language are two fundamentally different things. That's what I was trying to say anyway.

    The problem with connoisseurs is they are prone, understandably, to state what is "better". I agree they can train their palate to be able to distinguish between tastes and flavours, but what is "better" is really impossible to say. I don't think it's professionals that people take umbrage with, it's lay people who claim their palate is so refined, with the implication that they are a more developed person, that riles others. Having said that McDs is a pile of steaming dog crap and anyone who likes it is a moron!

  • 1

    Frungy

    For those of you who have been criticising the yelling involved in the training, it's clear you've never been in a professional kitchen. When I was a student, for my sins and to make money while backpacking across Europe, I got part-time jobs doing dishwashing in several restaurants (they always need dishwashers, they don't expect you to stay long, and money isn't actually all that bad in Europe). As a result I got to watch chefs in five major European countries at work.... and well, let's just put it this way, you have about 5 to 15 highly creative professionals working 8 to 12 hour shifts in a kitchen that is normally around 40 degrees celcius and steamy as hell, trying to work together to make sure that a meal that would take you or I 1 or 2 hours to prepare hits the customer's table 15 to 30 minutes after they place their order. If one person stuffs up a single component it can have a ripple effect that results in 5 to 15 meals being wasted, and puts everyone in the kitchen behind. All of the chefs have a large selection of sharp bladed objects, are hot, stressed and working under tremendous pressure...

    ... yeah, so in a real kitchen there's a ton of yelling, and it sure beats the alternative, which is mass murder. The fact that we do not read daily headlines like, "Chef goes bonzo and kills 100" is a constant source of amazement to me. If these guys cannot handle being yelled at a little during training then they should choose a different career.

  • -1

    Yubaru

    The problem with connoisseurs is they are prone, understandably, to state what is "better".

    Actually I believe the problem with connoisseurs is that they are prone to having big ego's and forgetting to use the words "In my opinion, or I believe" or something along those lines when describing the flavors or tastes to people.

    Personally having talent or otherwise takes time to nurture, and not everyone can be, talented or otherwise, a world-class chef.

    I would love to see more top end chefs sushi or otherwise, take lesser ingredients and make them taste just a good at the high end stuff, and do it in a manner that doesnt take all day or need $$$$$ of spices to mask the flavors.

  • 0

    lucabrasi

    @wipeout

    Wow! Thank you for that reply. I'll stick with my i-pod though, I suspect my ears aren't all that top-of-the-range anyway....

  • 0

    Scott Finkelstein

    As someone who has cut raw fish on a moving boat, I say quite confidently that cutting raw fish really isn't that hard to cut. Hell, the Japanese taste for tuna makes it even easier, as you're basically cutting giant slabs into smaller slabs. For more evidence, look at the fact that not one person insisting here that high-grade sushi is unmistakable has even considered doing a blind tasting.

    I've also found the connoisseurship is rarely, if ever, based on anything that makes something any better objectively, instead going for what makes something rarer or more difficult.

  • 0

    nigelboy

    As someone who has cut raw fish on a moving boat, I say quite confidently that cutting raw fish really isn't that hard to cut. Hell, the Japanese taste for tuna makes it even easier, as you're basically cutting giant slabs into smaller slabs. For more evidence, look at the fact that not one person insisting here that high-grade sushi is unmistakable has even considered doing a blind tasting.

    That all depends on whether or not "visual presentation" enhances the act of consuming food, IMO. You might want to try eating your food with blindfolds for a couple days. You'll notice the difference.

  • 1

    wipeout

    Thank you for that reply. I'll stick with my i-pod though, I suspect my ears aren't all that top-of-the-range anyway...

    And I agree that's perfectly valid. I'd be surprised though if you don't single interest where you'd drop a bit more cash to get something better/faster/nicer/newer...

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