Buy your sushi chef a beer? [moved from Manhattan board]
So my friend mentioned the other day that he was at Ushi Wakamaru with a friend and 2 or 3 people at the bar bought Hideo a pitcher of beer and he drank half of it all at once! It is apparent that by buying the sushi chef a beer you are showing your appreciation and he might give you better stuff. How do I approach this? Just tell the waitress I'd like to buy a Sapporo for the chef? Do I ask the chef if he wants a beer? Or what kind he would like? I know these sound like stupid questions, but I have no clue. I'm taking some friends there next Friday and I will be sitting in front of Chef Hideo and I'd like to buy the man a beer. How should I go about this?
Either way...talk to the waitress. She will likely know what the chef drinks and get it for him.
I've bought Hideo-san many a beer, and it's true he usually drinks most of it in one long gulp.
Don't ask him if he wants a beer, just tell the waitress that you'd like to buy him a beer and she will bring it to him, alert him that it's from you, and then he will toast you in between his next bit of sushi-making. It's not a bribe for better fish per se (as i've always had stellar fish there regardless), but it makes things even more convivial and is a nice thank you. Occassionally, when seated sort of in between Hideo-san and one of the other chefs, i've bought a beer for all three, because it seemed rude to only buy a beer for him when one of the other guys was doing some of the preparation, and then would have seemed even more rude to leave out the third chef. But if in front of Hideo-san, a simple beer for him will be fine.
If i'm in a new sushi place and enjoying it and i don't know the chef's drinking habits, i sometimes ask the waitress if she thinks the chef might like a drink. For example, when Masato-san was at Jewel Bako, i treated him to a glass of nice white wine. At other sushi places, it might be mildly odd or irrelevant, so you should sort of judge by how garrulous the vibe of the place is. Years ago in LA, my friends and i went to places where the chefs were drinking massively all the night and they would in return serve up absurd extra portions of tuna, eel, etc. On the other hand, at some austere, refined sushi places, i wouldn't usually buy a drink unless the rapport indicated that it was a good idea.
Ushi Wakamaru is my favorite in NYC. Enjoy.
I wouldn't have the waitress just surprise the chef with a beer. Chef's who are not the owner should only drink on the job with the consent of the owner, and the waitress may not know. Or the chef may not want one at that moment. For these reasons I ask the chef. And I never, ever feel that I am trying to prime the pump for more or better food/service. In a culture of honor where it is impolite to count one's change, it just isn't that way. And of course the chefs are not permitted to touch dirty money on the job.
[An answer from the other side of the counter]
I've been that sushi chef, and had many customers buy me drinks. Frankly, it meant different things to me coming from different customers. Nobody got better service or larger portions based on whether they've 'lubed me up', but I noticed a few different categories of customer who bought drinks for me. First, there were the regulars. These folks might take a detour to the cocktail bar to get my drink before they even sat down at my bar. They knew what I liked to drink, and conversely, I knew what they liked to eat. Our relationship was very loose and familiar. The second group were those people who seemed to be out to have a good time, and wanted to include me in that experience. Sometimes their attitude was bordering on rowdy (but hardly ever out of control), and they were usually fun to serve, too. A lot of this kind of customer eventually worked into the first group. Lastly, there were those that acted as if they were bribing me to give them better service or servings. Honestly, I didn't care much for them, because I felt like there was no way to please them. I had high standards of service for all my customers, and if they didn't think they were getting something *extra*, they'd be unhappy. If I acted as if I were giving them that something extra, everybody else would be unhappy.
Bottom line, for me, anyway, was simply this. If you want to show your appreciation by buying the itamae a drink, go ahead. If, OTOH, you're doing it to get better stuff, save your money.
When I've offered a drink to the chef its often been the first poor from a large beer (22oz) or large sake that I've just ordered. I wouldn't offer something that had been sitting around, but as soon as the new bottle is delivered, I'll offer a drink. I've never had anything but a gracious response from the chef whether that response was a polite decline, a polite to enthusiastic acceptance to an explanation that he didn't drink alcohol (at which point I offered to get him whatever he'd like and he happily accepted a can of pepsi). Can't go wrong with polite and direct.