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True Japanese-trained sushi chefs?

My Asian cooking teacher bemoans the fact that "there are absolutely no true, Japanese-formally-trained sushi chefs serving up the toro and unagi anywhere in Boston and surrounds. He says that many have no training at all, and some just a little that they got by sitting on the other side of the sushi table. Anybody here know anything about this topic?
And where to get affordable, fresh, creative (non-California roll) sushi in Greater Boston?

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  1. Japanese-trained chefs work at:
    Sushi Island.

    Has he been to any of those?

    1. I recently went to Sushi Island for the first time, and it was quite good. Some of the stuff I had was pretty non-traditional. A roll with saba, shiso, and pickled burdock was our favorite. The pressed sushi had tobiko mixed into the rice, and a thin layer of avocado - good, but not really what I was looking for. The chirashi did not have a ton of fish, but the pickles and other stuff were plentiful and tasty. I've heard the head chef is Japanese and formally trained. I'm not sure, but I think the a la carte prices are a little bit higher than Toraya's.

      Toraya is my favorite. The chirashi is a great deal, since a few cuts of the current specials get into the mix. Not sure about the chef's training, but I've never gotten a bad piece.

      I've never been to Uni - I imagine you get fresh and creative, but not affordable and technically not really sushi anymore.

      I don't believe that you need a formal training in Japan to serve up respectable toro and unagi, but I agree that the sushi scene around here is weak. Disregarding the issue of authenticity, a lot of popular places in the area are subpar either on quality or consistency.

      1. I have no idea where or by whom they were trained, but I have recently been singing the praises of Ponzu in Waltham. I went there for lunch again this week and was again blown away by the freshness and quality of their sashimi. Their prices are reasonable, especially the lunch specials.

        1. Also Sakurabana in financial district.

          1. Anyone knows where Oga's namesake chef trained at?

            6 Replies
              1. re: almansa

                Yeah - as in he owns the place, along with Takumi in Nashua and of course, Oga's in Natick. Toru Oga studied Kaiseki in Kyoto. Locally, he started out at Sakurabana in the 80's.

                Or so says his bio:

                I believe it. I speak Japanese with him, which is more than I can say of a lot of the other places mentioned here. It's as close to the real thing as you can get in Boston. Although I have yet to go to O-ya.

                1. re: applehome

                  Do you know where chef Oga cooks nowadays?

                  1. re: chowda

                    It's been a while for me (no money), but he was at Oga's in Natick when I last saw him about a year ago. The guys at Takumi have been trained by him at Oga's, They're not Japanese, but as far as creating a good, worthwhile omakase presentation, they are certainly the best in the area.

              2. Thank you for asking the question. The japanese food scene is Boston is sad. Every single time I go to NY I have to have japanese food. My friends and I who've grown up eating Japanese food in Asia view authentic and good sushi as the ones where you sit at the sushi bar - like Oishii - which although has the highest reviews for fresh sashimi, I dont believe they are all trained in Japan. A few friends used to work there and they are from Hong Kong.

                2 Replies
                1. re: kweesee

                  my understanding is most of the sushi chefs in this city are chinese, and many trained in hong kong. i think if there was a demand for more traditional classic-style japanese sushi/sashimi, somebody would have tapped that market by now.

                  i don't see too many people bemoaning the fact that jody adams didn't train in italy or french-inspired frank mclelland didn't train in france.

                  1. re: hotoynoodle

                    Ha- ha! that is a good point! I detect a double standard too!
                    If only people knew how many excellent cooks working with pasta are from Latin America!

                2. Wonder if it's the same teacher when I took my mini-sushi class for fun; he made the same statement in our class. While it may be technically true, I would argue this doesn't mean you can't get good sushi and sashimi from these chefs. I'm not dismissing the rigor and quality of the training that sushi chefs go through in Japan, but to me, this is like saying only chefs who graduate from the CIA can be called true chefs. Some of these same sushi traditionalists also insist that women can never make good sushi chefs, which I find to be a load of bull.

                  While maybe not truly comparable to what I've had in Tokyo and a few other cities, I think Sakura Bana, Fugakyu, and Oga's (have not tried Oishii personally) offer good sushi locally. I've had decent efforts elsewhere, but these places have always offered for me fresh and creative sushi. Some people may debate affordability at Fugakyu - it's not O Ya outrageous, but an entire meal will be more expensive than your average restaurant.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: kobuta

                    On the topic of female sushi chefs, the last time we went to Sushi Island, the sushi bar was manned ENTIRELY by women!

                    I hope I don't need to add that the food was excellent, as always.

                  2. One of the things I have always liked about Sushi Island is that the chef/owner of the place is Japanese as are many of the wait staff. Junji-san was trained and worked in Tokyo sushi bars for many years before coming to the USA. I have found that most of the sushi places in Boston use Chinese or Korean sushi chefs and while a lot of them are very good at what they do I prefer going to a place that is owned by Japanese. Junji-san just hired a new young women (Japanese) who does a great job when he is not there.

                    10 Replies
                    1. re: RoyRon

                      It does happen that many of the best sushi restaurants in the Boston area are run by Japanese chefs (I am thinking particularly of Shiki and Toraya), but the three best (that is Oishii, Uni, and O Ya) are not. It takes a particular brand of chauvinism to ignore the talents of Ting San, Ken Oringer, or Tim Cushman.

                      Ethnicity is sometimes a proxy for authenticity, but a poor one when one can simply taste the food directly. I'd understand if someone says, "I find that I've tried many sushi restaurants, I prefer the food at these ones, and they happen to be run by Japanese chefs", but I must admit I find the tone of the previous post disturbing. Authentic sushi is not the exclusive province of any single ethnicity.

                      I would add Bluefin in Porter Square to the list of places with affordable more traditional sushi, and Umi in Fenway to the list of places with very interesting and creative rolls. Wu Chon House in Union Square also has some excellent traditional sushi. Bluefin is run by Japanese, Umi by Chinese, and Wu Chon House by Koreans.

                      1. re: lipoff

                        Although the chef at O Ya is white, all the sushi "sous"-chefs he hired are Japanese, which is much different from the usual Boston practice.

                        That said, I agree with lipoff for the most part.

                        1. re: lipoff

                          Uni may be owned by Oringer, but the sushi chef is Japanese.

                          1. re: lipoff

                            Well-said. I would also add that being Japanese, does not mean Japanese trained. What Japanese-trained refers to is someone who's gone through the endless years of apprenticeship and subsequent hard work that sushi chefs do in Japan (I thought I read somewhere that learning how to cut the fish properly could be years). It actually has no bearing on the ethnicity of the chef at all.

                            1. re: lipoff

                              I completely agree. While tradition can be great, it is often limiting. Breaking away from tradition many times leads to ingenuity.

                              1. re: lipoff

                                There is sushi and then there is sushi. Nobody knows how to take their food and culture to the extremes of sensuousness and sensibility than the Japanese. Foreigners cannot understand why one would pay $100 for one item of tempura at a restaurant that fries one item, then discards their special oil. Foreigners cannot understand just why it take so many years to become a true itamae - someone who knows how to vary the pressure on the rice balls by the type of tane, where in the course it is served, and even by the customer's preference. Foreigners do not understand why such thin, single-edged, incredibly sharp knives - and so many types of them - are needed just to cut some raw fish.

                                Ethnicity does not matter - I agree with that. But experience does. Without the experience of serving the most demanding customers, no one can become the best chef - of anything, not just sushi. So the question is where does a foreigner get that kind of experience? Japan has been one of the most prejudiced and bigoted societies - times are changing, but apprenticing in the best sushiyas in Osaka, Kyoto, or Tokyo is pretty much still a closed affair - closed not only to foreigners, but even to Japanese women.

                                Is it possible that a Chinese or Korean or white chef with only US experience could serve the best sushi in the world? Perhaps - but not at all likely. Is it possible that such a foreign chef could make the best sushi in Boston - much more likely.

                                I cannot say that the Oishii experience I had in Chestnut Hill ranks even in the top 3rd of sushi experiences I've had in Tokyo, NYC, or LA. I understand that Ting "san" has gone upscale for the South End shop - but I have yet to try it. I have also not yet tried O Ya or Sushi Island. Uni is far from traditional sushi - I had some wonderful sashimi pieces there, and I have taken my visiting relatives there, but it's not a Japanese experience. The only place that I have taken my foodie salaryman ojisan that he has really felt was as good as many places he has gone to in Japan, is Oga's. Oga's omakase left him (and me) very happy - the daiginjo sake helped - but more than anything else, being treated as he wanted to be, and as he was used to, by the itamae truly was the clincher. The ingredients that you can't get anywhere else in Boston also helped - the soft male Cod roe, for example.

                                Even true Japanese chefs modify their product and their approach to the client to please Americans. The question is not whether an American can be made happy with the food and experience, but whether a Japanese connoisseur can. To my experience, Oga's may be the only such place in Boston.

                                1. re: applehome

                                  So far. You should try O Ya. Seriously. It's as good as Tokyo.

                                    1. re: wittlejosh

                                      Suzie - if you know of an excellent Asian cooking teacher in the Boston area - could you pass on his/her name?


                                      - Blaine

                                    2. re: applehome

                                      Folks, the topic of authenticity and whether people from different cultures can truly appreciate another culture's food and ways is just too far off topic for this board. If you'd like to explore this point further, please start a new thread on the General Chowhounding Topics board. Thanks for helping us keep this board focused on finding great chow in Boston.

                                2. I once saw an ad for a sushi chef for Whole Foods. It read "Sushi chef wanted, some experience preferred, but will train." Japanese chefs who have completed the 10 year apprenticeship, which is becoming a thing of the past, refer to the many sushi chefs who have not, as "noodle cooks." But as I mature I try not to romanticize other cultures. It truly does not take 10 years to learn how to make sushi. I am quite good at it myself, and I've never been to Japan. I know of Japanese-owned sushi spots that are run-of-the-mill, and chinese-owned ones that are excellent.

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: almansa

                                    It truly does not take 10 years to learn how to make sushi that pleases Americans and other gaijin. I am over 50 years old, grew up in Japan, eaten sushi all my life, and I am an excellent cook. I will not make sushi, other than roll-your-own party sushi or chirashi, (with butsu-giri fish) as I am not ready to make anything that will please me. My sharpest $500 Hattori knife, in the hands of an expert with 10 years of learning the appropriate knife skills, could indeed cut a piece of fish correctly - but the understanding of why one uses such a long blade to cut such a small piece (to insure an even cut with the natural pulling cutting stroke - where westerners are always taught to cut with the push), the understanding of why certain yanagiba are angled differently for different fish, well - all that and much, much more are just the tip of the iceberg of knowledge that I've picked up from my Itamae and Izakaya chef friends, and yet I don't know enough to cut that fish properly.

                                    You can have a wonderful Italian-American meal by opening up a can of Chef Boy-R-Dee, or perhaps boiling some pasta and opening up a bottle of ragu, or perhaps, actually fry some garlic, peel some fresh tomatoes - this stuff is easy to learn. But Bill Buford writes about the truly wondrous foods that were so much better than even the best Italian-American dishes he and Mario ever had while apprenticing in Italy. It is entirely possible, that whatever you think of as good, there is something even better.

                                    BTW, if you think that my comparison to Chef Boy-R-Dee is inappropriate, remember that you used Whole Foods. By sushi standards, supermarket sushi is Chef Boy-R-Dee.

                                    The OP asked for a specific level of sushi because of her (her teacher's) experiences and preferences. It's possible that her standards were not being met, or simply that she has the open mind to want to experience another level. I suppose that you, who have never been to Japan, are more than happy to teach her this level? I guess I should start giving lessons in Italian cooking.

                                    Good enough is good enough - but let's not get carried away with our own ability to make ourselves happy. You're either that good, or your standards are that low.

                                    1. re: applehome

                                      "You can have a wonderful Italian-American meal by opening up a can of Chef Boy-R-Dee, or perhaps boiling some pasta and opening up a bottle of ragu"

                                      I guess we have a different viewpoint on what a wonderful Italian-American meal is.

                                      I'd hold off on giving Italian cooking lessons if that's what you think.

                                      1. re: 9lives

                                        Irony anyone? Thanks for making my point.

                                  2. this is my conclusion after growinv up in asia, living in boston for 8 years. the reason why we dont have authentic japanese here is because bostonians (locals) in general (and i emphasize in general, prob not true for many chowhounders) are not as adventurous and brave with trying new cuisines. another reason IMO is that there arent big enough groups for each indvidual foreign race therefore authentic restaurants cannot survive as well.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: kweesee

                                      Absolutely true.

                                      The reason there are so many great sushi places, as well as izakayas, yakitori bars, ramen houses, etc., in NYC and LA are the significant number of Japanese clientele in those locations - either salarymen stationed in the US, or even a significant population of appreciative nisei or sansei. Boston has few of those people, and hence, few of those restaurants.

                                      Interestingly enough there are a number of students - undergrads from MIT and BU (which has a summer program to bring promising incoming freshmen from Japan up to speed on language skills), and B school attendees at Harvard (although that number has gone way down in the last 2 decades). They seem to hang out at Kotobukiya, ever since Tatsukichi closed serveal years ago. But students don't exactly have foodie budgets or tastes - hence the cheap, mediocre sushi at the Kotobukiya sushi bar.

                                      1. re: applehome

                                        On a related topic - why Boston restaurants can barely compare with NYC restaurants. I think part of it is is what I said earlier that local Bostonians are less adventurous when it comes to food. I've been thinking about it a lot and I think another big reason is because of the people that make up Boston (students, healthcare professionals, professors). IMO students generally are on a tighter budget. Although we have a lot of rich international students (I went to BU myself), those students are more attracted to Newbury St restaurants that are more trendy/people watching than good food, for the price. Also, HC professionals and professors are generally more conservative when it comes to food (I grew up in that envionrment).

                                        IMO the people i see that are more adventurous and true foodies (chowhoundish peopole) fall in some of these industries: fashion, marketing/advertising/PR, finance, or celebrities. And my conclusion is that Boston is more lacking in those areas, compared to NYC per se.

                                        1. re: kweesee

                                          Hi Hounds, sorry to interrupt, but since this part of the thread is starting to veer away from discussing Boston food, chefs and restaurants, we request that further discussions about Boston demographics continue on the Not About Food board. You may post a pointer here to a thread you start elsewhere if you think its germane to Boston hounds. Thanks for helping us keep the boards on-topic.

                                    2. What was the name of the sushi place on Atlantic Ave by the Aquarium around 20 years ago? I remember seeing lots of Japanese people dining there, and also some pretty good food.

                                      4 Replies
                                      1. re: steinpilz

                                        Tatsukichi. It was actually on School St. almost at the corner of Atlantic Ave. Closed several years ago. During the height of the Japanese business excursions to the US, it was Boston's headquarters for the salaryman and the B school students (who were in fact salarymen on the fast track, who had been sent to US B school by their companies).

                                        They had 3 floors - the bottom was originally a quick lunch service place but got turned into a somewhat Izakaya style place later. The middle was the sushi bar, tables and tatami rooms. The upstairs was a hostess bar, complete with Karaoke - around $25/drink back in the 80's and early 90's - business accounts accepted, of course.

                                        They once had NHK come over and tape a karaoke contest of ex-pat students, MIT engineers vs. Harvard B School MBA's... the MBA's whooped ass since they had been going out smoking and drinking with the bosses for years before being sent to B school - those poor MIT undergrads never knew what hit them.

                                        Those days are long gone. No more Japanese businessmen (not to the quantity they were here then). They've been in a recession ever since thanks to their real estate bubble bursting... hmmm...

                                        These kinds of places are still available in NYC and LA, but not in Boston. I've heard of a virtual German town environment at Spartanburg, SC where BMW opened their plant. I've always wondered if there are equivalent Japanese enclaves around the Japanese car plants, or whether their management doesn't come over in big enough numbers to warrant that. At one time, there were so many ex-pat familes here that Japanese had even taken over one of the older elementary schools in Lexington (MA), to insure that their kids wouldn't lose their place in the Japanese educational system.

                                        1. re: applehome

                                          Tatsukichi was actually on State St..just off Atlantic

                                          There was a small place on Lewis Wharf that I remember going to but can't recall the name. Them and Tatsukichi were the first sushi places that I can remember in Boston.

                                          Benihana in Park Sq (where Legal's is now) opened Benisushi and they were always busy..mostly Asian customers and a few adventurous eaters..:) Sushi was new to Boston. This was in the late 70s/early 80s

                                          1. re: applehome

                                            Thanks applehome, interesting as always. If you're ever in DC, or if you might have been, there's a restaurant there that seemed pretty authentic to me but is rarely in the local press: Makoto on MacArthur Blvd. Small but similar atmosphere to Tatsukichi, I had great fatty yellowtail and a very nice time there.

                                            1. re: applehome

                                              Ah yes, Tatsukichi on State Street. In the mid and late 80's it was the place to eat Japanese food, it was always packed with Japanese expats during the bubble. The karaoke bar was a big hangout for people like Seiji Ozawa and his pals. After the bubble popped in the early 90's, it lost a bit of its shine, and then when the Big Dig construction begain in earnest, it went slowly downhill until it sort of just laid down and died, sometime early this century, I believe. That place and the Suntory on Stuart Street were the authentic Japanese places, the real deal, although Tatsukichi went downhill into mediocrity towards the end, once most of the Japanese expats were gone and they didn't have to "keep up".

                                              On a more positive note, the Tatsukichi in Shinjuku, Tokyo (yes, Virginia, the same owners) is still going very strong, I was there a couple of weeks back, and it is as tasty as ever. The manager there used to be the manager in Boston, and one of the chefs even remembered me from the Boston one. The difference is that the Tatsukichi in Tokyo especializes in kushiage (stuff on a stick, breaded and fried in canola oil) and that it is all they serve. You sit down and the chef starts serving you stuff until you say "stop", and then they count the number of sticks to tally up the bill. Always crowded, and very popular. The one in Boston from the get-go had to broaden its appeal by serving a number of different items (including kushiage, which came in sets of a number of sticks each). This is highly unusual in Japan, where most restaurants specialize in a particular cuisine (sushi, tempura, teppan, etc.) and many styles of cuisine are sign of mediocrity. But that's what they needed to do in Boston.

                                              Nowadays, I don't really know which are the "authentic" places in Boston, the town has never been known for that, and there not being a large Japanese population anymore doesn't give the place the impetus for authenticity. My experience is that true "authentic" Japanese places can be found in NY (such as Sushi Yasuda or Kurumazushi), but remaining authentic makes them extremely expensive, about 2-3x as much for a meal of equivalent quality in Tokyo. Places that try hard, but need to adapt to local conditions (be it price points or cooking ingredients, availability of trained staff, etc.) tend to slip quickly into mediocrity relative to the "real deal". An example of that is Oga's, which I've been to a couple of times. Pretty mediocre overall, comparable to a low-end chain in Japan (if that) but twice as expensive.

                                              I don't have much to add about places like O Ya and such, I've never been to them, but those kinds of places ought to be evaluated on their own merits, and not in comparison to any level of authenticity, because in a sense, they aren't really "Japanese" anymore.