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WSJ: Sushi Bullies

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB12248...

The article suggest we (i.e. diners) actually like, and want, to be bullied:

Quote from the above-linked article:

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"Deeper forces may also explain why customers put up with being put down. Part of it is the "scarcity principal," says David Stewart, a psychologist who teaches courses in consumer behavior at the University of California at Riverside's business school. People value praise more when it comes from people who don't give it out easily, Mr. Stewart says. People go to these restaurants in search of both "modest risk" and "approbation," Mr. Stewart says, perhaps in the form of an uni handroll."

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  1. Putting the Chestnut Hill Oishii (and Ting-san) on the same page as Sukiyabashi Jiro certainly reduces the credibility of the writers, as does the silly paragraph you quoted - but nevertheless, the article captures the genre pretty well, from what I can see.

    What I don't see is why Americans (or anyone else) who do not appreciate the traditional demands of this type of food go to a place to get treated badly or just to get thrown out. If you love to pour fake wasabi and shoyu on your california roll, great, wonderful - please go to your nearest Mcsushi and have a ball. But if you want to learn what sushi is all about, then go to the $300 omakase place with an open mind and be ready for some suggestions - instructions - demands, even - but all with the intent of helping you learn to appreciate the traditions and foods in the way you should. After all, you're paying for it, you should have the full and proper experience.

    But the other side of the coin is that this kind of experience is technical - almost clinical. It is not a nice, relaxing evening, spent at the sushi bar, bs'ing with your friendly itamae, trying a couple of different shochu's or sake's and learning the secrets of why he cuts something this way or that. There are just too many people waiting in line for that to happen.

    11 Replies
    1. re: applehome

      Another way to think about it is that one is paying for expert consultation. Usually people want to "be in control," but I much prefer to delegate -- if I'm paying the big bucks, I wouldn't expect to get my money's worth unless I know I'm tapping into the sushi chef's expertise.

      Having said that, it is possible to get serious sushi for less than $300 omakase -- so I hope that more folks would not worry about the financial barrier and give some of these places a try. A meal at my favourite sushi place in SF would rarely cost more than $60 pre-tip, unless I made special arrangements ahead of time. And I remember that in LA, Sushi Mori's prices were not that high, even if it was pricey (but not a bad deal for a place that makes their own shoyu, grows their own rice, and where all the wasabi is freshly grated, although I'm sure LA chowhounds would be happy to recommend places that are even better).

      1. re: applehome

        or - if you like wasabi and shoyu all over your sushi, and enjoy going to the high end place to do so - DO IT. after all you are paying for it, you should have the experience you enjoy, regardless of what anyone else has to say.

        1. re: thew

          The point of the article (and this thread) is that you can't. If you ask for the shoyu and wasabi, the sushi bully itamae throws you out, or otherwise treats you badly. It is a lashback "movement" to the very idea that you can do anything with anything because you paid for it.

          1. re: applehome

            I still want to know if there's any truth to the premise that ANY itamae treats customers badly for asking for the "Yoda mud bath" (love that name). What I got from the article is that there are places that don't put shoyu and wasabi out on the counter. Big deal. And if a customer asks, the chef refuses. Again, big deal.

            The only time the article described anything that might resemble "bullying" was when customers with an overweening sense of entitlement rudely continued to demand something the chef had declined to provide. In my book, that clearly warrants an invitation to dine elsewhere.

            I've seen plenty of brusque types behind a sushi counter. God knows I'd be cranky too if I spent years honing my art only to spend my evenings making gaijin rolls for obnoxious people who don't understand what the food is about. But I've never seen anything faintly resembling bullying and am still skeptical of these claims that there are places where ordering a California roll will get you the bum's rush.

            Does anybody have any experiences that validate the article's main point, or is it all just BS?

            1. re: alanbarnes

              KK gave some details down below - they certainly sound real. Personally, I've never been to one of these places. But if your were to hear some of the conversations I've had at Izakayas with the chefs, you'd wonder why we don't have more. The Izakayas I frequented in the 80's and 90's in NYC had the advantage of having an unending supply of salali-man who could all sit and so-desu ne, to all the bitching about the Americanization of Japanese foods (not just sushi) and more importantly, the stepping on traditions. Now that those salarymen have gone back home, the remaining places depend more on the gaijin than ever before. While knowledgeable and culturally sensitive ones are always welcome, the strident ones, are frowned upon - the ones that insist that they are American, and by golly, they have the right to eat what they want.

              Even the nicest, true, Japanese-trained itamae I know, who would never, knowingly ever piss off a customer, and who puts up a smile while making the silly foods that are requested by these customers, understands what these iconoclast Itamae are all about and wonders out loud (to me and those close to him) what would happen if he started insisting on a few more people, at least, not blatantly destroying the traditions in the name of "but I like it that way". When "not so much shoyu" said as the nigiri disintegrates in the person's chopsticks, is answered with a dirty look, the only thing to say (as an aside) is baka-da-na.

              1. re: alanbarnes

                I think LA gets a numerical and statistical advantage on this as so many sushi joints owned by Japanese expats are found here. Can one find an itamae drop-kicking unwanted "have it my way" Burger KIng-raised flunkies in LA? Sure - more than one. It's not as newsworthy or prolific as say celebrity-sightings or gang drive-bys, but it does happen for various reasons.

                I think a little bit of edgamakating does help when choosing a sushi joint. If it's old school, and you're new school, new schoolers in this case would be very unwise to be going through their typical demeaning finger-wagging at and telling these old school itamae that they are so outdated. These are their rules inside of their places. In Japanese culture, the superior-subordinate relationship is written in stone - no substitutes. In a house of sushi, the itamae is the superior, and the eater needs to know his or her place. And this is where tableside demeanor plays an important part. Some itamae are as cute and cuddly as a puppy dog. Others would make Co. Saito from, "The Bridge Over the River Kwai," tear up with pride. Definitely not what most in this country are used to, but if one doesn't like it, sayonara bakayaro...

                http://www.laweekly.com/bestof/2008/a...

                1. re: alanbarnes

                  To elaborate, Yoda Mud Bath (YMB) is just the customer taking the dark black red brown liquid and the green to make a Dagoba Swamp but without the X-Wing Fighter inside. Of course a reputable classically trained sushi chef (or self made success) will give you a WTF look if you ask for said mix or use the term Yoda Mud Bath.

                  The only time I highly recommend the YMB (the thicker the consistency the merrier) is when you dine at an All You Can Eat Asian buffet where you can have an endless refill of low brow tilapia sashimi, salmon sashimi that could be bordering on brown color flesh, tuna where it is gassed to the point of red kryptonite, super white tuna or escolar (NOT recommended, the YMB will not help you here) and refried food repackaged into fancy rolls. Only the Yoda Mud Bath can keep the dark forces away from your system (ie the germs that will be on the low brow fish, escolar excluded), plus YMB makes said low brow fish taste more tolerable, which is how you get your money's worth at a buffet. I'd be hard pressed to find a sushi buffet bully telling you how to eat this stuff.

                  Now going back to the article, one of the nation's greatest sushi chefs which I have read a lot about but never eaten at his establishment, is Naomichi Yasuda who is listed at the bottom of the article for omakase price. You'll get the best mileage out of omakase (in terms of getting a variety, what's in season, and also what the chef specializes in which is like 5 to 9+ kinds of tuna and toro, several kinds of live fresh eel etc), and he pre-sauces (gently) his fish. Note that in this interview clip, he specifically says that he already sauces his fish. IF you want to add more soy sauce yourself then that's your choice, but he makes it known gently. Also watch how quickly he crafts a nigiri.

                  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MV997i...

                  Going back on topic, there are only two folks that would make most people's blood boil in that article, and that is the likes of Nozawa (mostly him, I haven't heard customers walk out of Sasabune crying) and Sawa.

                  All I can say is that cold fish over warm to hot rice is not "traditional" sushi, and a real professional sushi chef should remain humble (and not a boastful jerk, unless he's joking with his regular customers who jab the guy back). As far as the Nozawa's, Sasabune's, and even a top place like Sushi Zo in Los Angeles that follows a similar moto, this cold fish over warm rice and sometimes a tad bit too much sauce on the fish, cause the sauce to drip over and into the shari, breaking it apart, so when you pick it up with your fingers, the rice pad easiliy breaks away into 3 pieces, which is a huge no no. The real pro's do a light brushing on top and the sauce never causes the shari to crumple.

                  1. re: K K

                    No need to clarify the Yoda Mud Bath - we've all seen it. Hadn't thought about it as a disinfectant though. That's probably a good use if you eat foods that require prophylaxis. (The unagi IS left over from yesterday, but it should be fine if you pick off the crust that formed around the edges overnight...)

                    I should have been clearer. My mental image wasn't of asking the itamae for a bowl of YMB, but of asking the a purist chef for soy and wasabi to make it. There's a REASON that there's no Kikkoman bottle next to your elbow.

                    Frankly I have no problem with a chef cussing out an arrogant Hollywood (use Nozawa's word here) after she insulted him. Intemperate, yes, but not tyrannical. And I'm all for being told that submersion in shoyu will overwhelm the flavor of a delicate fish or that nori will get soggy if you let it sit in front of you for more than a couple of seconds.

                    I'll take any pointers a good itamae has for me, and won't get offended if he tells me I should be doing something differently. I mean, he's the guy who has spent his life learning this stuff; if he's willing to help me jump ahead on the enjoyment curve, he's doing me a favor. If he's a jerk about it, I'll still try to learn what I can, but will eat elsewhere in the future. In my experience, though, it's rare that a well-behaved customer is mistreated.

                    I guess the real issue may be that what constitutes "mistreatment." Some people just don' t want to be told that there's a better way to do things, and there are plenty of sushi restaurants that adopt Burger King's "have it your way" approach to customer relations. Bring on Yoda. But just because that seems to be the dominant paradigm in the US doesn't mean it's the only way to run a sushi-ya. There's nothing necessarily wrong with a chef telling customers not to take apart the nigiri or declining to provide a side dish of cheap shoyu. Customers who don't like it are free to go elsewhere.

                    But I appreciate a chef who uses his (or her) training to maximize my dining experience. A couple of years ago I went to my local place when it was deserted and was chatting with the guy who's apprenticing there while he made ball after ball of shari for nigirizushi. I thought maybe somebody had called in a really big order, but then he started picking the balls apart and counting the grains of rice. Turns out the itamae was considering letting him make nigiri, but only if he could consistently and quickly make a rice ball with no fewer than 80 nor more than 90 grains of rice in it. (I may be misremembering the numbers, but you get the point.)

                    I can make vinegared rice at home. I can even do a decent job of cutting fish. But top-quality sushi requires dedication and obsessive attention to detail. If somebody is willing to spend years learning how best to present and eat something that simple, I'll gladly take whatever wisdom they're willing to share.

              2. re: thew

                If one is paying to add lots of wasabi and shoyu over sushi, doesn't it make more sense to go to a place where the chef won't be a bully when one does that?

                1. re: limster

                  Of course, limster. That's a given.

                  1. re: dolores

                    But so many people seem to be not getting that. To me, it would simply be common sense. 1) Who needs the aggravation - life's too short. and 2) It's the same reason why Bourdain said that restaurants keep the lousy pieces of beef to the side to serve to those folks that order steaks well done. They can't tell the difference. So why go to a place that serves real blue fin that was auctioned at Tsukiji 24 hours ago (and charges for it), instead of the ahi that the local place serves as maguro, when with enough shoyu and wasabi on it, you couldn't possibly tell the difference? If you're going to pay for the real thing, why wouldn't you want to taste it? You'd have to be an idiot.

            2. The article is ridiculous, with a not-so-subtle undertone of cultural insensitivity. Would the author characterize Wylie Dufresne (or any other innovative western chef who serves a tasting menu) as a "bully" for suggesting the best way to eat an unfamiliar dish? Not a chance. But an itamae who asks a patron not to disassemble a piece of sushi and scrape off the wasabi is a "despot." Customers shouldn't expect a quality sushi-ya to provide cheap soy sauce and fake wasabi any more they should expect Joel Robuchon to serve ketchup, but the sushi chef is a "tyrant" while the French chef is protecting the integrity of his cuisine.

              The article's characterizations are also at odds with the actual information it presents. It suggests that a chef may order a customer to leave for ordering a California roll, but the only discussion of real ejections involve patrons who are rude to the chef or others by demanding they be served dishes that aren't offered, setting up camp in a seat, or violating the restaurant's cell phone policy.

              Maybe the author's goal was to make going out to eat more exciting - to create a frisson - with inaccurate information. If so, she failed. All she really did was make herself look faintly silly.

              1. hmmm... I guess the best way to start is with complete honesty, so here goes: I *AM* a curmudgeon! And I'm pretty close to being burned out on all this sushi-poseur crap. I don't want some dude telling me how fast I have to chew or swallow just because he's really good at wielding a long thin knife to slice fish. I don't normally dip my sushi in shoyu, or mix wasabi with shoyu to dip fish in, but I also do not want someone telling me I can't should I feel like it. And a very unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on viewpoint) truth is that the most acute and accurate of all human memory is taste and smell. For me that means that nearly all the tuna in the world today would have been fodder for the chum bucket when I was learning to appreciate sashimi grade tuna. I refuse to pay today's prices for tuna that is guaranteed to be a 100% disappointment to my taste buds. So my tuna consumption is restricted to albacore packed in water, drained, then mixed with mayonnaise, fresh dill weed, a little chopped onion and pickle and served piled high between two slices of artisan white bread.

                But maybe I'd feel differently if I could find a reasonably good sushi bar that has reasonably good prices. For me, there just seem to be too many people around today who think that the more they pay the better the sushi tastes. That just doesn't work for me. That, and.... I swallow SLOW...! If you don't believe me, ask my dentist! So don't rush me. If you want me to eat my next nigiri zushi within ten seconds of putting it on my plate, then DON'T put it on my plate until I'm through swallowing the last one! Simple!

                See? I told you I'm a curmudgeon. '-)

                42 Replies
                1. re: Caroline1

                  >>I don't normally dip my sushi in shoyu, or mix wasabi with shoyu to dip fish in, but I also do not want someone telling me I can't should I feel like it.

                  seeing people dip really good sushi rice in soy sauce saddens me in the same way it does to see someone ask for kobe beef steak well done. if you really learn that you love it that way after trying it the 'correct' way -- fine. but please try it the 'right' way just a few times. there's really a good reason for this convention.

                  come to nyc sometime and i'll take you out to a more than reasonably good sushi bar. i think you'll understand immediately!

                  (Btw, you can always ask your itamae to slow down....)

                  1. re: cimui

                    Did you read the quote you quoted from Caroline1? She wrote that doesn't normally dip her sushi in soy sauce. She does eat it "the right way."

                    1. re: ccbweb

                      yes, sorry for my lack of clarity. i meant, generally, that people who do so often don't know the correct way to eat sushi. and having someone advise against it isn't a bad thing, in my book. i wouldn't be in favor of forbidding a person who had tried the convention and made an informed choice to eat it differently from doing so.

                      1. re: cimui

                        My point, though it may be buried under the rant, is that there are so many rules that my concern is that it scares newbies away. You shouldn't have to have a black belt in sushi before you can feel free to enjoy the food. Most people will eventually learn to eat sushi "within the norm" given time. I'm not convinced humiliation or intimidation are the best teaching methods. How many people do we have come here asking how to behave in a sushi bar and what to do. Wouldn't it be nice if people just felt relaxed about it and could go and enjoy the flavor with relaxed taste buds? Tension reduces flavor.

                        1. re: Caroline1

                          tension does reduce flavor, i agree!

                          part of me does wonder if we are a little too resistant to guidance, though. i actually appreciate yasuda san's little rants about his idea of the best way to eat nigiri (not sideways so that both rice and fish touch your tongue at the same time as i'd always been taught, but so that the rice touches your tongue first). even if i don't agree, i kind of like discussing the minutiae of this kind of thing most of the time when he's not in a super pedantic mood. (yes, i'm a bit of a dork that way.) i wouldn't appreciate it if someone threw me out for disagreeing, but please, by all means, let me know if you have a better way of doing things! maybe if we were more open to guidance at restaurants, we'd be less tense and intimidated.

                          [perhaps the WSJ article is right about some people enjoying intimidation, though. people seem to adore getting chewed out by shopsin and the soup nazi, interestingly.]

                          1. re: cimui

                            cimuii, I do understand what you're saying. Clearly, you choose to learn "the way of sushi," but it is sometimes soooooo overwhelming to a neophyte they either just avoid trying sushi altogether, or they are so nervous that the one time they do try it they get an upset stomach, not from the sushi but from nerves, that they decide they don't like sushi! And worse yet, go away thinking the one or two pieces of whatever kind of sushi they were fed is the only kind of sushi there is, as if it was an Oreo cookie and one size fits all. THAT is ridiculous!

                            On a personal level, I find it far more disheartening that such a large percentage of Americans don't have a clue about whether their dinner fork should be on the right or left or how to set a table for an informal dinner than I am about whether someone does a proper omakase and puts a whole nigiri zushi in their mouth with their finers in one bite within ten second of the time it is served to them.

                            When someone goes to all of the trouble to prepare and serve ANY meal, I am a strong proponent of proper presentation and proper table setting, regardless of whether it is sushi or pasta prima vera. The setting and the atmosphere are to food what a proper mounting is to a jewel. but not at the cost of treating a dish, such as sushi, as if it is some sort of sacred ritual. It isn't. And I am sick to death of bad sushi.

                            But that's just me...

                          2. re: Caroline1

                            I strongly disagree that most people "will eventually learn to eat sushi 'within the norm' given time." McSushi places, where the food (not just the fish) is inferior, dominate the marketplace. These places rely on hype rather than quality. That IS, unfortunately, the norm.

                            A few purists - some of them admittedly fanatical and occasionally abrasive - object to this trend. If such a person is a trained chef who opens a sushi-ya, should he (or she, although that's disappointingly rare) be called names? I completely agree that tension reduces flavor. And it's this kind of article that artificially creates unnecessary tension.

                            I've never met an itamae who relies on humiliation or intimidation as a teaching technique. Nobody needs a black belt to enjoy sushi; even the greenest newb can go into a good sushi bar and have an enjoyable meal by observing only two (count 'em) rules: keep an open mind and listen to the chef.

                            If you're going to take offense if the chef tells you how best to enjoy the food, then all bets are off. But my sense is that the customers these chefs object to are not those who are uninformed, but those who demand to be served food that the chefs interviewed choose not to serve. Thus, it's my opinion that the linked article perpetuates a misunderstanding and a misrepresentation of the traditional sushi bar experience.

                            1. re: alanbarnes

                              Ironically the lack of women is in itself part of the tradition. I'm not sure that the article was saying that this is the traditional sushiya experience. It is the "fanatical and occasionally abrasive" itamae experience, but certainly there are plenty of traditional places that are not that.

                              I just don't get why those who demand to be served certain foods in certain ways, or even those that have strong preferences, would enjoy these places. So I wouldn't think that someone like Caroline would even want to go to such a place. Although... if these places were the only ones that were bothering to bring in Blue Fin from Tsukiji, while the rest of the world decided to be happy with Big-eye and Ahi, one might consider putting up with the sushi-nazi to get the best tuna.

                              1. re: applehome

                                applehome, there are at least a few women behind today's sushi counters! Please don't ask me their names because I can't tell you my mother's name without consulting my birth certificate! But it's a life-long shortcoming and not senilitly. (God, I hope!) But as of a couple of years ago, there was one fairly well lauded female sushi chef in Los Angeles, and I've heard of a couple more since then. But I readily admit, a female sushi chef who tires to assume that -- well, I don't know what it's actually called, or even if there is a name for it, but that forced deep gutteral barking voice of Japanese male tradition that I call their "bushido voice." But it might be fun to hear a woman try... '-)

                                Does anybody know if there is a name for the voice I'm talking about?

                              2. re: alanbarnes

                                Alan, I must not have been clear on my meaning... I am by no means an advocate of McSushi! I would like to see them all shut down yesterday! In fact, I'm not even supportive of fusion sushi, or even much change from the old traditional sushi that I enjoyed decades ago.

                                What I mean about people eventually picking up the proper "way of sushi" is that it is far less stressful for them to be allowed a novice state, and for their friends (including any sushi chef who chooses to befriend them) to teach them in a way that they don't realize they are being taught. Gentle is nice! Gentle aids the digestion! My objection is to the kind of sushi afficionados who support the "blood sport" sushi chefs who bully, insist you gobble your food, and kick someone out (who may well be a newbie) for "deconstructing" a piece of sushi.

                                From where I sit, sushi is becoming (indeed, if it has not already become) a way for people to put a little elitism in their lives and feel superior when they may not have much else positive going on in their lives. In these economic times where we are on the brink of national and global disaster, I hate to see people flocking to the artificial rituals of sushi as a superiority blanket. It IS "just food." And this comes from someone who cooks some pretty mean Japanese food across the board, including sushi.

                                Unfortunately, I have no way to buck the trend beyond being vocal here, but I do take solace that all the fancy sushi boats, rice bowls, and inlaid chopsticks will eventually end up at the very back of a kitchen cabinet along with the fondue sets, table top omelette stoves, and French clay quiche pans... Such is the way of food religions. '-)

                                1. re: Caroline1

                                  I think its a two-way street. Certain breaches of etiquette (whether it's sushi or french food) can be construed as being rude. I think it would be immensely productive for the person seeking to eat a particular type of food to learn about the etiquette ahead of time. We face different cultures will different social rules all the time and it's important to learn and apply those rules, whether it's in a restaurant or mall.

                                  It's not about being a neophyte or a pro, because there aren't rituals that take years to acquire (no one gets a PhD in how to eat a coq au vin or a taco), just a few basic rules of etiquette, the equivalent of saying "excuse me" or "thank you." We are being done a disservice by those who claim that the bar is somehow very high. Common sense and basic social rules aren't a high enough bar to be the basis of a superiority complex. Let's not mystify food.

                                  Rather than have someone else point it out, it's gentle and easy to just learn it by oneself. Sushi or pasta or BBQ isn't more complicated than other forms of daily etiquette. The information is about chowing etiquette is widely available and the delivery couldn't be more gentle if one were to briefly go over pages in a book or browse one or two articles online. At the end of the day, the ball is in the eater's court, and if they were to take brief moments to learn about the etiquette involved, it would improve their experience a lot.

                                  1. re: Caroline1

                                    I meant, as far as women Itamae, that the tradition excluded them (supposedly due to warmer hands). I'm sure that some have broken through that ceiling, especially in the US. But nevertheless, there is a tradition to exclude women.

                                    Growing up with an incredible cook Japanese mom, I absorbed certain attitudes. She cooked just about everything we ever ate out *except* sushi. Sushi, at least formally, had to be left to those that had years and years of experience. She made excellent sushi rice, and we had various easy forms, from roll-your-own, to Chirashi. But she never attempted nigiri, and she always said that has to left to the experts.

                                    Sushi holds a special place. It's not tacos. No taco cook, no matter how wonderful and complex the filling, ever had to spend years as an apprentice doing no cooking, but learning only technique and ingredients. If you feel that what you make at home or what is served by the Chinese cooks at the Mcsushi places is good sushi, you do a disservice to these Itamae that apprenticed for so long - what are they, stupid people who learn slowly?

                                    There's more to this than etiquette. The "right" way is the way, developed over years, to get the best unadulterated flavors and eating experience. It is a tradition. I think, sometimes, that Americans can simply not appreciate tradition. We have very little of it, we grow up with nothing approaching the cultural value of secular tradition. Do you have to understand it to eat sushi? No. To appreciate the best sushi? Maybe.

                                    We are (I am) doing a disservice by reducing sushi to McSushi vs. crazy Itamae. Obviously, these are the extremes and there is plenty of middle ground. Nevertheless, understanding that this extreme of supreme traditionalist exists, is important to understanding the value of tradition in all sushi.

                                    1. re: applehome

                                      >>I don't want some dude telling me how fast I have to chew or swallow

                                      Seriously? Why would someone put up with that?

                                      1. re: dolores

                                        You tell your kids how to best enjoy certain foods. Someone with a great deal more experience with a different culture's food could conceivably be able to tell you how to enjoy it better. This particular line (not mine) is hyperbole - an exaggeration - but the chance to learn at the feet of a master includes listening to the details.

                                      2. re: applehome

                                        Applehome, I'm curious whether your mom ever did sashimi at home? For those who don't know, it’s the fish that needs to be kept cold, not the rice. Sushi rice is room temperature, and sometimes even a bit on the warm side. Depends on how much temperature contrast the sushi chef is after. When I made sushi at home and still lived in California and was willing to use raw fish, I simply handled the fish with chopsticks.

                                        Anyway, as a kid way way back in the first third of the last century, prior to WW II, my two best friends in first and second grade were the children of non-native born Americans. One of them was Nisei, and I was sometimes invited to stay for lunch. Sometimes, but not as often as I'd have liked, her mother would make nigirizushi for us for lunch. Yes! She cooked the rice, dumped it in a huge wooden bowl, then sprinkled it with rice vinegar and tossed it with a bamboo rice paddle with one hand while fanning it like mad with a paper fan with the other hand. Then she would form the rice in the palm of her hand, pressing it into shape with two fingers, put a very light smear (it was for children, after all) of wasabi down the top of the rice and top it with a piece of cooked fish. The nori was toasted and the sushi was banded and we got our treats one at a time. With home made Japanese pickles, including ginger, that she had put up herself.

                                        While I'm not Japanese, Japan has been a heavy cultural influence for me all of my life. One of the great traumas of my childhood was when she and all of our Japanese friends and families had to leave for interment camp. Our teacher held a going away party for her. My mother bought sugar in Mexico, and made peanut butter and oatmeal cookies for the whole class. The teacher decorated the classroom, and we had punch and cookies, and our teacher had a going away present for her: a pen and stationery so she could write to us. But she never did. We sat silently next to each other all during the party afraid to talk for fear we would cry. The trauma to her and her family, and all of the Japanese Americans who were treated so unfairly is uncountable. For me, I spent the rest of the world worrying about whether I would ever get my friend back, and if the government was going to send my other friend away too... She was German. War is so stupid.

                                        But there is a point here... I think that sushi, specifically nigirizushi, is being turned into a freaking cult! Yes. I KNOW that you should dip the fish side in sauce if you must dip at all, but best if you don’t. I know the sushi chef will be irked if you do that and he sees you. I know that it is intended to be eaten with the fingers, all in one bite.

                                        BUT...!

                                        I also know that maybe as little as 8% of all of the sushi bars in the United States have a true and knowledgeable itamae behind the bar. And there is a GREAT misunderstanding about where a sushi chef's expertise lies. Very little of his expertise comes from his knife skills. It's the years and years of learning how to recognize a top grade of any fish, not just tuna; how to examine a slice of fish for flukes that can cause illness, educating their senses to identify a truly top grade of fish as opposed to one that is almost top grade. These are NOT things anyone can learn in a two year sushi program at any cooking school. These are things that require living in an area where you can get to the fish market before dawn cracks to choose and bid on the fish you want. It requires years of dealing with all types and grades of fish through a full round of season after season and more. It is an accrued experience of many years, the more the better. So that raises the question, do we have true sushi in the United States? Not much!

                                        But I also know that time changes things. And again, from childhood, I also know that the mother country of any immigrant goes on to change while it is frozen in idyllic time for the immigrant who misses it but is now locked in a different world. When World War II ended, a dear Japanese family friend, "Windy" Yamamoto, decided to go back to Japan to visit his aged mother. It had taken him a couple of years to recoup financially after his interment. So off he went, all thrilled with getting to see his family, but also looking forward to revisiting the formal, polite Japan he had left behind so may years before. Now, Windy was a small man of great wit, and would have been a wonderful character in a Kurosawa movie. He came back from Japan incensed! "Next time, my mother will come to visit me. Those people! All they do is rush around, push and shove, and they are RUDE! Not like when I grew up." And as far as I know, he never did go back again.

                                        But I don't think his experience is at all unusual. I don't think it matters whether someone has left Japan or England or Mozambique behind, it will change, but his memories of how it used to be will live actively in his mind. But memory is not always today’s reality. And I think this is a serious factor in the sushi lore of today.

                                        In my area, Fine Living Network is replaying all of the original "Iron Chef" series from Japan. A couple of weeks ago, they did "Battle Sushi!" The judging segment was fascinating! Here are these experts of experts judging the sushi of Japan's most noteworthy sushi chefs, and guess what? Some of the judges used chopsticks to eat their sushi! The dainty little actress judge even ate some of her sushi in two bites! I’m not positive, but I seem to recall one of them dipping his nigirizushi in a dipping sauce! I wanted to watch again just to be sure, but my stupid damned Tivo has recorded over it!

                                        Alan, I don't think that sushi chefs in this country rushing people to eat their sushi within ten seconds is myth at all. Why? Because of Chef Anthony Bourdain, and his "No Reservations - Tokyo" episode. He did omakase with world renowned sushi master Jiro Ono, who pushed the pace so that Bourdain did 15 courses in 20 minutes! This was a sushi master setting the pace for a well respected and famous-through-TV chef playing to an audience of quite literally millions! That breaks down to one and one third minute per piece of sushi to chew, swallow, savor, discern any after taste, and allow your taste buds to recover and the residue in your mouth to clear. Can you imagine going to a wine tasting and only being allowed one and one third minutes to experience a great vintage wine? LOL! I don't think so!

                                        But I will bet against anyone -- and collect a whole lot of money -- that a whole bunch of half baked "sushi chefs" in America watched Bourdain's program and decided to become the Sushi Master of Podunk, by insisting their sushi had to be shoveled in and finished ready to swallow the next soggy nori in one minute and twenty seconds!

                                        It's Emperor's New Clothes time, and all this sushi "etiquette" that is being bandied about bothers me simply because we, at least here in the U.S., have far far greater tolerance for people who don't know which fork to use than we do for people who use chopsticks and dip their sushi in a little shoyu mixed with wasabi. Hey! Some of the "sushi" I've had in the last three years not only deserves to have its black bubble gum nori dipped in a shoyu-wasabi mixture, it might even be improved with a little ketchup too!

                                        I, for one, would like to see sushi become just good food once again. I don’t see any point in forbidding the use of a dipping sauce with “gaijin sushi.” Not that I like gaijinzushi, mind you. But as I said in another post, when the economy and integrity of a country tanks, people grab for any kind of straw that will help them feel above the masses. Such is human nature. <sigh> Nigiri-WallStreet anyone? Not that the sushi elitism wasn’t building long before the housing market tanked.

                                      3. re: Caroline1

                                        Caroline, I think we're in 99% agreement. Where we disagree is that you seem to believe that there actually exist these "'blood sport' sushi chefs who bully, insist you gobble your food, and kick someone out (who may well be a newbie) for 'deconstructing' a piece of sushi." In my considered opinion, those "blood sport" chefs are a fabrication - or at least a gross exaggeration - by an author who wanted to draw attention to an article through gross sensationalism.

                                        If somebody can direct me to a single case of a chef who ejected a customer for an infraction such as biting a piece of nigirizushi in two or deconstructing a hand roll, then I'll stand corrected. I just don't believe it ever happens. On the other hand, I think it's entirely plausible - and appropriate - that a customer might to be asked to leave after getting in the itamae's face and shouting "I can't believe you can't even make a spicy tuna roll, you stupid (insert ethnic slur here)."

                                        But "drunken, abusive customer asked to leave restaurant" doesn't draw quite the same attention as "customer decapitated by sushi chef for requesting wasabi." The latter creates more buzz - witness this thread - but IMHO it has nothing to do with reality.

                                        I can certainly believe that a sushi chef might correct a customer who tries to dump soy sauce on wakame or scrape the wasabi out of a piece of nigirizushi. And I appreciate it when a chef tells me "don't dip this in the soy sauce - the sauce it has on it is all it needs." Or "you need to eat this right away before the nori gets soggy." But I don't think that's any different than a server in a French restaurant suggesting that it's customary to use a fork and knife when eating coq au vin rather than picking up the drumstick and gnawing on the bone, or a server in a steak house suggesting that ketchup might mask the delicate flavor of a Wagyu ribeye.

                                        Certainly there are those in the service industry who have a less reassuring "table-side manner" than others. But customers should understand that a brusque demeanor (whether it's from a waiter at Peter Luger or a chef at a sushi bar) isn't a personal attack. It's just the way that person is.

                                        I wholeheartedly agree with you that a novice shouldn't be intimidated by sushi (or any other cuisine). Where we disagree is the reason that novices are intimidated; you seem to place responsibility at the feet of the sushi chefs, while I blame the puffed-up anal-retentive "experts" who derive their sense of self-worth from disparaging the tastes, manners, and opinions of others, as well as the writers who publish hyperbolic and sensationalistic stories intended to instill trepidation in the hearts of people who honestly just want to learn and enjoy.

                                        1. re: alanbarnes

                                          And I, on the other hand, believe that novices should be intimidated - not only by sushi, but by any and all food that requires expert knowledge to prepare and appreciate.

                                          People shouldn't be intimidated enough to turn away - but they should recognize the effort it takes to become a person of knowledge. It isn't a matter of being a "puffed-up anal-retentive", but of understanding what years of learning means. How long is medical school? How long is sushi training? If you sit and talk to a traditionally trained Itamae about fish, the amount of knowledge is formidable. Given the number of different fish there are, it wouldn't surprise me to find out that certain surgeons knew less about their subject matter than some itamae about fish. Indeed, I am intimidated.

                                          Music isn't intimidating - everyone can hum and whistle and appreciate a tune. But even if the Beatles are accessible to most, Beethoven is not. Webern even less so. There is no doubt that these human endeavors benefit from training and experience, and few people who want to learn to play or appreciate complex forms of music think they can do this without the aid of teachers. And yet, we're not only willing to poo-poo the learning of flavors and textures that only a few in the world can achieve, but we make a habit of doing so on a site that purportedly is all about learning about food.

                                          I don't get it.

                                          1. re: applehome

                                            I don't listen to my mother anymore, why would I listen to and allow myself to be bullied by a chef?

                                            Any chef, any cuisine. The entire idea is beYOND silly.

                                            No, disrespect towards a chef or any restaurant employee is not acceptable, but neither is disrespect towards a diner.

                                            But hey, if there are those willing to pay to be berated, they are welcome to it.

                                            1. re: dolores

                                              I don't listen to my mother anymore, why would I listen to and allow myself to be bullied by a chef?
                                              ..................................................dolores Oct 27, 2008 05:31AM
                                              ________________________________

                                              Love that! Words for the ages. And the "sages!"

                                      4. re: alanbarnes

                                        "I strongly disagree that most people 'will eventually learn to eat sushi 'within the norm' given time."

                                        Probably true, but I do think there's such a thing as training wheels even for connoisseurs (and Chowhounds!). I never would have learned to love oysters if I hadn't originally had cocktail sauce to ease me into them, though I later weaned myself off it...

                                      5. re: Caroline1

                                        "You shouldn't have to have a black belt in sushi before you can feel free to enjoy the food."

                                        Too true. I'll admit that even though I'm normally fairly adventurous with food that sometimes I'll shy away from ordering something if I'm afraid I'll be "eating it wrong" and that the people in the particular environment I'm in would care. It isn't a good way to do things, but sometimes that level of social pressure can be pretty strong.

                                        1. re: Caroline1

                                          My feeling is that the rules are pretty straightforward, perhaps not too different in difficult from say some of the rules involved in ordering wine or eating pasta. But I do feel that it is important to learn them beforehand.

                                          1. re: limster

                                            There are rules to eating macaroni? I never heard that one before.

                                            As long as I'm not rushed through my meal, by all means I wouldn't mind being entertained by a temperamental sushi chef.

                                            1. re: dolores

                                              re: rules - How to hold a fork and/or spoon. Not talk with mouth full, napkin on the lap. Not to mash up your ravioli before eating it. Simple stuff. The equivalent of how to hold sushi in your fingers, not to put down a piece of sushi after a bite or pass them with chopsticks. Just basic or common sense stuff, not rocket science.

                                              1. re: limster

                                                I don't think those are the "rules" that the WSJ or anyone here is talking about. At least not what I'm talking about. It's ridiculous stuff like the omakase that Anthony Bourdain did in Tokyo, with "Jiro-San" where he was forced to eat 15 servings of sushi in 20minutes. For HOW much money??? THAT is ridiculous. A "sushi chef" yelling at customers because they committed what he considers a crime against rice? THAT is ridiculous. The rule that sushi MUST be in your mouth within 11 seconds of the time it is placed before you? THAT is ridiculous! A sushi chef who hands a newbie a sushi menu, then refuses service because the newbie fills it out? THAT is ridiculous.

                                                Eating sushi should NOT be a bunch of bullshit. And that's what these self appointed gurus are doing to it. Not to mention the people who put up with it.

                                                I do love sushi. I love traditional sushi. Either from a really good well trained sushi chef, or sushi that I make at home with my own hot little female hands. I make a very respectable vinagered rice in the traditional way with a bamboo rice paddle in one hand and a fan in the other. You do that because it makes the rice shiny, makes it taste good, and promotes the stickiness a bit. But... It ain't rocket science! And it is NOT taking communion at a high mass with the Pope in St. Peter's in Rome! In fact, there are a lot less rules there than there are in too many sushi bars. Doesn't that strike you as a little strange?.

                                                1. re: Caroline1

                                                  >>he was forced to eat 15 servings of sushi in 20minutes.

                                                  Forced? Who forced him? Has Bourdain suddenly lost it? He never struck me as a man who would be FORCED to do anything.

                                                  How sad that he is doing this just to sell his books and his television show.

                                                  >>A "sushi chef" yelling at customers because they committed what he considers a crime against rice? THAT is ridiculous. The rule that sushi MUST be in your mouth within 11 seconds of the time it is placed before you? THAT is ridiculous! A sushi chef who hands a newbie a sushi menu, then refuses service because the newbie fills it out? THAT is ridiculous.

                                                  Caroline, where is this happening? IF there are idiots who buy into it, more power to the chefs who take advantage of them.

                                                  1. re: Caroline1

                                                    I was speaking to sushi "etiquette/appreciation" (for the lack of a better word) in general, not to specific places with specific quirks. The WSJ article describes extremes, the implication being that if we don't have a Ph.D. in sushi eating that we will be mistreated by sushi chefs and that it is a common phenomenon. I consider that a mischaracterisation, and in fact, a few examples cited here or in the article (e.g. excess soy sauce or wasabi) can easily be avoided with same basic knowledge that is easily acquired.

                                                    Eating sushi isn't generally a bunch of bullshit, and we shouldn't be characterising it as such, based on a few extreme examples. I've said many times on this thread that the bar isn't set that high, and we shouldn't pretend that it is. But there is a minimum amount of homework that we should do, for any restaurant, and sushi restaurants are not an exception.

                                                    Doing one's homework can do a lot to maximise one's experience in any restaurant, not just a sushi place. That includes figuring out what the best dishes are, what is in season, any specific rules that the restaurant has (e.g. a French/New American place in Boston allows you to order both from the bar menu and the restaurant menu only at the bar, some restaurants need you to make a reservation 3 months ahead). And of course that involves tailoring the experience to one's taste e.g. don't go to restaurant that specialises in offal if you're a vegetarian or avoid ordering certain types of more strong-flavoured fish for sushi because they tend to have more wasabi.

                                                  2. re: limster

                                                    >>not to put down a piece of sushi after a bite

                                                    Really? There are idiots out there who don't know the common etiquette rules of dining?

                                                    How amazingly silly.

                                                    >>Not to mash up your ravioli before eating it.

                                                    Oh, and if I want to do this, I will. It's my money and I'll do whatever I want to MY meal.

                                                    1. re: dolores

                                                      dolores, which way do you want it? Are people who don't follow common rules of dining "idiots" and "amazingly silly" or are they mavericks, who "do whatever [they'] to want [THEIR] meal"?

                                                      Just trying to get a handle on yoru position, because it seems like you are advocating for both sides of the bench in this post.

                                                      1. re: Chris VR

                                                        Hmmm, which 'way' do I want it. Being given the credit for having common sense, i.e., not putting back a piece of food after eating it. Anyone who does that is an idiot.

                                                        And being able to mash up the pasta that is in MY plate and is NOT accessible to the table - if you want to call that being a 'maverick', be my guest.

                                                        Advocating 'both sides'? Not anywhere close, but I hope I've helped clear it all up for you.

                                                        1. re: dolores

                                                          BTW, I was referring to putting back a piece of sushi onto one's own plate, not the common plate. The idea is that a piece of sushi should be finished in a bite, or held in one's hand or chopsticks between bites.

                                                          1. re: dolores

                                                            There's a difference between taking a bite and putting it back on a communal dish (unsanitary, and I don't imagine anybody would think that was OK) and taking a bite of sushi and putting it back on your own plate. That's an etiquette issue, not an issue of common sense. I wouldn't call anyone who does it an "idiot" but I would think they either didn't know about or didn't care about the rules of etiquette in this situation.

                                                            Like it or not, rules of etiquette do apply to what you do with the food that's on your plate. For example, in teaching my children how to eat in polite company (where rules of etiquette do apply), I'd instruct them not to mix all their food together into a potato/peas/beef mash or mash their ravioli up. It's just not how you treat food when you're trying to eat with decorum. If I were teaching them to eat sushi, I'd want to teach them the rules that they are expected to follow because I want them to be well-regarded by other diners.

                                                            1. re: Chris VR

                                                              >>I wouldn't call anyone who does it an "idiot"

                                                              Someone who took a bite of a piece of sushi, which is how I took the remark, and put it back on a communal plate is not an idiot? Yeah, okay.

                                                              >>mash their ravioli up.

                                                              It depends. If with mixed company, maybe not. If with people I were comfortable with, why not.

                                                              1. re: dolores

                                                                Once again, nobody except you has been talking about putting food back on a communal plate. I think we can all agree that person is out of line.

                                                                What limster was referring to and I agree with is somebody picking up a piece of sushi, taking one bite and then placing it back on their own plate. I don't know whether or not you call that person an idiot, but I wouldn't. Clueless or uncaring of etiquette norms, yes. But not an idiot.

                                                                How would you know if the people you were dining with were comfortable with you mashing you your ravioli until after you'd done it? (Unless you're suggesting you'd ask first?) I wouldn't let my kids do it and I'd be pretty surprised if an adult I was dining with did it, but I'd figure that person has limited manners and that's their own business. Unless it was a close friend who I knew cared about how others perceive him/her, in which case I'd want to figure out how to let that person know that treating their food that way will make others think they are a clod.

                                                                1. re: Chris VR

                                                                  >>not to put down a piece of sushi after a bite or pass them with chopsticks.

                                                                  Nope, not clear at all. Passing them and putting them down in the same sentence implies a communal action. Passing with one's own chopsticks implies an idiot as well, it's like double dipping. Yes, an idiot.

                                                                  Nah, not a clod at all. Because they were family. Besides, as long as I'm with friends or family, it's my money, my plate, if I want to turn my ravioli into soup if I'm among friends or family, I'm entitled to do it.

                                                        2. re: dolores

                                                          >> Really? There are idiots out there who don't know the common etiquette rules of dining?

                                                          Some do and some don't. I said the bar was set pretty low. But it's important to pass that bar. Also, common etiquette rules of dining vary with culture -- best to check about a culture that one is not familiar with.

                                                          Of course anyone can do anything to their meal, but it is possible to evaluate whether their actions are consistent with their goals. e.g. if someone enjoys al dente pasta, they probably wouldn't want to mash up their ravioli -- that would be inconsistent with their goals. OTOH, if they do like mashed up pasta, they would likely prefer to eat at a pasta place that cooks the pasta longer, so that it would be easier for them to mash it up - that would be a more consistent course of action - going to a place that cooks the pasta more lightly would be more trouble for them.

                                                          That's why doing one's homework is important, because one can find a place that is most suited to one's tastes.

                                                          1. re: limster

                                                            One thing for sure, there's no bullying at McSushi, Sushi Boat Moat Express, or All you Can Eat Sushi Buffets. Yoda mud bath (wasabi and soy sauce mix), double dipping, using fork and knife to eat nigiri and big ass stupid name rolls....the possibilities are endless.

                                                            1. re: K K

                                                              uh oh, that yoda mud bath sounds fun! if i didn't know it was intended for sashimi, i'd jump right in.

                                                    2. re: limster

                                                      Totally agree - it's showing the proper respect for the food and for the chef, who has spent an awful lot of time learning about what he has presented to you.

                                                      The best way to learn is from an Itamae who has the time to teach you as he serves you. But these masters who see themselves as the creators of the epitome of the food and the guardians of the traditions, often do not have the patience to teach - they expect their customers to have learned their lessons from lessor itamae and fellow searchers on the path.

                                                      What people are missing here is the understanding of the traditional ways of learning a craft, whether from European guilds that have existed since the middle ages, or the Japanese ways of respect and honor for the truly skilled artisans. As we've democratized sushi into mcsushi, we've not only affected the food itself, but the traditions behind the process of learning and making sushi. We simply can no longer appreciate and respect great artisans in the way we once may have acknowledged.

                                                      Great musicians, like Heifetz in his time, give master classes. They no longer teach beginners or even accomplished amateurs. They give lessons only to the best, and the instructions are sparse and pointed - these are finishing classes, mostly about playing music, not technique - you are expected to show up with the technique well in hand. If you do not, some masters can be rude and throw the student out with some very negative comments.

                                                      Too many of us treat this level of cooking as just another service job rather than the art that it really is. As a service, we expect the cook to do our bidding. But as an artist, the cook gets to present us with his creation, as he sees fit, and he gets to throw us out, if he thinks that we are plebeians who could not possibly understand or appreciate his art.,

                                                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                        I don't think that you can consider Pepin and Bocuse in the same way - not that they're not equally great, but that they don't perform directly to the audience every night. Western chefs yell at the sous, but not at the public, at least, not very often.

                                                        I don't think that being an asshole is an admirable trait, just that it happens. And that I can put up with it in order to learn from a master. That I'm ok with some level of supplicating - i.e. following rules, if the end is an experience that I can't get elsewhere.

                                                        1. re: applehome

                                                          >>But as an artist, the cook gets to present us with his creation, as he sees fit, and he gets to throw us out,

                                                          He might, but we reserve the right to never go back and to hope he goes out of business for ignoring the one major facet of being in a service business -- be nice to the customer.

                                                          But hey, if he can get repeat idiotic customers who put up with this laughable treatment, more power to him.

                                              2. OMG! The wsj article, this discussion and the ridiculous prices (e.g. O Ya in Boston) make me so very happy that I do not eat sushi.

                                                3 Replies
                                                1. re: emilief

                                                  emilief, I'm not sure where you are, but if you scout around, you might find decent prices and glorious amazing sushi. We're lucky here in Westchester.

                                                  Sushi is actually wonderful, you should try it.

                                                  1. re: emilief

                                                    And as the trailbreaking chowhound that you are, you have no curiosity as to what new, wonderful flavors, smells, mouthfeel, that the experience might bring you?

                                                    1. re: applehome

                                                      Well, I have been to Japan 4 times and have eaten the strangest of things, grashoppers, sea cucumbers, sashimi etc. and there are many trailblazing foods I have eaten but I just am not into sushi. There are so many things that have wonderful flavors, smells mouthfeels etc. but for me sushi is just simply not one of those. Go ahead, flog me!

                                                  2. Well, since I make my own sushi, I'll try bullying myself to see if I enjoy it.

                                                    3 Replies
                                                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                      Isn't that called masochism? Just wonderin'.

                                                      1. re: Gio

                                                        "Self - abuse". I'll probably go blind.

                                                        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                          Join the club. I always flagellate myself when I make sushi at home.