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Sushi Etiquette Question for CH Sushi Experts

Managed to have my first ever sushi experience the Monday after Irene swept thru NYC at Sushi Yasuda. Del Poisto cancelled Saturday dinner and I was determined to have a memorable dining experience before leaving NYC. It was; and now I'm hooked, tho' still virtually a novice.
Heading to California and researching sushi spots in the San Diego/La Jolla area, I came across a debate on SD Chowhound about buying one's sushi chef a sake or beer during the course of the meal. Just wondering about this practice. I can't imagine doing such a thing at Sushi Yasuda. All the chefs seemed so impeccably formal, such a custom strikes me as being unseemly and overly familiar.
Is this a Japanese custom? Do Manhattan sushi eaters buy their sushi chefs drinks? Insight and perspective would be most appreciated.

Sushi Yasuda
204 E 43rd St, New York, NY 10017

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  1. It's not a practice in Japan at all and not really part of Japanese dining culture to do that sort of thing. But seems to be done here in the U.S. I would consult the regional board regarding the specific restaurant you plan to visit and ask other about other's experiences at that shop. It will come down to individual chefs/restaurants and U.S. dining cultural takes.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Silverjay

      I don't have much to add to Silverjay's comment except to say that I have never done or seen it done in [my sushi-filled albeit limited trips to] Japan or in New York, but have both seen it done and done it myself a number of times in L.A. Which might make regional sense given L.A.'s relatively more 'informal' vibe. And I hope I'm not opening up a can of worms here.

    2. When I was an itamae, I had a number of customers who would routinely buy drinks for me, as well as for my colleagues.

      1. I'm not sure mixing alcohol and sharp knives is a particularly good idea. If every patron bought the sushi chef a sake they could end up pretty drunk.

        1. I never pay drinks to sushi chefs (or any other chefs/waiters/barman/woman).

          If the service is stellar and the chef gives freebies, then it will be reflected on the tip I leave at the end.


          1. It's a pretty common practice out here in Cali, but I've known 4 sushi chefs on a good acquaintance level, and they all prefer tips. (Which I think I would too.)

            1. Thanks for the replies. A poster on the SD board reported feeling uncomfortable with this practice. It seems to put everyone in an awkward position: the chef who may not want to drink and then has to decline the offer as well as the diner who may feel pressure to comply with a custom that someone likened to "feeding the ducks". Had hoped this question would stay on the Manhattan board with its many well-traveled and passionate sushi eaters, but no.
              Ricepad's use of the term "itamae" prompted research that yielded a description of the training and apprentice process for chef's in Japan. The immaculate appearance of the chefs at Sushi Yasuda with their white hats and impeccable uniforms is consistent with the "itamae" process. While photos of some CA sushi chefs on Flickr show them looking pretty informal - no hats, uniforms askew, etc. Any additional observations on sushi customs in Japan and around the US or East Coast/West Coast differences would be appreciated.

              17 Replies
              1. re: Jammin Joy

                We've done multiple threads on the topic of sushi dining customs on this General board. Suggest doing a search and setting the time parameter out to 5 years.

                1. re: Silverjay

                  Subsequent to that last post, I discovered the massive thread started by bigtuna27. Wow!!! Impressive!!! So much to learn - whew!! Sushi Yasuda is my one and only sushi experience to date - about 2 weeks ago. As a rank sushi beginner, It took me a while to work up enough courage to go there. A poster on the Manhattan board seems to have had an issue with Yasuda-san and his posts made it sound like a very intimidating place. Finally getting there was a spur-of-the-moment impulse due to all the closures on Hurricane Irene weekend. Frank Bruni's NYT description likening it to a Zen temple seemed on the mark. My husband thought the seven chefs lined up behind the bar in their perfect uniforms looked like seven sushi samurai. Still bowled over by the experience and hungry for more!! The chef we sat before was very kind and informative - not at all intimidating. Definitely want to see 'Shoto no Sushi'. What an entertaining way to learn the finer points. Hope Netflix has it!

                  1. re: Jammin Joy

                    I believe there are only 4 chefs behind the counter at SY......Yeah, I brought a mayo-monster-truck-shit-roll lover there once and watched him have an epiphany. It's a cool experience. He still talks about it to this day... In terms of service, many types of Japanese dining have you sitting in front of the people preparing your food. There is always the human element of the interaction that will be a great variable. But most of the time, it will be enjoyable.....Shota no Sushi you will most likely find on the various Japanese and Korean streaming sites. You'll have to hunt around for it. I'd be very surprised if it is on Netflix.

                    1. re: Jammin Joy

                      Anyone have a link for watching Shota no Sushi with English subtitles? Want a laugh, search net flicks for it.

                  2. re: Jammin Joy

                    JJ, there are places in California that observe more formal and traditional rules of both the making and eating of sushi, but as a whole, and as you may already know, we're much more informal out here in all things compared to Manhattanites.

                    I'm more of a nigiri sushi kind of gal, but fusion rolls with bold flavors are very popular here with additions like mango, cream cheese, a lot of deep fried somethings rolled up in rice and drenched with sauce. All of which can be delicious if prepared well and re-framed. But they can seem downright abhorrent if you expect them to have the simple elegance of a very well crafted piece of nigiri with perfectly cooked and seasoned rice and a perfectly sliced piece of impeccable fish.

                    Let's just say we have some amazingly good traditional sushi out here with very skilled itamae, but we've got a lot of Banzai sushi going on out here too.

                    1. re: inaplasticcup

                      inaplasticcup, totally off subject but I feel I have to share... I'm with you 100% in that I prefer nigiri or a bowl of Chriachi, however a coworker ordered one of those "Banzai" rolls from a local sushi place which we get lunch occasionally... said " you HAVE to try this"
                      It was called a "Dynamite Roll" salmon, crab stick, rice and srirachi mayo, dipped in tempura batter and deep fried. I am so embarrased to admit this but that once bite was really delicous. (though I doubt I could eat an entire roll)

                      1. re: cgarner

                        I know exactly what you mean. That's how I feel about most of the nontraditional maki we see out here. Unless it's something fairly simple like a Rainbow (which for anyone who's never ordered - it's just a California Roll with different kinds of fish on the outside), I find a lot of them to be flavor bombs that I can enjoy a couple of bites of. Best shared round the table, I think.

                        Really good nigiri on the other hand - I am going broke for the night...

                        1. re: cgarner

                          So that's how it starts, eh? One bite of a Garbage Roll (not my words, got it here) and you think it's really good. Aha.
                          Just kidding- a friend entertained some Japanese customers here in Tucson, and they went to Sushi Saga, that had cream cheese in almost everything. We went there once, and it was hard to find sushi that didn't have cream cheese in it, but the stuff we got was really good. I imagine that the Japanese businessmen may have liked the cream cheese for a change. I'm just sayin'.

                        2. re: inaplasticcup

                          Thanks, Cup! My one-and-only sushi experience was from the purist/traditional school. Kaito in Encinitas is the place I've been reading about on the SD board. Pictures on Flickr show more complicated and a greater variety of presentations than we had at Sushi Yasuda. Thanks for helping put that in perspective. Is Kaito considered a traditional place? Folks write about it as tho' it is.
                          Also, I know what you mean about those tastebud bombs. Years ago had a blowout with four friends at Nobu (Asian-Peruvian). All plates were shared and it was great! Went back later and had one dish all to myself and completely lost interest halfway thru. So if any Banzai sushi appears before me, I guess I need to share. For the record, is Banzai sushi what is referred to as "big-ass-stupid-name-roll" on the bigtuna27 thread?

                          1. re: Jammin Joy

                            Funny you should be reading about Kaito. I just moved to North SD County, and I've heard the same about them, but I haven't gotten out to eat much yet, so I couldn't tell you from personal experience if they're more traditional. From the looks of their website, seems they are.

                            And *bigassstupidnameroll* is exactly what I mean by Banzai sushi. :)

                            If you do go, please report back. We're thinking about hitting it up in a bit here. (And welcome to San Diego!)

                            FWIW, imho, I don't think you can ever go wrong no matter where you are in the States by showing your appreciation with a tip as opposed to a drink.

                            1. re: inaplasticcup

                              I'm much more comfortable tipping than plying the staff with alcohol, which just seems awkward and inappropriate. We'll be in the SD/LJ area for a week starting on the 20th so I'm thinking of trying for a Friday res. CHers have high praise for the owner, so hoping he will be there and that we can sit with him.

                              1. re: Jammin Joy

                                One of the few good things about moving from Chicago to SD has been Kaito - it is traditional Edo-mae style sushi, with very non-traditional itamae. They are very gregarious and joke around a lot, but get very serious when it comes to the food. If you are coming to SD, you should visit if you're interested in sushi - it's quite a contrast from Yasuda.

                                Going back to your initial question about buying a drink for the itamae, while the guys at Kaito appreciate it, it's completely unnecessary and you should feel no pressure. Many times they will politely decline as someone else has already done it.

                                1. re: Jammin Joy

                                  In South Dakota? Please say it ain't so...

                            2. re: inaplasticcup

                              ipc, is "Banzai sushi" an official term? It made me laugh out loud cuz it's the perfect description.

                              1. re: joonjoon

                                It is now... :P

                                But in all seriousness, I probably read that term a loooooong time ago on a sign or something, and it surfaced to my consciousness upon reading this thread.

                                1. re: joonjoon

                                  Years ago I coined the expression "Monster Truck Roll Sushi" and it has served me well.

                            3. Buying a sushi chef a beer is quite common in southern California. We have a wonderful pretty high end sushi restaurant near where we live (Bluefin in Corona del Mar, CA), and it is done all the time here and at others we have been to.

                              Tipping sushi chefs is a different story entirely. Although many on CH speak of routinely tipping sushi chefs directly, I have never seen this done at any sushi restaurant I have been to in southern CA (and I've been to quite a few). We, of course, add ~20% to the check when paying and assume this gets shared. I certainly wouldn't want it to entirely go to the server who just brings us drinks!

                              1. While it's not a custom to buy drinks for the itamae at sushi restaurants in Japan, I think this practice might have evolved in LA especially because for many of the old-timer Japanese in LA, the sushi restaurant replaced not just a neighborhood sushi restaurant in the homeland, but also the nomiya (or drinking/eating joint). In Japan, while one might go out for a formal meal at a restaurant (whether it be sushi or French or whatever), the common practice of a nijikai (drinking/munching at a less formal place afterwards) is where one might go with their dining companions or solo (which is common) to hang out at the bar drinking and socializing with the "master" or "mamasan" or other patrons. My hunch is that in LA, the sushi bar has taken over both functions. Many of the more casual sushi bars I've been to in LA in the last few decades feel more like an izakaya than a formal restaurant, where the "drink with me" feeling prevails and many of the itamae might oblige in a drink with their friendlier customers. I've experienced this going out with my parents to sushi bars (especially my father who's a big talker). In comparison, the NY Japanese restaurant scene is a much more recent transplant and with Japanese restaurants clustered in a few neighborhoods, the nijikai is alive and well in NYC (especially among the expat community). That is, the better quality NYC sushi restaurant feel like formal sushi restaurants, with plentiful options for the drinking/munching nijikai to fulfill the socializing aspects of a night's entertainment.

                                So in LA, let's say in the south bay, the Japanese expat might go to a place like Kampachi sushi in a strip mall in his/her car, eat dinner at the bar, have a few drinks, but wait long enough to get enough alcohol out of their system to drive back home. In NYC, the expat might go to a place like Sushi Den, have a relatively quick dinner with a colleague, then walk over to a place like Izakaya Riki upstairs to meet up with some other colleagues for some drinks, munching and karaoke. Then take the a taxi home, or the MetroNorth to Westchester before midnight.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: E Eto

                                  I couldn't agree more with what E Eto addresses above. I don't know squat about the NY culture, but the cultural evolution here in the general LA area is what I've seen as well. Furthermore, when more sushi bars opened with the gaining popularity outside of the Japanese/Japanese American communities back around the late 70s/early 80s, the places frequented more by the general public tended to be more raucous, where emphasis on lots of beer, sake shooters, sushi rolls and partying was the standard (and still is). At this sub-genre, the staff is typically more young, party-like and loud, and the customers are very receptive to this if not driving this type of culture as well, creating an "Animal House" environment relative to the serene and subdued environment of more traditional sushi houses. In essence, the landscape of sushi culture in LA has evolved into a variety of levels, themes and personalities.

                                  Personally, I think the niche that any particular sushi place falls into can be accessed based on information gathered on food sites and word of mouth. The typical itamae who is based in Japanese culture and tradition would have a hard time declining a drink offered by a customer - I think it would be considered rude. But I'm guessing that like many have already mentioned, the dollar-equivalent in gratutity would be far more appreciated by an itamae who is more serious about the craft.

                                2. Just personal anecdote, but when I visited Urasawa one of the customers offered Chef Hiro Sake, which he accepted.

                                  1. This is a little unusual and not exactly an answer to the question...

                                    When I go to my favourite sushi restauant I always sit at the counter, specifically close to my favourite sushi chef (Who I have communicated with by text message or email to ensure that I go on a day that he is working), and ask him to make what ever he feels like for me. He asks how many courses I want to eat and sends courses of sushi, hot dishes, salads etc that he creates on the spur of the moment, off menu, until I ask him to stop. They have been some of my most memorable dinning experiences and as a chef myself it is so special. After the second time that he cooked for me I made it a habbit to give him a nice bottle of wine or sake after each visit to show my appreciation for his craft and personal service.

                                    As someone that lives in and eats sushi in Manhattan, I can say with fair certainty that almost no one is buying drinks for their sushi chef, it is a practice that I have not even heard of. Although I do think that it would be nice to see the tipping culture move towards rewarding the kitchen for great food rather than just leaving a bigger tip for the server that had nothing to do with it. I 'tip' the particular chef mentioned above for the personal service and sublime food that he makes me. Why leave a bigger tip for the server (I tip the server the normal 20%) for pouring water and clearing plates when it is the food that I am delighted with?

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: pastryboy

                                      shouzen, thanks for the succinct description of Kaito. Now I know what to expect in comparing and contrasting the experience with Sushi Yasuda. Have an early res on the 23rd and have asked to sit with Morita-san. So looking forward to it!

                                      E Eto and bulavinaka, excellent commentary on the evolution of Japanese drinking and dining on the West and East Coasts - USA. Good perspective on the different types of establishments and the atmosphere and customs unique to them.

                                      pastryboy, what a great idea!! A bottle of wine or sake that can be enjoyed at leisure by your chef. Would you care to tell identify the place you frequent, if not the name of your chef? He sounds wonderfu!. And I couldn't agree more about recognizing the kitchen in appreciation. After all, it is the folks preparing the meal that are the essence of the experience with the service and overall atmosphere either contributing to or distracting from one's ability to fully enjoy the food.

                                    2. It seems tacky to me. Why would you buy a drink for someone performing precision knifework? The only real reason you would do it is to buy yourself preferential treatment, and imagine what would happen if everyone who came in to dine followed suit. It's simply not reasonable to accept this as "standard practice" under any normal circumstance.

                                      The only time I would buy a sushi chef a drink is if I knew him really, really well (Like we've had drinks outside of the sushi establishment well). If they treat you well with great service, reflect it in the tip.