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Aug 31, 2012 09:37 AM

Sushi Chefs-do they have to be Japanese?

Do Sushi chefs have to be Japanese? Lau on chowhound had a lengthy post related to Yuba restaurant. He began with his skepticism about Chinese chefs making sushi (I believe he is Chinese) yet concludes that Yuba defied this concern.

IN that thread, Silverjay suggested that the result was a sort of "Pied au Cochon" style of sushi, the notable Montreal restaurant that serves delicious, but extremely rich and oppulent food with a surfeit of fois gras included in many of the dishes. He intimated that the result is not restrained and subtle and as the "yuba" name suggests since "yuba" is a Kyoto style dish. Kyoto cuisine is noted for it's elegance and refinement. So if this is in fact a divergence from Japanese cuisine-is it the amalgamation of Japanese training (the Chefs trained in Japanese restaurants) with American sensibilities along with Chinese culture?

I have some thoughts of my own. Some people judge food by the feeling it conveys. This feeling reflects the attitudes of the kitchen staff and the wait staff. It also reflects the artistry and precision of the culture. The Japanese culture has an enormously precise component that feels elegant without being compulsive; movement is economical, precise and almost meditative. There is an enormous visual aesthetic and some of it is related to their historical religious roots in the Zen tradition as well as Shinto traditions. I believe you can actually feel the difference when an attentive mindful chef makes sushi. I had dinner at Arubaya Kinosuke with a Japanese friend a few years back. WE both commented that sushi made by non-Japanese doesn't feel right. He was surprised that I recognized that, but it was important to him.

So if I want Kyoto style cuisine, I want the cultural feeling. IT's the same when I go to Pied au Cochon-I really enjoy the rich opulence of the Quebecois tradition of Martin Picard and his Quebecois chefs. If I go to an Italian owned and manned sandwich shop in Boston's Little Italy, there is something almost magical about the tradition that has been carried on for generations reflected in that sandwich and even in the bread itself.

Japanese is perhaps the most "persnickity" of these cultural affects. You can't just reproduce it by adding the right ingredients. You have to have the movements of a Japanese chef which seems to require enormous training. In the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi, it became apparent that the training process is extensive and demanding. The apprentices literally spend years learning just how to prepare rice-I believe they said 10 years. They would even massage the octopuses to soften their meat before they cooked them. This produces an incredibly satisfying result that actually, for me, imparts a sense of peacefulness and elegance. This is not somehow conveyed when I eat Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese made sushi.

I remember going to a small noodle shop in Tokyo once. It was totally amazing and there was this sense of care that went into the food preparation. It was not a nervous kind of intensity, but rather a relaxed sense of precision that went into that food. I'm all for fusion, but there's a great place for respecting tradition. In fact, some of the best fusion comes out of highly skilled professionals who are adept in their own tradition. Hence, when, for example, Eric Rippert at Le Bernardin puts an Asian spin on his cuisine, there's something quite decent, though I must say I prefer his French style dishes. Or when Nobu Matsuhisa combines Japanese and Peruvian, it's quite nice.

Does anyone have that same feeling or am I halucinating?

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  1. At least in Japan, you can barely find a woman preparing sushi, let alone a non-Japanese person. The rumor is that a woman's hands are too warm...there are other chauvinistic aspects too, but I don't really care who makes my sushi. I KNOW that most of the "sushi" places in NYC aren't run by Japanese people, and the staff originate anywhere from China, South Korea, the Dominican Republic...sure you have Japanese sushi chefs at many establishments, and I believe those are typically of a much higher quality (it's also good to practice language skills), but if I have the craving, who knows "who" I'll find.

    1 Reply
    1. re: BuildingMyBento

      Good points. Chauvinism does seem to be a bad trait of many cultures, as I think you might be suggesting. I do notice that my enjoyment level is quite different with a great sushi chef, and I have yet to experience one who is not Japanese. But your experience may be different. I had some wonderfully crafted sushi by a Korean sushi chef. It just wasn't the same somehow. I didn't know he was Korean when I went into the restaurant. But after eating some of the sushi, it didn't feel as good. But as you may be pointing out, it wasn't a "bad" experience. It just wasn't optimal for me.

    2. My question in that thread had nothing to do with challenging the assertion that non-Japanese cannot be sushi chefs. My wife is Japanese and I lived in Tokyo for many years, so we enjoy sitting at the counter and conversing in Japanese with a chef as an anecdote to homesickness.

      I'm a hardcore Japanophile but the first to admit that there are many cultures with rich, very particular culinary sensibilities that take time and experience to learn. I don't know about 10 years just to learn to make rice, but for anyone cooking any cuisine I would hope they went through some experience that rightfully prepared them to serve the cuisine- whether through apprenticeship, study, travel, experience, etc. I'm sure like anything, there will be some people that just get it better than others. It really helps to have spent time in Japan because the unique sensibilities there, while shared in spirit by other countries (seasonality, freshness, aesthetics, etc.) the application is quite different.......And honestly, I'm so over the whole Jiro Dreams of Sushi thing. There are a ton of great sushi restaurants and chefs in Japan. There are plenty of people who don't think he is the best or can't stand his attitude or the environment in his restaurant...........Also, the restaurant you are referring to in NYC is Aburiya Kinnosuke. Did not realize that they have ever served sushi. Usually consider it a robataya/izakaya.

      4 Replies
      1. re: Silverjay

        Yes, ofcourse. It just so happened that the conversation came up at that restaurant. Thanks for sharing your views. And thanks for the correcction on the spelling. I think you make excellent points about the need to enjoy many cultures. Also, Jiro is an extreme example, as you point out, and certainly not for everyone.

        1. re: Silverjay

          It would be wonderful if you could describe a range of experiences of eating sushi in Tokyo; what are some of the great sushi places, and what did you enjoy about them?

          1. re: foodlovergeneral

            Some of my experiences and many others have been well-covered on the Japan board over the years.

            1. re: Silverjay

              Thanks, I have just looked at that board. Very nice helpful stuff.

        2. "Sushi Chefs - do they have to be Japanese?"


          1 Reply
          1. re: Bacardi1

            Care to elaborate Bacardi1? Any examples in New York that you consider great?

          2. Sushi Chefs-do they have to be Japanese?

            Was Michael White born in Italy?
            Is Gavin Kaysen French?
            Is Rick Bayless Mexican?

            Answer to all of the above questions: No.

            2 Replies
            1. re: sgordon

              I was thinking of Andy Ricker as well. I always enjoy reading about his traveling exploits in Thailand researching cuisine.

              1. re: sgordon

                I agree they dont have to be from the same place that the cuisine comes from, but the chefs you point out spent time in their respective countries of reference and studied the food of the country. The typical non-Japanese sushi chef I've encountered has come no closer to studying Japan than watching Pokemon cartoons. The standard roll of 8 different fish with 4 kinds of sauces is off putting to me. Give me one piece of nigiri with an immaculate piece of fresh fish. I bite into it and I'm struck but the favors in such a simple dish when it's done right. So few get it right because honestly I don't think they ever tasted it. Anyone can learn a craft. It takes time and dedication to do it well. Your basic neighborhood sushi place probably doesn't have someone who has had the proper training. That said, one of my favorite sushi chefs is Korean. Probably helps that he grew up in Japan though.

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