An exclusive look inside the hidden world of the sushi chef
Things you have in common with a sushi apprentice in Japan: you both start the day in the bathroom. But as you move on with your day, that young apprentice stays in the restroom. Cleaning. All day. For at least a year. Then he might graduate to washing kitchen utensils. In the US, sushi is much less dogmatic, but the principle remains: you've got to learn to do one thing perfectly before earning another responsibility.
To observe the breadth of those responsibilities, we were invited into the kitchens of Uchi and Uchiko, two James Beard-lauded restaurants in Austin, TX that are deeply rooted in Japanese technique and reverence for the perfect bite, but throw out the rulebook when it comes to the strictness with which most traditional Japanese sushi is served.
Read on to learn what it takes for a sushi chef to be a cut above the rest.
Meet our guide Masa Saio. He moved to Texas from Japan to join Uchi's opening crew back in 2003. And that mackerel moved here from Japan today!
Aside from their hands, a sushi chef's primary tools are their knives. Masa carries a serious arsenal with him, but generally only uses two or three knives per shift depending on the situation and his mood. Each blade is carved with intricate Japanese characters that say things like
Masa is a badass the grade of sharpness.
Although some chefs arrive even earlier, today Masa arrived at 11am to prep for service at 5pm. It's going to be a high volume day at Uchiko, so Masa's chosen one of his cheaper knives that's lighter and allows for quicker slicing. That ceramic sharpening block isn't actually being used to sharpen the knife, but rather to even the blade and smooth out imperfections.
Fish is delivered several times a week, but international distributors and air transport can be unpredictable. Weather delayed this shipment and the Uchiko team had to pick it up from the airport, even though there's no way it could possibly return the favor.
Fish are sourced through two main suppliers. Thanks to the efficiency of air transport, they can deliver super-fresh fish from everywhere, including the center of the sushi world, Japan's famed Tsukiji Fish Market.
Breaking down fish is a three man job. Masa's on scaling duty, scraping the sides of the fish to remove the rough exterior layer. He holds the fish by the eyes because the fins are often poisonous.
The second guy in the disassembly line dives in head-first.
The blood is dug out with a tool Macguyver'd from a few skewers. If you don't remove the blood, the meat spoils quicker than Richard Dean Anderson's career.
Removing the organs requires special care, because puncturing something like the gallbladder will cause an explosion of bile from both the fish and the chef. After this major surgery, a third man rinses out the fish before it makes its way to the sushi counter to be skinned and sliced.
The whole operation was performed in near silence with a Zen-like calm and composure.
The team breaks down between 30 and 40lbs of fish over a half-hour. Then it's ready to be filleted on the sushi counter.
But before a chef is allowed to touch even a piece of seafood, their knife skills have to be on point. Uchi requires that a chef be able to cut garlic to 1/16in slices, a size much too large to eat on a date.
Even the most experienced chefs still have to chop Thai chilies (and wash their hands really, really well before they go to the bathroom).
In traditional Japanese sushi, rice is considered the main ingredient with the fish complementing the perfection of the grain. If the rice isn't perfect, the bite isn't perfect, so the guy on rice duty is actually very important.
Once the rice is steamed, a giant wooden bowl (hangiri) is coated in vinegar. The rice is added and stirred with a wooden paddle (shamoji) so that the vinegar evenly coats each grain, cooling it down and evening out the texture.
Horse mackerel (aji) is considered an underrated fish, and was Masa's favorite that day. Fun facts about mackerel, one of which somehow involves Sir-Mix-A-Lot's third LP: there are 150 types, it's beloved partially because other fish eat it (so it must be good!), they're seasonal and sourced from different places during different times of the year, and Mix-A-Lot's Mack Daddy record got its name from the fish's shiny scales.
With the blood and guts already removed, Masa cuts out the fillet and carefully removes most of the skin, leaving a thin layer that adds texture and flavor. For aji, the tempura-fried head's often kept on the body, and is presented curling up off the plate.
Salmon is actually considered a whitefish, but its diet of crustaceans gives it an orange coloring and unique flavor.
"How a chef touches a fish lets you know how skilled they are," says Masa. "It shows how much they care about the fish."
Uchi also has a full kitchen that's busy prepping things like soft shell crabs for spider rolls and your worst nightmares.
This chalkboard in the kitchen shows the work-in-progress specials. Each chef is continually testing and iterating new dishes that might eventually make it to the plates of adventurous diners. When Uchi opened their second restaurant Uchiko in 2010, the menu was comprised largely of specials from the original restaurant.
Every day before service there is a kitchen-wide meeting where they talk about everything from detailed facts about fish anatomy to who didn't clean the employee bathroom last week (get it together, Ian!).
The work ethic is written on the wall.
By the time Uchi opens for happy hour at 5pm, each of these chefs has already been working for at least 6hrs. The unanimous consensus is that the most important stuff happens before a single customer walks through the door.
In Tokyo, most reputable sushi spots only serve a few customers at a time, whereas Uchi and Uchiko are busy restaurants that regularly host 300 patrons a night. The restaurants pride themselves on bringing the sushi counter experience to your table, but there's nothing like sitting at the bar.
Working the sushi counter is all about being hospitable and sushi chefs are some of the most humble humans on the planet. But when you're at the counter, Masa has a few polite recommendations.
In Japan, most sushi operates on an omakase ("I trust you") system where the chef serves whatever he feels like, but at Uchi, the focus is more on the customer's tastes than the chef's. Don't ask "what's best?". Instead, offer a few examples of your preferences and you'll be rewarded with fish you'll actually enjoy.
And never ask what's fresh. If the place is legit, everything's fresh or else they wouldn't be serving it.
One of the head sushi chef's most important jobs is managing the supply of fish throughout the night. "Every moment is a judgment," says Masa. You don't want to waste anything, but you also don't want to run out of something like bluefin, likely because at this point, it literally might be the last fish in the sea.
Sushi traditionalists might scoff at rolls, but even sushi's most entry-level dishes require a ton of skill. Good sushi falls apart in your mouth, whereas a poorly constructed roll will feel like you're eating a handful of sticky rice. A skilled chef knows how to "put the air in it" while constructing the roll quickly enough so that the seaweed doesn't turn soggy.
Meet the Zero Sen roll: yellowtail, avocado, dry shallot, cilantro, tobiko, and yuzu, served with a citrus paste.
Here, another chef sprinkles sea salt over one of Uchi's signature dishes: maguro sashimi and goat cheese, which features bigeye tuna, pumpkin seed oil, and Fuji apple. "Maguro is the king of sushi," says Masa, but he says to pass on spicy or crunchy tuna rolls because the spice masks the fish's flavor.
One of the keys to a perfect bite of nigiri is that contrast between the temperature of the lukewarm rice and the cold fish. You want to eat it immediately so as to keep that contrast. Here the aji that Masa prepared gets all dressed up with ginger, sesame seeds, green onion, and tamari, which is a type of soy sauce that's richer, but less salty.
The kitchen often pulls fish from the sushi bar for creations like this Walu Walu, a hot dish of oak-grilled escolar, candied citrus, yuzupon dressing, and Japanese ginger.
Uni, or sea urchin roe, is one of the most advanced things you can order at a sushi bar. But uni is not the eggs, it's the genitals. It gets a rap for being super creamy, but the best stuff is actually firm and should look a little like a tongue. Most of Uchi's uni comes from Santa Barbara, where it's harvested by extremely skilled (and well paid) divers in icy cold waters. If the tide is high, they don't dive, and you don't get to eat no urchin genitals.
Ordering uni is a surefire way to get on your chef's good side.
For the next few hours, the sushi chef is a performer, and one who doesn't necessarily have time to be bothered by stunningly handsome photographers from men's lifestyle publications. So we stopped playing sushi paparazzi and let Masa do his thing until 11pm when the restaurant closed. But even after he's packed up his knives, he usually doesn't leave until at least 1am, making for a full 14hr day.
Multiply that by six or seven days a week, and there really aren't many hours left for anything else aside from maybe bathing and paying a pretty damn low electricity bill because you're never, ever home.
Being a sushi chef is a lifelong commitment that starts with several years of looking and feeling really, really inadequate. Those that stick around are rewarded with diehard regulars, all the uni they can eat, and a sense of inner pride that glows like the scales of the shiniest of Mack Daddies.
So next time you're about to bite into a delicious piece of sushi, be sure to give your compliments to the chef.
Dan Gentileis a staff writer on Thrillist's national food/drink team who recently purchased a very nice toaster oven and is excited about exploring the world of crispy reheated food. He also enjoys hating mustard. Follow him to pots of gold/Twitter at @Dannosphere.