The Secrets of Master Sushi Chefs

Dan Gentile/Thrillist
Dan Gentile/Thrillist

In Japan, it can take a sushi chef years to graduate from making rice to cutting fish and a full lifetime before they helm their own sushi counter. But to folks who simply graze the conveyor belt for what looks good, what separates a master-level nigiri maker from the guy offering free spicy tuna samples at the grocery store isn't always clear. It is, however, what separates a good sushi joint from the cold case. 

To find out what skills distinguish a master from a novice, we spoke with six highly experienced chefs: Tyson Cole of Uchi (Austin, Dallas, Houston, TX), Taichi Kitamura of Sushi Kappo Tamura (Seattle, WA), Yoshihiko Kousaka of Kosaka (New York, NY), Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, Chris Clime of PassionFish (Reston, VA & Bethesda, MD), and Katsunori Kawaguchi of MOzen Bistro (Las Vegas, NV) about the secrets of their craft.

Here are their thoughts, from how to make the perfect rice to why a sushi chef is just like a bartender.

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Each bite is made to be eaten immediately

“Sushi is like French fries,” says Tyson Cole of Uchi. “It's best eaten right when you make it. Every minute after you make it, it's dying.” This means that preparing sushi at a master level requires incredible multi-tasking to complete a plate of nigiri with timing that preserves the integrity of each bite, as well as laser focus on each piece.

Aromas must be balanced

A master understands that smell is a crucial element of taste. “A piece of mackerel is going to have a stronger aroma and you don't want it to turn guests off, so I put some ginger, green onion, lemon juice on top,” says Taichi Kitamura of Sushi Kappo Tamura. Some other scent-balancing pairings that our chefs suggested were garlic with bonito and extra wasabi with uni.

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Each fish requires a different mastery

How you slice, season, and form fish for nigiri depends on the fat content and texture of each individual species. “For a fish that's not that fatty, white fish or flounder for example, I cut it paper thin because it's all muscle,” says Cole. For fattier fish, the size of the slice is adjusted, but also the seasoning. “For fattier fish, I use two to three times more wasabi than I do with lighter flavored fish. On a piece of toro, I use four times as much,” says Kitamura.

Fish that are processed alive require an even more specialized skill set

“When you prepare shrimp, lobster, octopus, and mollusks, you need to use techniques such that you don't trigger any of the hormones these creatures release as a defense mechanism when they're attacked or feel in danger,” says Chris Clime of PassionFish.

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Not all parts of the fish are created equal

The anatomy of a fish isn't uniform. Just like how different cuts of beef lend themselves to certain styles of preparation, different parts of the fish are better for sashimi, nigiri, or rolls. "The tail is mostly muscle, it's the motor of the fish. It's not the best flesh for sashimi, so you use that part for rolls,” says Cole. Pro tip: chefs often save the best cuts for customers sitting at the sushi bar.

Food waste is minimized

The trend of using every part of an animal extends to sushi. “Great sushi chefs utilize every part of the fish and can serve many different preparations on the same plate,” says Clime.

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Rice is seasonal and very temperamental

As contrary as it seems, great sushi chefs will tell you that the rice is just as important as the fish, if not more so. Perfect rice takes more than just following a recipe of the right proportions of water and vinegar. Every element that goes into the process needs to be meticulously accounted for, from the seasonality of rice crops to the atmospheric pressure that day. “You cook the new crop rice with a lot less water than older crops because the rice itself has more moisture in it,” says Kitamura.

Every grain of rice needs to be cooked equally

Inexperienced chefs will often over-mix the rice, which causes it to become too sticky, making for an overly compact bite of sushi. “You want to have each piece of rice cooked evenly,” says Kitamura. Cole stresses that each grain of rice needs to be preserved and not broken up. During his last years making rice he would take such care that he would mix the rice using a moist towel. “Traditionally you use a wood spatula to mix the vinegar into the rice, but if you're doing it wrong without finesse, you're just tearing it up,” says Cole.

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The guest is the most important thing

“A sushi chef is like a bartender mixed with a fish sculptor,” says Cole. It's the height of hospitality in that each bite is prepared purposefully for the customer and with an intimacy unparalleled in even the most open of kitchens. The role of a great sushi chef is to understand their guest's tastes and cater to them without arrogance. “The best sushi chefs care about you as a particular individual. It's like going to the dentist or a hair stylist,” says Kitamura.

A master chef will educate curious customers

Similar to how a craft bartender with a bad attitude can turn someone off of fancy cocktails, an unapproachable sushi chef isn't doing the cuisine any favors. “My mission is to let people know about and enjoy our culture, which includes the art of sushi making and eating. The greatest sushi chefs have this same mentality and passion,” says Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. One element of the ambassadorial position is to explain techniques to help customers understand how much care is involved. “When I make a squid sushi, my guests will observe me make numerous slits on the squid. It's very delicate work, the slits have to be even, not too deep, not too shallow. When I serve it, I explain to them that it is necessary to enjoy the softness of the fish,” says Yoshihiko Kousaka of Kosaka.

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Each knife has a specific purpose

The best sushi knives are made of iron rather than stainless steel and crafted with similar techniques used for samurai swords. Different knives have different purposes, and a master chef knows when and why to use each. “You wouldn't go near bones with certain blades because they're so soft you'd chip them,” says Cole.

Knives need to be insanely sharp

Keeping knives sharp is a craft all in its own. “Master sushi chefs will always sharpen their knives every day before service,” says Katsunori Kawaguchi of MOzen Bistro. This is important to ensure that cutting is a finesse action and not one driven by power. “If you use too much pressure while cutting the sushi it will affect the texture,” says Kawaguchi.

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Proper fish sourcing is crucial

When it comes to raw proteins, you can't compromise on freshness and quality. “Buying fish from a reputable and trusted vendor is also key,” says Kawaguchi. Most top restaurants import fish from Japan's biggest fish market (Tsukiji) and have personally vetted their suppliers. “I usually find the strength of each supplier, so I use supplier A for my tuna, supplier B for the sea urchins, and so on,” says Kosuaka.

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Dan Gentile is a staff writer at Thrillist. His favorite sushi fish are mackerel and sardines. Follow him to wavering opinions about uni at @Dannosphere.