Of course, culinary culture clashes endure. As the only non-Japanese employee, Roman had no idea what people were saying behind her back. “They are more careful what they say now,’’ she says, smiling. “They laugh because I don’t like fish that is still moving, but basically I can make anything. The one thing is, everything has to be perfect.” The older Japanese customers still give her skeptical looks.
From Food Emporium to the four stars of Masa, sushi chefs are on a roll. As raw fish becomes even more of a staple, the question emerges: Who can use it as a meal ticket? “Until recently, there was a very rigid system of having only Japanese people making sushi,” says Drew Nieporent, owner of Nobu. “It was unheard-of to have non-Japanese.”
Nieporent doesn’t sound entirely happy about it, but things have changed. Next week, David Bouley—who’s gone to Japan twelve times to learn the art of sushi—will be slicing yellowtail at his new restaurant. And such East-West experimentation isn’t just the privilege of super-chefs.
At the ultratraditional Kuruma Zushi, 30-year-old María Roman stands next to a kimono-clad doll, her face peeking out from under a white cap that holds back her long, dark hair. “When she started here, she didn’t speak any English or Japanese, but she is very smart,’’ says chef-owner Toshihiro Uegu. He decided to give her a chance. At first she was only allowed to help make rolls.
“I was very surprised to hear that such a traditional place like Kuruma Zushi had this non-Japanese woman,’’ says a wide-eyed Shingo Yonezawa, owner of Japonica on University Place, a favorite of Elvis Costello’s and Sarah Jessica Parker’s. “When I was younger,” he adds, “women weren’t allowed to make sushi because their perfume or hand cream could affect the smell of the sushi.”
That said, he too has one non-Japanese chef at his sushi bar: Lusiano Ramirez, a 25-year-old Mexican. Ramirez worked at Japonica for three years before he was allowed to start making sushi. His apprenticeship began with garnishes, then rice, then rolls. It’s not easy. “With rolls, you cut them at the wrong angle and they collapse,” he says with a sigh. Now he can scale and clean an entire salmon.
His boss Yonezawa admits that “anyone can learn the skill,” before qualifying that it’s “something you learn when you are very young in Japan. You also have to know where the bone is and how to separate it from the flesh, like a doctor. And neatness—you can’t teach neatness.’’
Don’t tell that to Armando Martinez, also of Mexican descent. He worked at Hatsuhana for eight years before they allowed him to start working at the counter. “I knew that there is money to be made, and maybe not just for Japanese people,” he says. (Advanced sushi chefs can make close to $100,000 behind the bar.) He’s the first non-Asian to work behind the counter in the restaurant’s twenty-year history. He plans to head to Japan eventually, so he can study, then return to open his own place.
“It takes longer to train non-Japanese chefs, but sometimes they have ideas more traditional people wouldn’t,’’ says Reika Yo, owner of EN Japanese Brasserie, who’s hired her first American. Like California rolls, a Stateside creation that are just now showing up in Japan.