It had only been one week since I started working as a Sushi Chef. My back was still hurting from standing on my feet for fourteen hours a day, so I bought a back support belt from Home Depot.
When Toshi noticed me wearing one, he sounded pessimistic,
“Well, that is an interesting use of the support belt.”
My legs felt like they were ten pounds heavier than they were two weeks ago, and they seemed to get heavier every day. All of the other chefs were fine standing for such a long time, so I knew it wouldn’t be long before my body would get used to it too.
Day after day, I’d watch Toshi, Kai, Jun, and Juan make sushi, and I was getting used to the set-up and prep routine. I cut cucumbers faster and could cook the rice and mix it with sushi vinegar.
Unfortunately, “slicing” the rice was still very hard. I was getting used to using the Yanagiba knife, but I had already cut my finger twice in one week.
It was a Tuesday night at 6 PM.
One couple was sitting at table #1, a party of four at Table #3, and another couple at table #1. Typically, Tuesday was not a busy night because the Valley Boys and Girls didn’t come out to Sunset Strip until Thursday or Friday.
Toshi glanced at the clock, looked back at me, and said, “Well, I don’t think it’s going to be busy tonight. Since we are not busy right now, let me show you how to make a roll.”
“Really?” I had been anxiously waiting for this moment. It had only taken Toshi one week, and I wished he had shown me earlier.
“Let’s start with California Roll because it’s the most popular roll we have,” Toshi said.
“You’ve been looking at the menu, so you know what’s in a California Roll, right?” Toshi asked.
“Umm, crab, cucumber, and avocado?” I said.
“Good, that’s correct,” Toshi said.
“Now, the most important part of making a roll is to keep the shari fluffy. When you apply too much pressure to spread rice shari on the nori, you will smash it and make it mushy,” Toshi explained.
“Texture of rice shari is what you need to be careful. Ideally, the rice shari should spread apart inside of your mouth when you put the roll in your mouth.”
Oh, shari, that’s right, not rice. it’s Sushi rice, so it’s shari. I’ve got to get used to saying that.
Toshi picked up a piece of nori and showed it to me.
“Place nori on the cutting board, inside up. The rough side is inside; you know that, right?”
“Yes, I do,” I nodded. I vaguely knew there was a shiny side and a rough side to nori, but I didn’t realize that the shari should go on the rough inside, until now.
“Okay. First, wet your hands in temizu before you touch the shari,” Toshi said.
Temizu? Hand water? I panicked, unsure what Toshi meant. I refrained from asking him what temizu was, thinking I would look stupid. Seeing Toshi dipping his hands in the bowl of water, I figured he was referring to the water.
“Now, grab some shari… about this size.” Toshi showed me a rice ball that was the size of a tennis ball. It was more shari than I expected.
“Gee, that much shari… for just one roll?” I asked.
“Yup, it’s a lot of shari and lots of sugar from sushi vinegar,” Toshi replied.
“But, never mention it to the customers, especially the female customers, because they freak out when they find out how much sugar is in one roll.”
He placed the rice ball on the top left corner of the nori.
“Now, start spreading the shari, using the left hand only, like this.”
Toshi began to press and spread the shari from left to right as if it were soft bread dough.
“At the same time, make ‘U’ shape with your right hand to guide the shari. You should cover only the top half of the nori.”
His hands flew from left to right, and his left fingers made a wave-like motion. It took him just three seconds to spread the shari on the top half of the nori. The whole movement was smooth, like a deck of playing cards popping out from a magician’s hand. Toshi made it look simple and easy, but I knew it would not be that easy for me.
He was explaining and demonstrating faster than I could remember, and I quickly got confused. I wish I had a notepad and a pencil with me. It would be too embarrassing to ask him to stop and show me again, so I decided to concentrate on not missing a single word or a single movement.
“Your right hand is more important. I mean, both of your hands are important. In the beginning, many people think it’s the left hand that is doing all the work and forget to move the right hand,” Toshi explained.
“So, you must remember to use both hands at the same time. It’s a little bit like playing the piano.”
Now, the top half of the nori was covered with shari.
“From here, spread the shari down to cover the bottom half,” Toshi explained, as he moved his hands smoothly and rhythmically.
“After you are finished spreading the shari, sprinkle some sesame seeds and turn it over so that the shari is down and the nori is up.”
“I remember that part because I have seen it enough for the past week,” I told Toshi.
He didn’t say anything, just looked at me and continued, “Place some Crab Mix right in the center. Put the filling here below the center. It’s easier to roll that way. Then some cucumber strips and avocado slices.”
Toshi put all the ingredients neatly across the nori, horizontally.
“Why below the center?” I asked Toshi.
“Because it’s easier to roll, and when you do so, the filling ends up being in the center when you rolled it up,” Toshi explained.
“I see,” I nodded.
“Now, we are ready to roll it up.”
Toshi grabbed the bottom end of nori with both hands, started to roll, and tucked in the top end before sealing the roll. He then turned the roll ninety degrees, so the seam was facing in, not towards the customer.
“Pick up the makisu and place it over the roll.”
When I picked it up, I wondered why the makisu had a plastic wrap. I had never seen this in Japan.
“How come it’s in plastic wrap?” I asked Toshi.
“That’s because, without it, shari will stick to makisu. We are making Uramaki,” Toshi said. “When shari is out, it will stick to makisu, and we have to wash it every time we make a roll, which is a waste of time. So, we wrap it in plastic to keep makisu rice-free.”
I also noticed everyone had two makisu — one in plastic and one without.
“Is that one without plastic used to make traditional nori-out rolls?” I asked Toshi.
“Yes, that is correct. We also use it for Rainbow and Caterpillar Rolls,” Toshi said.
“Rainbow?” I asked. I wanted to learn the Rainbow Roll. “How?”
“I will explain to you later when I show you how to make a Rainbow Roll,” Toshi said.
He continued with the demonstration.
“Just squeeze over the makisu, applying pressure from the side of the roll, but not from the top, so that the top side of the roll stays round,” Toshi said.
“Slide your hands left and right like this,” Toshi said, moving his hands a couple of times. When he removed the makisu, there was a beautiful, long, inside-out roll sitting on the cutting board. He picked up his Yanagiba, wiping the blade with his towel.
“Make sure your knife is wet and clean before you cut a roll,” Toshi said. “A wet knife makes cutting easier.”
“Now, cutting will be difficult,” Toshi looked at me with his knife in his right hand. Suddenly, he was more intense, more focused. I sensed it was because he had a knife in his hand.
“Before I explain about cutting, let me talk something about a knife,” Toshi paused, removing his left hand from the California Roll.
“When handling your knife at the Sushi Bar, you need to be very careful of your surroundings, co-workers, and objects around you,” Toshi said. “We have to be careful not to cause an accident. The worst thing you can do is to cause injury, so when handling your knife, make sure to move it slowly, and no one is within reach of your knife,” Toshi said.
“No sudden movement. No swinging your knife around. No reaching for something with your knife in your hand. When you walk around with a knife in the kitchen, say, ‘knife’ and hold it behind your back so that you don’t hurt someone by accident,” Toshi explained.
“I understand,” I said.
“Now, let’s get back to the cutting,” Toshi continued. “You can move the knife forward and back like a saw. An experienced chef can do this with a single stroke like this,” he quickly moved the knife forward, pulling it back only once, and the roll was cut. He repeated this twice again, and the roll was cut into six pieces.
“Forcing your knife down will smash the roll like this,” Toshi pressed down his knife without sliding it back and forth. The knife did not cut through the roll. Instead, it made a dent on the top.
“During the cutting, the surface of your knife may get ricey. When that happens, make sure to wipe with your towel. When wiping with a towel, make sure to do so with the blade facing out, not toward your palm, so that you don’t cut your finger by accident,” Toshi said. “Never place the knife into the bowl of water to wet it because that is dangerous unless you have your own bowl. When we get busy; you may accidentally cut someone’s hand. Now, you try it.”
Toshi moved away from the cutting board, inviting me to stand in his spot. I was nervous and excited all at the same time, remembering only some of what he just explained. I picked up a sheet of nori and put it on the cutting board. I wet my hands in the bowl of water and grabbed some rice from the rice warmer, unsure whether I had the right amount or not. I rolled the shari in my hand to form a small ball, and my hands were already sticky, with rice sticking to the palm of my hand. I put the ball of rice down on the nori and washed my hands in the sink.
I started to spread the shari with my left hand, but it didn’t spread at all. Instead, the shari was spread unevenly and mushed on my sheet of nori. I noticed some black spots too. By this time, my hands were glued with rice again.
Not good, not good, I said to myself, silently. It wasn’t perfect, but at least I managed to cover the entire surface of nori.
“Now, flip this over?” I said, nervously, looking at Toshi.
“Yes…” Toshi said, squinting his eyes. “But, some sesame seeds before you flip.”
“Oh, that’s right,” I said with relief.
I sprinkled on some sesame seeds and tried to pick it up to flip. It was stuck on the cutting board, and the nori was soggy from the shari.
“Oh, no, what happened?” I exclaimed.
“You spent too long spreading the shari. Moisture from the shari makes nori wet,” Toshi said. “That one is no good. Nori will tear apart when you roll it up. You should start again.”
I threw away my first attempt and picked up a new sheet of nori. I wet my hands, grabbed some shari, placed it on the nori, and started spreading as Toshi told me.
This time, it was a little better. I felt like I had more control over the shari. Still, my hands got pretty sticky, which forced me to wash them a couple of times. When I picked up the rice-spread nori, it wasn’t as soggy as the first one, and I could now add some fillings. I placed some Crab Mix, cucumber, and avocado on the nori and rolled it up. I then picked up the makusi, applied some pressure, and formed a roll. I finally cut it into six pieces, just as Toshi had shown me. He was right; cutting was difficult.
“Practice, practice, practice,” Toshi said, looking at my roll.
The small printer behind the Sushi Bar spat out a table order. Toshi picked it up and looked at me, “That’s it. We got to work. Let’s switch places,” he said to me.
I looked at my sad California Roll on the cutting board, looking nothing like the one Toshi had made. His California Roll was round, fluffy, cut evenly, the same height when turned, and had the same amount of fillings in each piece.
Mine? The rice was unevenly spread on the nori so that each piece came in a different size. One section had more Crab Mix than the other, and the end pieces had cucumber sticking out. One of the pieces fell apart when I cut because I did not seal it tight enough.
My disastrous looking California Roll didn’t make me sad, though.
I knew I had a long way to go, but this was just another step toward becoming a Sushi Chef. I’d get there someday. All I needed now was, as Toshi would say, “Practice, practice, practice.”
I transferred my disasters onto the plate, then into my mouth.