My first sushi restaurant was in Hollywood, on the famous Sunset Strip, across from the legendary Club, Roxbury, and next to a strip club. I was in my early thirties when I started my sushi career. In Japan, that would be considered late.
I met one sushi chef, Jin-san, who started his career at the age of fifteen in Japan. He lived in the owner’s house above the restaurant. I lived in my apartment in Los Angeles. He slept, worked, and ate with the owner’s family and other apprentices at the restaurant. I cooked and ate my employee meal alone. Other chefs and employees order something from the menu.
Jin san’s day started at six in the morning. Mine started at three in the afternoon. The first thing Jin san did was clean the restaurant floor, the dining area tables, sushi bar, bathroom, and the kitchen. In other words, the entire restaurant. I started my day setting up the sushi bar, cooking rice, prepping vegetables. The dishwasher cleaned the whole restaurant during the night.
In the first year, Jin san was only allowed to do errands, shopping, deliver sushi orders, any chores small and big. During the business hours, he bused, cleaned the tables and washed dishes. He was able to watch other sushi chefs work, but only when he was not busy. I never had to do any errands, shopping, or clean the tables. We had a dishwasher. I got to watch other chefs work for two weeks, then I was ready to make some rolls.
Jin san worked eighteen hours a day and got paid close to nothing for the first several years. In Japan, they call it “teardrop of a bird,” a tiny amount. I worked fourteen hours for the first two months, down to ten after that. My monthly salary was $1,500 and some tips. On a good busy weekend night, I could make $100 on tip.
I started cooking sushi rice the first week after I started my career. Jin san had to wait for several years. I learned how to make rolls first, then nigiri and sashimi. Within the six months, I was making and serving the customers at the sushi bar.
The owner of the restaurant gave me permission to start filleting fish after one year. I learned to cut Hamachi, Salmon and Tuna. Jin san’s owner, the master sushi chef didn’t allow him to touch the fish for the first five years. Early in the morning, he had to go to the Tokyo Tsukiji Fish Market, looking at fish and asking questions to the fishmongers so that he could learn about fish. Some of the fishmongers knew that was what all the sushi apprentices had to do, gave Jin san some free fish to take home to practice slicing, sashimi and nigiri. Sometimes Jin san had to pay for the fish to practice his knife skills. I feel fortunate I never had to go to the fish market to buy fish to practice my skill in the morning.
At my restaurant, we never had to go to our fish supplier to pick up fish. We could place an order over the phone, and they delivered the fish the next day. We could go and handpick some of the fish like other sushi chefs were doing. But we were not high end omakase sushi bar. We were rock ’n’ roll sushi restaurant serving great sushi. The head chef did not see a need.
By the way, there is no “fish market” in LA as some of you may think. In fact, there is only one fish market in the US and it’s nothing like the fish “market” in Tokyo.
Gradually, my shift became shorter and shorter — 10 hours, and eventually 8 hours a day. Since I worked the evening shifts, my mornings and early afternoon hours were free. I attended morning yoga classes, took French, Piano, and Guitar classes at local community college in the morning, had lunch, took a nap, and then went to work. I loved the fact that I could go shopping and there was no one waiting in a line at check out. When there was leftover sushi rice, I took it home and practiced making nigiri. I was able to read and study sushi books in the morning.
The downside of working at night was the lack of nightlife: dinners, concerts, sporting events, shows, and bars. They were impossible to attend. I could go out on Sunday and Monday nights, but who would want to go out on Sunday night? Some of my friends came and visited me at the restaurant. That was nice. I enjoyed making and serving them my Sushi.
We, the sushi chefs did go out to eat our “dinner” after the restaurant was closed at 2 AM. There were 24 hour dinners, authentic Thai restaurants and the famous waffles and chicken place in Hollywood.
Many customers told me how lucky I was to be a sushi chef. I could eat sushi, drink Sapporo and sake bomb with customers every day. Yes, may be, but the truth is this: you will get tired of it after a while. If this is hard to believe, I encourage you to eat sushi every day for the next three months. Ask your friends to bring a case of Sapporo and knock on your door every night, unannounced, and start offering you drinks whether you want to drink or not. That’s how it’s like working at the sushi bar. You will be making, tasting, looking, touching, smelling, fish, sushi and all other food every night. Some young loud customers will walk up to you and offer a shot of sake bomb, and you had one just five minutes earlier with a different customer.
“Sushi? No, we don’t eat sushi, right, Kaz? I eat French on my day off,” a legendary San Francisco sushi chef told me once. Sushi chefs do not eat Sushi, or I should say sushi chefs eat less sushi than you think they do. Ask anyone working at a pizza restaurant how often they eat Pizza.
I am not saying I never eat sushi, nor I dislike sushi. I love it. I just don’t eat as much as I used to.
I love dining out. I love watching other chefs cook. I love learning from other chefs. I love food. I love the experience. I love eating a dish I don’t know how to make. I love how I feel after a wonderful meal. I love it when a chef smiles at me, seeing me smile.
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