When I Disrespected This White Sushi Chef, I Ended Up Disrespecting Myself
Tom was the only Caucasian Sushi Chef at Rock’n Hollywood Sushi. He only worked two shifts a week to make ends meet. His ‘real job’ was a dancer. To him, being a Sushi Chef was just another job, but it was a career for the rest of us.
I knew Tom had to work at Rock’ n’ Hollywood Sushi because he wasn’t making enough money as a dancer. But that didn’t give him a right to do things half-way. I never liked his attitude. He only seemed to care about the tips.
Tom learned his sushi-making skills at Miyagi’s, a huge restaurant that used to be a legendary nightclub, the Roxbury.
When I met Tom, I only had six months of training. Even then, I could tell he knew less than I did. I knew his skills were inferior to mine: his knife handlings, the way he cut fish, the way he made rolls, nigiri and sashimi. He didn’t know how to sharpen it correctly using the whetstones. He moved his knife on top of the stone, without angling it correctly.
I despised him because he didn’t seem to care about the craft. I knew he just wanted to make some extra cash until his dancing career took off. He talked about how much money he made producing a dance show at a club on Sunset Blvd.
Well then, what the hell are you doing here? Stop being a fake sushi chef, become a full-time dancer.
I couldn’t stand working with him.
According to Tom, Miyagi’s could easily hold three hundred customers. They had multiple floors — disco balls, flashing lights, at least one sushi bar on every floor. Customers ordered their sushi like ordering a Martini at the bar.
Miyagi’s was a dance club with sushi, while Rock’n Hollywood Sushi was a sushi restaurant playing rock’ n’ roll music. Our food was not the best in town, but it was good. We, sushi chefs all took pride in what we served.
All of the prep was done in a kitchen on the first floor, but there was no elevator at Miyagi’s. Each chef had to climb the stairs to bring all the prepped ingredients up to the Sushi Bars.
“So you run out of fish or vegetables, someone has to go all the way down to the first floor to get it?” I asked Tom.
“Oh, we just let the younger chefs go up and down to get what we need,” Tom said.
That doesn’t sound nice, it seems like a punishment.
“How many Sushi Chefs work at Miyagi’s?” I asked.
“I don’t know exactly, but probably something like twenty Sushi Chefs on the weekend,” Tom said.
“How do they keep an eye on every Sushi Chef on every floor?” I asked.
“They can’t. There are only three managers at Miyagi’s, four on the weekend. They just cannot keep track of what everyone’s doing. We just make sushi the way we want to make it.”
“Are there any Japanese chefs at Miyagi’s?” Toshi asked.
“No. No Japanese Sushi Chefs. All American Chefs,” Tom replied.
Based on what he told us, I could understand why Tom worked the way he did at Rock’ n’ Hollywood Sushi. I also imagined that Tom received very little, if any, formal sushi training. They probably showed him the sushi techniques just a few times, and after that, he was on his own.
Tom appeared to be a Sushi Chef to most of his customers, who knew very little about sushi. He was an excellent salesman, but most of the time, he was bluffing. No one was knowledgeable enough to tell that he was making things up.
He didn’t even know how to pronounce the names of the fish in Japanese. I hated when Tom made things up, and I felt bad for his customers. I wanted to shout:
Hey, that’s not right! Don’t listen to this guy! He doesn’t even know what irasshaimase means! That’s not how you make nigiri! He doesn’t know how to keep his cutting board clean! He’s not a real Sushi Chef! He’s just a dancer, pretending to be a Sushi Chef!
I couldn’t say that to our customers because to deny my coworker was to deny everything at the restaurant — the food, the service, wait staff, chefs and me.
Tom complained a lot. Not only did he complain to us, he also complained to our manager and the owner. Unity, hard work, discipline, loyalty, and kaizen (never-ending improvement) are the Japanese work ethics we all learned growing up. I didn’t see any of these traits in Tom, who grew up in a different culture.
In the U.S., he was in the majority, and we were the minority. But, at the sushi war, we were the majority, carrying on the Japanese traditions. I wanted Tom to understand it, or at least show some respect. His lack of respect made me angry.
We were also taught that complaining is a sign of weakness; hence, we hardly complained to our manager or our owner. Our job was to follow orders first, not to object, not to question. It may sound like being in the military, but working in a kitchen under a sushi master is like that.
The Master spent several decades figuring out the secrets, and now, he’s ready to share them with you. If you just do whatever he tells you to do, at least initially, your training time can be cut down by years. It’s a great shortcut, but you need to have discipline and patience. Hence, “Your Master knows more than you do. Do what you’re told first, and then, if you must, question later.”
Judging by the way he worked, Tom lacked the understanding of this concept, and all of the basic disciplines needed to be a Sushi Chef.
He often came in late to work, showed up unshaven, in desperate need of a haircut, fatigued, hung-over, and in a dirty uniform. Tom used his apron to wipe off his cutting board and kept everything messy with fish and vegetable pieces scattered all over his workstation. His tools were poorly taken care of, and he carried his dull knife in a scruffy bag.
On his day off, at least once, sometimes twice, a week, Tom visited Rock’ n’ Hollywood Sushi to eat because he knew he could get the employee discount. Tom also knew how to get “free drinks” and “free food” from the other waitresses and the manager. It was apparent that Tom came to eat just to save some money.
Tom often sat at the bar, talking to the manager, who got him a free glass of beer, Chicken Teriyaki, Miso Soup, and House Salad.
The manager and the waitresses gave freebies. I couldn’t understand why they would. Maybe they thought it was charity or goodwill. I couldn’t see Tom ever becoming a successful dancer. There was nothing I could respect him as a person.
Even though none of us regarded Tom as a “real” Sushi Chef, his customers always gave him the highest reviews. One thing he did well was to talk his way through things. Whenever he spoke of sushi or the Special Rolls he made, served with “House-Made Sauce,” most of it was improvised. He used whatever he could find behind the Sushi Bar, like juice from pickeld ginger, ponzu sauce, mayo, and chili powder. Nothing that we would have used. Tom’s Special Sauce never tasted good to us Japanse sushi chef; but his customers always exclaimed, “So good!”
Tom copied other chef’s recipes, serving them like his own. Once, he made Kai’s Special Roll and served it to a customer. When Tom talked to his customers, he bragged. Like he knows the difference between fresh and old fish, or what kind of fish is available for sushi. He had no idea where our Hamachi came from, or even if it was wild or farm-raised.
We wondered why the owner, Saito-san hired him. Toshi, the head chef said he had objected at first, but Saito-san said it was good to have diversity. Having a Caucasian Sushi Chef at the sushi bar was a plus, it gave a good impression, and would bring in more novice customers.
One thing Tom did excel was communication. He was friendly and talkative to the customers at the Sushi Bar. He explained the fish well — how they tasted, and the difference between Albacore Tuna and Yellowtail. He talked about the sauces, explaining the process as he made the rolls, although most of what he said was made up. When customers asked him where he received sushi training, he said he learned from many master Sushi Chefs.
Tom gave his customers what they wanted: Special Inside-Out Rolls with Special Sauce. Although I was making California, Spicy Tuna, and Rainbow Rolls, I wanted to make nigiri instead. I didn’t think of California Rolls as “real” sushi. Nigiri was the only real sushi in my mind, and I believed it was the best way to eat fish.
How can you taste the fish in a roll? The only thing you can taste in the Inside-Out roll is shariSushi Rice, isn’t it?
This was why I hesitated to offer any Special Rolls to my customers. But for Tom, and most of the customers at Rock’n Hollywood Sushi, the Inside-Out Roll was “real” sushi. This was a concept I had trouble grasping at the beginning of my career. I was too narrow-minded and had a one-sided perspective. I thought my customers wanted what I wanted. I assumed they had the same taste buds as I did, which just wasn’t true.
While Tom’s style of splashing sauces all over the plate after deep frying rolls was nothing traditional or original, he did capture his customer’s attention and understood their taste buds. Perhaps that was the reason Saito-san decided to keep him despite of Tom’s lack of other sushi chef skills.
“Oh my God, this is so good,” a customer would exclaim, while I was thinking, these people know nothing about sushi, as I stood by watching them.
I now know I was wrong. I looked at Tom with narrow-minded views. I was, perhaps, jealous of him because he was better at entertaining his customers at the sushi bar. Maybe I was jealous of him because he could come up with a catchy name for special sushi rolls.
Though I never badmouth about Tom to any of my customers, in my mind, I did. By doing so, I was disrespecting him. I was disrespecting his customers. I thought I was better than Tom because I was a Japanese sushi chef, I knew the real sushi, I knew the tradition.
I was only disrespecting myself.
One day Saito-san asked us to come up with a Special Roll. Tom quickly came up with a Forest Fire Roll: Albacore Tuna and Cucumber inside, Spicy Tuna on top, with some ponzu and scallions sprinkled on the outside. It was colorful; the red Tuna and green scallions were beautiful. When Tom showed us his Forest Fire Roll, we could tell it wasn’t an original.
“He must have stolen it from someone else,” Kai, the jr. chef said, behind Tom’s back.
Regardless, Saito-san decided to put the roll on the Special menu, which became an instant success. It didn’t matter whether Tom had invented the Forest Fire Roll or not. All that mattered was that it was a big hit and made money for the restaurant. It made everyone happy: customers, waitresses, Sushi Chefs, and Saito-san.
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