Drinking with my customers was a very important part of being a sushi chef


(Photo by Zaji Kanamajina on Unsplash)

“Sake Bomb! Sake Bomb! Sake Bomb!”


Six young men and women seated at the back of the restaurant shouted, slammed the table, and each chugged a large glass of beer. A loud noise shuttered across the restaurant, catching everyone’s attention.

“What the hell was that?” I looked at the table.


“Oh, it’s just young college kids, getting drunk,” Toshi said.


After all six of them finished emptying their glasses, they cheered.

Some of the other customers joined in, and they all started clapping like someone just scored a touchdown.


“What are they doing? What are they cheering for?” I said.


“It’s called Sake Bomb. It’s kind of like a drinking game,” Toshi explained.


“What is a Sake Bomb?” I asked.


“It’s nothing but awful. I have no idea who invented it, but whoever did should be shot,” Kai said.


“How does it work? Why were they banging the table?”


“It’s cheap warm Sake and ice-cold beer,” Toshi said. “They drink it together.”


“That does sound stupid,” I shook my head. “How are they keeping the sake glass on top of the beer glass?”


“You place chopsticks on the beer glass, and then placed sake glass on top. When you slam the table, it shakes the table and goes down the sake glass,” Toshi explained.


“It sounds pretty stupid,” I repeated.


“True, yes, but then, people do lots of stupid things when they are drunk,” Toshi added.


I nodded.


“How was it?” Emma asked one of the young men.


“It was awesome,” he said. “We are going to do another one. Do you want to join us?”


“No, no. I am sorry. Waitresses aren’t allowed to drink while we’re working,” Emma said.


It was a total lie and a good one.


“Okay,” the young man said. “How about those three Sushi Chefs over there?” He pointed to us, watching them being stupid.


“Let me go ask them,” Emma smiled and started to walk toward the Sushi Bar.


“Oh, no,” Toshi whispered, shaking his head. “I have a bad feeling about this.”


“Hi gentlemen,” Emma smiled mischievously. “You know what’s coming, right?”


“Why not,” Toshi answered. “I prefer just Sapporo, but hey, it’s all for the tips, right? Sake Bomb is more expensive, so we’ll go with Sake Bomb.”


Emma looked back to the booth and raised her thumb.


“Oh, yeah!” screamed all six of them. They stood up and raised their hands in the air.


“Well, Kaz, this is your lucky night. You get to taste your first Sake Bomb,” Toshi giggled.


“Oh, boy. I can hardly wait,” I said.


“I wish I had your job,” Big Earl, the manager, chuckled.


“Shut up,” Toshi said.


Within a minute, Emma brought out nine sets of Sake Bombs on her small, black round tray.


“Here you go, guys,” Emma handed us three and took the rest over to the booth.


Toshi and Kai split their chopsticks and placed them carefully on top of the beer glass.


“So, who invented this stupid thing?” I asked.


“No one knows. Some say a soldier in Japan during WWII came up with the idea. Others say some Japanese businessmen saw some New Yorkers drinking and tried it with sake,” Toshi said.


“We all know it’s an American invention, just like a California Roll,” Kai said. “No Japanese would think of putting cheap, warm sake into cold beer. Americans don’t know the difference between good sake and bad sake.”


We all carefully placed our beer glasses on top of the Neta Case so that everyone could see. We then put the cup of warm sake on top of the chopsticks, ready to make its dive into the beer.


“Ready?” Emma shouted loud enough, so everyone in the restaurant could hear her. All six college kids were standing on the seat of the booth now, ready to hit the table with their tightly-closed fists.

Everyone in the restaurant was watching us.


A moment of silence. Emma looked at us and said, “Sake Bomb!”


“Sake Bomb,” Toshi, Kai, and I shouted.


“Sake Bomb!” The six kids shouted.


Bang.


As the sake cup dove into the beer, we all lifted our glass and poured the golden liquid straight down our throats. I felt the cold beer first, then the uncomfortable warm taste of cheap sake. I emptied the beer and raised my glass first. Toshi was next, and then Kai, then the three boys, and finally the girls.


“Sushi Chefs win!” Emma shouted as the entire restaurant stood up, cheered, screamed, and started clapping.


“Ahh, this tastes terrible,” I said to Toshi, who had a very sour look on his face. “You look just like how I feel right now.”


Fridays and Saturdays were our busiest nights at Rock‘n Hollywood Sushi. I called the weekend “amateur night” because, on weekends, the restaurant was flooded with all of the Hollywood wannabees. They assumed all the celebrities party, drink eat Sushi on Sunset Boulevard.


Anyone who worked at restaurants and bars in L.A. knew that’s not how the stars party. If and when they did, they went somewhere else, like a private mansion somewhere on top of Hollywood Hills. A place where none of the Orange County chicks, San Fernando Valley Boys, or Inland Empire Latino amigos would ever go.


Even if they knew where the celebrity parties were, they wouldn’t be able to get in. So, they drove over 30 miles from Orange County, down to Sunset Strip, just to get a taste of Hollywood.

Buying a drink for the Sushi Chefs was another misunderstanding that was popular among the weekend amateurs.


Some of them ordered drinks for the Sushi Chefs as soon as they walked in the door, even before they have a chance to sit down and order their own.


“Here you go; these are from those guys over there.” Emma brought us two bottles of Sapporo.


“What do you mean? They just walked in,” Toshi said, looking perplexed.


“They wanted to buy you a drink,” Emma smiled.


“When did they order this?” Toshi asked.


“Before they sat down,” she told him.


“That’s fast. Why are they so anxious to buy us a beer? Are they looking for something in return? We won’t give them extra sushi just because they bought us a beer,” Toshi said.


He had a big table order and four customers at the Sushi Bar. Kai was busy serving a table of six, and I had a medium-size table order too. We were all busy and not in the mood to drink, at least not yet.

The night was still young.


“They’re just nice, I suppose,” Emma said. “Why are you so surprised? Don’t you want to drink beer?”


“In Japan, not every customer offers the Sushi Chef a drink. Only regulars offer a drink to the chef,” I explained to Emma. “You see, it’s like buying a drink for your friend. Unless you are a friend, it’s considered impolite and inconsiderate to offer a drink to a chef. We don’t know them, and they are not regulars. Besides, we are considerably busy with orders right now.”


“So, you are saying they shouldn’t have ordered you a drink,” Emma said.


“No, what I am saying is they should have asked, that’s all.”


“Now we have to stop our work, drink with them, and say, kanpai. It slows us down.”


“I see,” Emma said. “Do you want to send it back?”


“No, we’ll drink it now,” Toshi said. “Let’s do kanpai, Kai.”


Kai was busy talking to customers at the Sushi Bar, so we had to wait a few minutes before he was ready to grab his glass full of beer.


We all looked at the two guys who bought the drinks and shouted, “Kanpai,” or cheers, chugged the beers, and get back to work.


“Thank God it was Sapporo, not warm sake,” Toshi sighed.


“I agree,” Kai said.


“How come you prefer Sapporo over warm sake?” Emma asked.


“Because the sake we have is so cheap, it’s bad,” Toshi explained.


“Gives you a bad hangover and a headache. This Sapporo is brewed in Japan, so it tastes better than the Asahi — it’s brewed in Canada.”


“I will make sure to tell the customers you like Sapporo than Asahi and sake,” Emma smiled.

“Oh, and no Sake Bombs, if you can,” I added.


“Well, that’s a tough one,” Emma giggled. “They all want to do Sake Bombs, and they want to do them with the Sushi Chefs, so I can’t stop that one.”


Sure, free drinks sound nice, but after a while, it does get tired. On weekends, we worked ten-hour shift on our feet until 2 AM. Getting drunk by 9 AM made the remaining 5 hours a hell. Constant monitoring of the blood alcohol content was crucial — a skill I never imagined I needed to learn on a job.


Kai was a weak drinker, who had trouble pacing himself. Yet, he drunk more than anyone else did at the Sushi Bar. Two glasses of Sapporo was all it took for Kai to start talking “shit,” like a rapper from South Central LA.


When he was drunk, none of what Kai said made sense to any of us. He said he didn’t care, but I think he was too plastered to understand anything anyone was saying. He’d look at an order ticket, start mumbling, then shout, laugh, and imitate what he thought was a brother from the ‘hood’ talking to his homeboys.


“This is da shit, you know what I’m sayin’,” Kai used to say. He used the phrase, ‘you know what I’m sayin,’ more than anything else, and for a while, I thought that was all the English he knew.


On a good day, when customers bought us a drink, we’d say, “Yes, excellent. We were thirsty!” On a bad day, we’d say, “Oh, no. We had too much to drink last night.”


Good days came after a day or two of “resting” no alcohol days. Bad days came after three consecutive days of too many party-goers bought us Sake bombs.


“We have to do something about this,” Toshi said. “We are getting too many drinks again tonight. We are going to be shit-faced by 10 PM.”


Ten sake glasses occupied the top of the sushi refrigerator case. All of them were from customers.


“Here you go,” Lillian said, bringing three large bottles of Sapporo and a bottle of warm sake to the Sushi Bar.


“Do you have to do this?” Toshi asked Lillian.


“Come ‘on,” Lillian tapped his shoulder, obviously amused. “You can do this. You are a strong Sushi Chef.” she teased Toshi.


We all raised our glass in the air, smiled, and looked to the customers who bought us drinks.


“I sometimes feel like a monkey in a cage, you know?” Toshi said.


“I know what you mean,” I said to Toshi. “I don’t want to drink this.”


“I don’t either,” Toshi said. “To entertain the customers is one of our job duties. They are watching us, so we have to drink it.”


“Oh, boy,” I said.


I started to sip the beer and closed my eyes, but I couldn’t swallow it. When I opened my eyes, I still had a beer in my mouth. Since no one was watching me, I squat down behind the Sushi Bar and spit the beer out into the sink.


“What are you doing, Kaz?” Kai asked.


“I am not drinking tonight,” I said.


“Did you just spit out the beer into the sink?” he asked.


“Yup, that’s what I did,” I said. “No one can see me when I am down inside of the Sushi Bar. Besides, they are too busy drinking.”


“That is brilliant,” Toshi said. “From now on, all we have to do is say, ‘Kanpai,’ raise the glass, pretend to drink, then, we can squat down to spit it out when no one is watching.”


“I don’t know why you guys didn’t think about that,” I smiled at Kai.


Find more stories like this in my book: How I became A Sushi Chef


100 Pine Street | Suite 1250 | San Francisco | CA 94111 | 415.373.1023