Just Because You are a Sushi Chef, It Doesn’t Mean You Know More About the Tuna than a Fishmonger
"Hey, who the hell is that?"
Mako shouted as we looked outside our restaurant, Miyako Sushi. A dark-skinned man came out of a white GMC cargo van in the parking lot.
"Is that a customer? Why don't you go and tell him we are closed, Kaz?" Mako told me.
Out of the front door, I walked to meet the mysterious man in the parking lot.
"Do you need Tuna?" a Latino man with a mustache in the mid-30s smiled before.
I lost my words for a moment. Tuna was not the word I was expecting to hear from him.
"What?" I shouted. I knew what he said. "Tuna?"
"Yes, Tuna. Do you want to buy some Tuna? I have a lot on my van.
I sell them. Would you like to take a look?"
The man didn't sound suspicious, but my mind couldn't process what was happening.
Why would this man be selling Tuna in our parking lot? That's not how we buy Tuna. Besides, what do Latino know about Tuna for Sushi?
"Who are you?" I asked.
"My name is Rubio. My brother and I sell Tuna we get from San Pedro."
"Oh, I see."
Okay, this is starting to make more sense now.
"No need to buy, just to look please. Maybe you like them. Tell me what you think." Rubio kept talking.
"I understand. Let me ask the Head Chef if he is interested. Please wait here."
I turned around and started to walk back toward the restaurant. Through the front window, I could see Akio and Mako looking at each other and shaking their heads.
"I dunno," Akio said, looking at Rubio and his van.
"He has a van full of Tuna," I said. "I seems nice."
Wait a minute. Whose side am I on?
I realized Akio and Mako's suspicion lifted mine away.
"Well, what we've got to lose? I'm sure it's not something we can use, but we can take a look," Mako said.
Akio was quiet, thinking. After a few seconds of silence, he agreed, "All right, why not?"
I knew it. I knew they'd be excited to see something new and wouldn't miss the chance to look at fresh fish. After all, Tuna is the "King" of the Sushi Bar, so if there's a chance to find a better Tuna supplier, we definitely shouldn't miss it. I was glad I got a chance to look at the Tuna as well.
We all walked back to the parking lot and asked Rubio to show us his Maguro. When he opened the back door of his van, we saw four large coolers, all neatly stacked. As promised, the coolers were filled with Yellowfin Tuna and lots of ice.
Akio and Mako examined the Tuna Rubio pulled out. No one was talking. Akio examined the Tuna with an intense look.
"What are you looking for, Akio-san?" I asked.
I wished I knew how to do Mekiki, a must-have skill for all the sushi chefs to tell the quality of a fish by looking at it. Six months of training didn't do much for me yet.
"Ummm, color, texture, shininess," Akio mumbled.
I know that.
What I wanted to hear instead was what kind of color and texture he was looking for in good Maguro. He got more serious. Then, he looked over at Mako, and they both nodded their heads.
"You know, these are not bad," Akio told Rubio.
"Oh, really? Thank you. I am glad you like them," he smiled.
"Can we take a look at other ones, too?" Akio says.
"Of course," Rubio responded. He opened another cooler in a flash. "Here they are."
The second Maguro was about the same size as the first. Nice and firm, a translucent dark red color - a good sign of nice flavor.
"I go to San Pedro to buy some Maguro every morning. My brother and I both have been in this business for a while. I can give you a good price." Rubio added.
"How much is it?" Akio asked.
"They are around $12/pound."
"That's not bad. That's cheaper than IMP," I said.
"Yes, that is right," Rubio says. "You are…?"
"My name is Kaz. I'm an assistant manager here. I also work at Rock'n Hollywood Sushi, also."
"Oh, that's good. Could I go there and meet the head Sushi Chef as well?" Rubio asked.
"Sure, you can. His name is Toshi. You can mention I sent you."
"Brilliant. Thank you!"
"We'll think about it and call if we want to use your Tuna. Thank you," Akio says.
Rubio gave me his business card and drove away in his van.
"What do you think? Should we try?" I asked Akio.
"His Tuna is not bad, and the price is good. He said around $12 per pound, right? That's a good price. We could do a test order of one Shibuichi for this weekend. The price is better than IMP, a couple of dollars per pound cheaper, and the quality is good. Let's try it and see what happens," Akio repeated what we already discussed earlier.
Not bad? I said to myself. I thought it was better than "not bad," but I refrained from saying it out loud.
I didn't think Akio would go for it, so I was presently surprised. I just assumed he was old-fashioned, hard-headed, stubborn ishiatama like Roberto, but I'm glad I was wrong.
Two days later, Rubio delivered us beautiful Tuna, better than anything we got from IMP, the biggest wholesale sushi fish distributor in Los Angeles.
"Here you go, Akio-san. This is the best Tuna I have today, so I am giving it to you," Rubio handed over the Tuna with a big smile.
He probably said the same thing to all his customers, who knows? But hearing it made us feel better. Akio and Mako were both delighted with Rubio's Tuna. I could see their excitement, like a boy opening a box of GI Joe toys on his birthday.
At the Sushi counter, Akio immediately took out his special Yanagiba, sliced a small piece from the tail, and put it in his mouth. "Oh, yes. This is excellent."
From that point on, we bought all of our Tuna from Rubio. He brought us good Tuna every single time. Occasionally, we tried ordering from IMP to see if we'd find something better, but Rubio consistently delivered a better product.
Sometimes, Rubio would even find us a Big Eye Tuna, which is a bigger fish and more flavorful than Yellowfin. As an added bonus, Big Eye Tuna has the occasional Toro, which is seldom the case with Yellowfin.
We sold Toro for more, but having a bonus Toro made us even more excited because customers love Toro. It made us feel special. If Tuna is the king at the Sushi Bar, Toro is the king of the king.
I like Chūtoro, medium Tuna belly from a Big Eye the best. I find the Otoro from Bluefin to be overwhelming, even though it's considered better and priced higher. Big Eye cost us only a dollar or two more per pound.
Suddenly, I was ashamed of how I treated Rubio during our first encounter. I was ashamed of how I looked down on his skill as a Tuna wholesaler because he was Latino. I assumed I knew better than him because I am Japanese, even though I was not skilled at mekiki.
I looked at Rubio with a stereotypical skewed view. I hope I didn't look at him with racist eyes.
I regret I never had a chance to tell him this. I regret I never had an opportunity to say I was sorry for looking down no him.
I hope he can forgive me.
Rubio continued to cater his Tuna to us for the next year I worked at Miyako and Rock 'n Hollywood Sushi. Our relationship continued for another year and a half at another sushi restaurant, Yoshida.
I liked his honesty. I valued his openness. I enjoyed his hard-working attitude because it aligned with Japanese work ethics.
In his presence, I saw many people's face lighten. Rubio never failed to smile when he entered the restaurant with his Tuna in a big styrofoam cooler.
"Ohayogozaimasu, Kaz san. I got a great Tuna for you today!"
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