What I learned from the Sushi Chef who started his career when he was sixteen
"Three years on a stone." That's what a Japanese proverb says. "Be patient. Spend three years devoted to something, and it will pay off." Just like a traditional Sushi Chef's training in Japan.
For the older Japanese generation, it's quite acceptable to go through rigorous training. The Japanese see value in hard work, devotion, and determination. To be a true master, it's crucial to master ourselves at every step of our training. Little things matter, too. Though one millimeter of difference in a day seems like nothing, in five years, that equals 1,825 millimeters, which is about the size of your foot, mastering the Art of Sushi is an accumulation of daily practice and never-ending improvement, focusing on efficiency, discipline, and attention to the tiniest details.
I once heard a story about a Sushi Chef's training in Japan, an apprentice who spent his first three years doing nothing but errands, cleaning the restaurant, and doing the dishes. Then, he made rice for another three years. He was finally allowed to touch the fish after five years. But he still didn't know how to make nigiri or Sashimi. He wasn't allowed to stand at the Sushi Bar and make sushi for customers.
I never met a Japanese Sushi Chef who went through such training until I met Jin-san.
By now, I had two years of experience as a Sushi Chef. You could say I had an intense two years of training. You could also say I had only two years of training. I knew how to fillet basic fish, like Tuna, Salmon, and Hamachi. Unlike some of the Japanese Sushi Chefs who went through traditional training in Japan, I started to practice making shari Sushi Rice during my first week, making rolls the following week, and nigiri and Sashimi after three months. I was allowed to touch and fillet the fish after ten months of training.
Working with other Sushi Chefs who had more experience made me want to improve my skills. I still didn't know how to fillet a lot of different fish, and I made rolls, nigiri, and Sashimi slower than most of the other chefs. I figured the only way to improve my skill was to get more practice. I was already working full-time at Yoshida Sushi, five days a week. So, I couldn't work anymore even if I wanted to. The only way to get more practice was to work at another sushi restaurant on my days off. I decided to look for another restaurant job.
It was 2002. I looked at the classifieds in the paper and found a place about an hour away in Long Beach called Sushi of Naples. When I called, I interviewed, and got hired. They decided to give me shifts on Sunday and Monday. The restaurant was on a street filled with shops and close to the beach. The neighborhood felt like a small resort town. Since I only had to go there on the weekends, it felt like a mini summer beach vacation. It was perfect.
On my first day, I met Jin-san, the Head Sushi Chef at Sushi of Naples. He was a small, soft-spoken and energetic person. The Sushi Bar stretched from the entrance all the way to the backside of the restaurant. Above the Sushi Bar was a second floor with more tables. Behind it and below the second floor was the kitchen, where they made Tempura, Teriyaki Chicken, Teriyaki Salmon, and other cooked dishes. They also had Latino chefs who made sushi for the tables. Four other Sushi Chefs took care of the Sushi Bar orders. They were all Japanese, and the restaurant had about 70 seats.
Jin-san started his sushi training when he was fifteen, as an apprentice at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo. He lived in the owner's house above the restaurant. He slept, worked, and ate with the owner's family and other employees from the restaurant. Jin-san's story was similar to the ones I've heard before, but he was the very first Sushi Chef I met who had gone through the traditional training in Japan.
"Is it really like the story I heard?" I asked him.
"Yes. My day started at six in the morning. The first thing I did was clean the restaurant floor, the dining area tables, Sushi Bar, bathroom, and the kitchen," Jin-san said in his soft tone. "The first year, my job was to take care of errands and deliver sushi orders. I was sent for shopping, and just about any small or big chore around the restaurant. The most important thing was to keep everything clean. Not only the restaurant but the tools, knives, uniforms… Everything must be perfectly clean."
"When did you practice making sushi, then?" I asked.
"Almost never for a long time because I was so busy doing chores. I had no time to practice sushi. Well, even if I had time, I was not allowed," Jin-san suddenly started to laugh. I didn't understand why he laughed, but I noticed Jin-san laughed a lot, sometimes with no reason. I found it to be charming.
A non-Japanese person might think, "Why would you become a sushi apprentice only clean and do small chores like forced labor?" The answer is simple, the Japanese value tradition, devotion, and discipline.
All of the small chores have nothing to do with real sushi training, but they will strengthen your discipline. And discipline helps build a solid foundation for lifelong learning. It's simply a test. If you can't take care of the small things, how are you going to take care of the big things? That's how the Japanese view others. They say: "The way you do one thing is the way you do everything."
Whenever I had a chance, I asked Jin-san more questions. I wanted to learn as much from him as I could. I didn't want to miss this opportunity.
"Jin-san, when did you practice your sushi skills?"
"Whenever there was time. I didn't know when they would allow me to touch the fish. They didn't tell me. I didn't want to wait, so I made time to practice. Mostly on my day off, I would go to the fish market and buy leftover fish with my money. Sometimes, I got them for free," he explained.
"How?" I asked, wondering who was generous enough to give away fish.
"I befriended some of the fishmongers at the fish market. They saw so many other sushi apprentices doing the same, so they understood what I was going through. They were generous and encouraging. I used to take the fish to the restaurant and practiced filleting, making Sashimi and nigiri," Jin-san said.
"Did the usual training continue?"
"Yes. For the first several years, my main job, besides cleaning and small chores, was cutting vegetables and learning how to make shari. I worked from six in the morning, throughout the day without breaks, and went to sleep at midnight."
"That is a very hard and long workday," I said, feeling immense respect for him.
"It was all worth it," he smiled. "After several years of training, I started working as a Sushi Chef at a different restaurant in Tokyo. One day, I was asked to come to Los Angeles to help open a restaurant called Sushi Roku, the number six in Japanese. They named the restaurant after the six original chefs and partners who opened the restaurant. After working for Sushi Roku, I decided to leave and start working in Long Beach."
"I see. Did you want to come to America?" I asked.
"I never thought of coming to America. I planned to stay here for three years, help Sushi Roku, and go back to Japan. I did not want to stay here forever. But, for some reason, I ended up staying here for eleven years now," Jin-san told me.
Jin-san suddenly shouted, "Irasshaimase!" when he saw a customer walk into the restaurant. A middle-aged man sat at the Sushi Bar, right in front of Jin-san.
"Hello, Jin-san. It's so nice to see you again."
"Yes, me, too," Jin-san said and laughed.
"Omakase, please," the customer told Jin-san.
"Yes, one Omakase. We got a nice Aji, Spanish Mackerel, for you. I think you are going to like it," Jin-san said, with a smile
"I cannot wait," the man smiled back.
At the Sushi Bar, Jin-san always looked happy. He engaged with his customers, made jokes, and entertained them. There wasn't a single moment when he wasn't smiling while in front of his customers. Just like Také-san at Yoshida Sushi, Jin-san was efficient, organized, and kept his workstation very clean. He was also fast, faster than any Sushi Chef I ever worked with. Twice as fast as Také-san and four times as fast as me.
After he finished serving his customer, Jin-san said, "I'll be doing some prep in the back," and left the Sushi Bar. It was a Sunday afternoon, and the restaurant wasn't busy, so I asked him if I could watch it.
"Of course, it is not a problem," Jin-san smiled, inviting me to the back.
"I am going to fillet Hirame." Jin-san picked up a medium-size piece, weighing about two kilograms. He placed his knife on the edge of the fish and moved in a circular motion along the side fin. He then filleted the whole fish and did the same on the other side.
"This is Sanmai-Oroshi," Jin-san said. "Have you seen this? It's faster than Gomai-Oroshi."
"No. I only know Gomai, a five-piece fillet. Never seen Sanmai, three-piece before," I said.
"Really? It's very simple. Three-piece is a lot faster than five-piece. It's easier, too, when you get used to it," Jin-san smiled.
When you fillet a whole fish, the Japanese count the bone piece as one of the number of fillets, Sanmai, the three-piece fillet, is standard for most fish. Halibut is done as a five-piece, four fillets, and one bone piece. You don't count the head as a piece.
Jin-san moved so fast, yet so graceful. I had never seen anyone fillet a fish so quickly. I kept my eyes on Jin-san and stood completely still with my mouth wide open. It was like watching Clark Kent change into Superman in a telephone booth, right before your eyes. Before I realized what was happening, Jin-san was finished. It took him less than three minutes to fillet a whole Halibut.
"I'll teach you how to do Gomai-Oroshi later," Jin-san said.
I noticed he was using an ordinary chef's knife with a white plastic handle. Something you would see in any restaurant kitchen. It wasn't a Deba, the fish-filleting knife, or a Japanese knife.
Jin-san noticed me staring at his knife and smiled. "You want to know where I got the knife?" he said,
"Yes," I nodded.
Jim-san smiled and said, "This knife is not Deba or Yanagiba. I got this knife from a restaurant supply store for $15. I have two of them, one to fillet fish, one to use at the Sushi Bar."
"$15?" I asked. "Really?"
"Yes, really," Jin-san smiled. "I do have an expensive Yanagiba at home. One of them costs over $2,000, but I never use them here. I could, but here it's casual sushi dining. If it were a Michelin star restaurant, then it would be a different story. There is no need for such an expensive knife here," Jin-san paused for a moment.
"Besides, you see, it's not so much about how expensive or how great a knife is. Many Sushi Chefs think it's the hard steel and the make, like Masamoto. But, it's how you sharpen it," Jin-san said.
"How you sharpen it," I repeated his words.
"Yes, it's how you sharpen it, how you take care of it that matters. I can tell what kind of a chef he is by looking at his knife. The knife will tell me everything," Jin-san said, as he looked at me.
I felt embarrassed because I knew my knife wasn't in great shape. Toshi taught me how to sharpen my knives, but that was it. That was the moment I decided to hang onto my inexpensive stainless- steel $60 Yanagiba from Rock‘n Hollywood Sushi and improve my sharpening skills. I had so many opportunities to buy better a Yanagiba, but for some reason, I never did.
During my break, I borrowed the whetstone at the restaurant and sharpened my Yanagiba as best I could. I thought about getting the same knife as Jin-san used to fillet Halibut, but it would not be right for me. I should hang on to my knives and learn to master them, I thought.
I wound up working with Jin-san for less than twenty shifts during my three months at Sushi of Naples, but each time I worked with him, he taught me something. I learned more valuable lessons from him than anyone else.
Jin-san inspired me, not just as a chef, but also as a person. He was warm, gentle, and patient. He taught secrets and life lessons, and he loved sharing his stories, knowledge, and experience. Nothing like the traditional hard-headed Sushi Chefs in Japan I had heard about in stories. I wanted to be able to tell other Sushi Chefs the same thing Jin-san told me, "I can tell what kind of a chef you are by looking at your knife." I didn't know when that would happen, but I knew someday I would.