Yes, I Did Cut My Finger on My Firsday Day as A Sushi Chef
Is there anything I should bring to work? I wondered.
It was my first day as a Sushi Chef, and it was my first day working at a restaurant, ever.
I had no idea how to prepare for work. How should I dress? I forgot to ask if I needed a uniform. I forgot to ask if I should bring in any utensils. I had no idea.
I was nervous again. But then I realized that since neither Saito-san nor Toshi-san had said anything, I could just show up, and everything would be okay.
My shift was from 3 PM to 2 AM, an eleven-hour shift with a short break in the middle. I never worked at night before except for overtime. I wasn't just changing my career, career; I was changing my daily routine.
Around 2 PM, I got in my car and drove to Hollywood from Santa Monica. The drive was about forty minutes, so I decided to leave early.
I drove through Sunset Strip to Rock'n Hollywood Sushi. Right across the street was the once-famous club, Roxy. When Roxy closed, it became huge sushi and Japanese restaurant, Miyagi's, named after Mr. Miyagi from the original Karate Kid movie. Miyagi's was more of a club than a restaurant. It had three dance floors and dining areas with Sushi Bars on each floor. Some of the bars were round instead of the traditional straight, long counter bar.
I pulled my car into the back parking lot next to the strip club, Body Shop. During my first visit, I hadn't noticed that Rock'n Hollywood Sushi was right next door to a strip club. I felt a rise in my male testosterone, as I started to fantasize about good-looking dancers coming to visit me while I worked. It was so close and convenient; they must come in often, which made me think that I would have a good chance of getting to know them, and they would fulfill all my sexual fantasies.
This is a good start, I said to myself, but then I shook my head, how silly am I to even think that would happen. It was similar to the fantasy I had had about sitting next to a young, attractive female on the flight from L.A. to N.Y.C.; it never happens. Only a fantasy. Just an illusion.
Like this city called Hollywood. Hollywood does not exist in Hollywood or at a Chinese Theater. No movie stars live in Hollywood. They all live somewhere else. Hollywood exists only in the movies. Harrison Ford lives in Wyoming.
I walked into the kitchen and greeted the Sushi Chef, Jun.
He replied, "Good morning."
"Good morning?" I mumbled. I was confused.
"Yes, Good Morning," he smiled, "because we are seeing each other for the first time today, and this is the start of our shift. Ordinary workers' shifts start in the morning, so that's why we say good morning, even if it's three in the afternoon."
It felt weird to greet my coworker with "Good Morning" at 3 PM.
Though I was still confused, I just nodded in agreement. It took me a while to get used to this custom.
Later I learned that, in Japan, this is the correct practice at restaurants and hospitality businesses, as well as in the entertainment industry.
I suppose it was an agreeable practice so that employees would feel "normal," even though they started work late in the afternoons or evenings. Perhaps it did give them a sense of beginning work in the morning?
"Here is your uniform." Jun handed me a white Japanese-style Sushi Chef uniform.
The fabric was thin, almost see-through. It was different from what I imagined, but then again, I didn't have a vivid picture in my head. I never dreamed about becoming a Sushi Chef, so I never really thought about it.
"Oh, thank you," I replied with a smile hiding my disappointment and complaints. "Well, it was not Jun's fault that the uniform is thin," I muttered.
"We change upstairs," Jun said.
"Where should I put my personal belongings?" I asked Jun.
"Oh, yes, that. Since we have no lockers, everyone puts them in here, with the cleaning supplies," Jun said. Jun showed me a small door to a storage space under the stairs where they stored some cleaning supplies.
"Really, this is where we put our clothes?" my jaw almost dropped.
"Yes. If you don't like it, you can put your clothes in your car."
"Great." That's fancy, I thought and nodded again.
I took the stairs to the second floor, where it was even hotter and mustier than downstairs. The restaurant was red with black leather booths and could hold about thirty people. The carpet was dark, with a smell of soy sauce and something else that I couldn't figure out. The room gave me the creeps.
It didn't look like the kind of sushi restaurant I was hoping for. It looked more like a lounge at a fraternity house with a bunch of beanbags on the floor.
I changed into my new uniform and looked at myself in the mirror. I hated it. I looked like an Asian actor from a cheap B-Hollywood movie. One that people never heard of, but probably watched at 2 AM on a cable movie channel when they had nothing else to do. Jun also gave me a cheap-looking white hat to wear. I hated wearing a hat but didn't say anything. I had no choice but to wear it. Besides, I was the one who wanted to be a Sushi Chef.
As soon as I returned to the Sushi Bar, Jun explained: "The first thing we do is to make rice, but before we do that, we need to turn the switch on."
"What switch?" I asked.
"It's for the fish refrigerator, the Sushi Neta Case on the Sushi Bar. It gets pretty hot inside the restaurant, so it takes a while for it to get cold. We need to turn it on now before we start putting the fish in."
"Ah, that makes sense," I said, looking at the refrigerator. I never worked in an environment where I had to prioritize my tasks. This was a great lesson.
The Sushi Neta Case looked old. It wasn't exactly dirty, but it wasn't the cleanest thing I had ever seen, either. I'd seen these before at other sushi restaurants, but until that moment, I never paid any attention.
Jun reached for the switch under the Sushi Bar and turned it on.
We returned to the back kitchen, and Jun picked up a large stainless-steel bowl from the shelf, about twenty inches in diameter. He removed a lid from a large gray plastic trash bucket.
Using a measuring cup, Jun scooped out uncooked rice and poured it into the bowl. He did that three times, scooping out at least thirty cups.
He then took the bowl to the sink and rinsed the rice in Water. After draining the Water a couple of times, he pressed the rice firmly with his right hand a couple of times, as he rotated the whole bowl, and then rinsed again. He repeated the same process a couple more times until the Water was less milky. Once the Water drained, he transferred the rice into a large rice cooker.
I was already familiar with the whole washing and rinsing process. I learned to do it by watching my mom, other Japanese chefs on TV, and I also read about it in cookbooks. What Jun was doing looked no different from what I already knew.
No problem, I thought.
"This is a gas rice cooker, which can make almost fifty cups. We need to let the rice sit in Water at least fifteen minutes before we hit the start switch," Jun said.
"Why fifteen minutes?" I asked Jun as I continued to observe him.
"That way, rice tastes better," he smiled, and continued, "Glucose in the rice is located in the core of the grain. So, by soaking the rice in Water for fifteen-to-thirty minutes, it helps to bring out more sweetness from the rice."
I nodded and watched Jun as he placed his left hand on the rice, and checked the water level with his wrist before putting the lid on the rice cooker.
I had seen Japanese chefs do this before but didn't understand the method. It never made any sense to me how they measured the Water using their wrist. What are you looking for? You've already measured the Water, so why bother?
This time, however, I didn't ask.
Jun opened the door of the walk-in refrigerator and grabbed ten English cucumbers, each individually wrapped with plastic. English cucumbers are longer and thinner than American cucumbers.
"Okay, now we can go back to the Sushi Bar and do some prep work."
We went into the Sushi Bar, which was much warmer than the kitchen.
"The sushi refrigerator has been on for about fifteen minutes. Now, we can start arranging the fish. First, place these white plates… like this." He started placing them as he continued explaining, "You can put seven plates on each side like this."
I noticed the white plates had holes in the bottom.
"How come there are holes in these plates?" I asked Jun.
"To let water drip," Jun said.
"What water?" I asked again.
"Water from the fish. When fish gets old, Water starts to drip, so we need to let it drain," Jun said.
"The older fish goes on the left side of the Neta Case, and there is always an order. First, Octopus and Squid, then Saba, Whitefish like Tai or Hirame, Hamachi, Salmon, Tuna, and Shrimp. They need to be in this order all the time. Otherwise, everyone gets confused. The older fish is Aniki, the older brother. The fresher fish is Otòto, younger brother," Jun explained.
"I see," I nodded; however, I did not fully understand the reason why they must be in that order every time. It took me a while to learn to realize the importance of the Japanese way of mise en place or things in order.
After laying out all of the fish, Jun picked up four Plexiglas sliding doors, placed them on the case, and closed the doors to seal in the cold air.
"We use Snow Crab pack," Jun said, after looking at a small refrigerator inside the Sushi Bar. "This is where we keep everything that doesn't fit in the sushi refrigerator. We have Ume Plum paste, Tsukemono pickles, Mirugai, giant clams, extra crab and mixes, and Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp)," Jun said, pointing at the refrigerator.
I looked inside and saw a lot more than he mentioned. I felt like I was looking in someone's home refrigerator. I also felt like I shouldn't touch anything.
Jun walked to the back kitchen, returning with a package of frozen solid Snow Crab, the size of a thick cookbook, such as The Joy of Cooking.
"Oh, I forgot to tell you that right next to the walk-in is the freezer," Jun said.
"That's where we keep all the frozen stuff like crab and Unagi," Jun added.
"Wait, what's a walk-in?" I asked.
"A refrigerator in the kitchen. It's called walk-in because you can walk-in, you know," Jun said.
Jun placed the frozen Crab Pack in a sink and let the Water run slowly to thaw.
"This Snow Crab is called 'sandwich' because the lump leg meat is on the top and the bottom. The flakes are between them. After thawing, we'll mix this with mayo, but not the lump meat. We'll use the lump meat for nigiri or Sashimi."
Jun took out some crab meat from the small side refrigerator. It was separated, just as he had said.
"On weeknights, we typically go through half of the pack, so we can mix half for tonight and leave the unmixed crab in the side fridge. It takes a good hour or two before the whole thing melts. We need to check the crab early during the prep because it's our responsibility to make sure we have enough Crab Mix ready before the restaurant opens."
That was the moment I realized that every chef has a set of tasks that they have to take care of before the restaurant opens. If he forgets to do one thing, it could cause a problem for everyone. Therefore, it was both an individual and a team effort at the same time.
Not only does everyone focus on their own work, but they also keep an eye on each other at the same time in the kitchen. I suppose it's similar to playing baseball. I remember what my Junior League coach used to tell us, "One error equals one run to the other team."
One simple mistake during prep can lead to a delay or an unhappy customer in the restaurant. Every step in prep is important; I made a note to myself.
After it thawed, Jun showed me how to make the Crab Mix. It looked simple, except I had to remember the quantity of mayo because there wasn't a recipe. Jun was just guessing, eyeballing how much mayo to put in. It looked like he was making the mix based on how it tasted. So, I figured I should do the same.
"Do we have a recipe written down somewhere?"
"Nope, no recipe whatsoever," Jun grinned.
"We are going to use these for all the rolls like California Roll and Spicy Tuna," Jun told me. He placed the English cucumbers on the counter. Using his knife, I watched him cut off one cucumber end and peel off the plastic. He put it on the cutting board and began showing me how to cut it.
"We are going to cut them into three pieces each," he explained.
Using his left hand, Jun measured a cucumber before he cut it.
"Four fingers, or the length of your palm, this is how we measure things at the Sushi Bar."
"Yes, that's right. Four left fingers, like this."
Jun placed his left hand on the cucumber, then put his knife just to the right of his palm, and palm and sliced the cucumber.
I started cutting the tips of the rest of the cucumbers, while Jun did the same. I quickly learned how to unwrap the cucumbers. It took fifteen seconds each, but when you have twelve of them, multiply that thirty seconds by twelve, and it will take three minutes. Then we started to cut cucumbers at the four-finger width. I tried the same technique and cut some cucumbers into five- or six-inch pieces.
After cutting all the cucumbers, Jun asked me, "Can you do katsuramuki?"
"No, I've never tried," I said. I felt good knowing what katsuramuki was.
"Do it like this," Jun explained, as he showed me at the same time.
Katsuramuki, also known as pillar peeling, is a technique used to peel vegetables paper-thin. It's like peeling the skin of an apple. Imagine holding a cucumber in your left hand and a knife in your right. Move the knife up and down as you turn the cucumber and peel off the skin. You will go around it a couple of times before you reach the core of the cucumber.
If you've never seen a chef do this, you'll probably think it's an accident waiting to happen, with his left-hand right in front of the knife. And that's precisely what happened to me. I cut my finger as I was peeling my second cucumber. My knife just slid through and cut my left index finger.
"Oh, no!" I shouted. Blood started to come out of my finger. "I cut my finger. Where is the Band-Aid? "I asked Jun.
"There is a First Aid kit in the kitchen," Jun told me.
What a terrible start. I had already cut my finger, and it was only the first hour of my first day on the job.
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