Zen Center, Ozumo and Greens

 

Greens_SF_(15171780191)
Greens Restaurant, Fort Mason

 

When I moved to San Francisco from Los Angeles in 2004, I became a resident at San Francisco Zen Center at 300 Page Street. Being a resident meant participation to the Daily Zen practice: Wake up call at 5 AM, two thirty minute periods of Zazen sitting from 5:30 to 6:30 PM, chanting for fifteen minutes, followed by fifteen minutes of temple cleaning. The room and board was $800/month, most of the residents had a day job. I got a job working at Ozumo in Embarcadero as a sushi chef, and since my pay was around $20/hr with no tip, I needed an extra source of income, so I got a second job working at Greens Restaurant which San Francisco Zen Center founded in 1979. At Ozumo, I was mostly working lunch shift, 10AM-2PM and 3PM-11PM at Greens. So, as soon as I finished morning shift at Ozumo, I ate makanai lunch, hopped on the bus, got power nap while on the bus, and headed to Fort Mason to start my eight-hour evening shift at Greens. I got home at around midnight, or later on busy nights. By the time I showered, it was 1AM when I got to go to sleep, then at 5AM, wake up call for the daily practice. Most of the time, I fell asleep during the sitting practice.

Looking back now, I don’t know how I kept up this schedule for over two years. I never told anyone about my schedule but the Abbot heard from someone and asked me, “Wow, how do you do it?” and I said, “Well, you just wake up when the bell rings in the morning.” The morning bell was quite loud: loud enough to wake up everyone in the temple, even a resident like me, who only got four-hour sleep every night. There was a person who was assigned as the bell ringer to run all the way from the first floor to the third floor of the building, ringing the bell to wake up all the residents so that no one misses the morning sitting practice called “Zazen.” We had thirty minutes from the moment the morning bell rang, till the time Zazen started, but the rule was to be sitting in the room, at least five to ten minutes before the sitting started, which meant, you only had about five to ten minutes to get up, go to bathroom, maybe wash your face, get dressed and walk down to the basement, where Zendo, the sitting room was. It never occurred me to do it, but I heard many of the residents made a quick stop to the kitchen and grabbed a cup of coffee, before they headed to the Zendo. It would have helped me to stay awake, but for some reason, drinking coffee before Zazen sounded like “cheating,” though, sleeping during Zazen was not exactly a good thing either.

At Zen Center, residents prepared and cooked three meals a day at their kitchen. The basic structure was loosely based on the way they do at Zen Temple in Japan. There was the executive chef called, Tenzo, whose responsibility is to plan the menu, order ingredients and hand out recipes and cooking instructions to Fuku-Ten, Sous-Chef, who oversaw the prep, cooking and cleaning procedures in the kitchen.

At the kitchen, there were a couple of things they practiced well. One was the labeling system. At professional kitchens, there is a term: “first in, first out,” but nothing like at Zen Center. When you are prepping, it’s your responsibility to label everything.

For example, if you small diced onions, you need to label, “(L) 1/24/17, Onions, (L), Minestrone Soup” The first letter (L) means it’s for Lunch, then the date, the ingredient that is in the container, and the dish that content goes into. If you never worked in the professional kitchen, you may wonder why this is necessary? The reason is that there are so many people working in the kitchen and many times, different people working in the morning and afternoon, so, only Tenzo and Fuku-ten knows which ingredients will go into which dish. Quite often, you have two containers of small diced onions and one goes to the minestrone and the other for stir fry, you need to make it clear which one goes to what, otherwise, you may end up with different amount of onions. Also, dating the container is crucial because you always want to use the older ingredients first. So, to make it clear, they write down, “Use first” or “Use second” on ingredients, especially when there are more than one.

Cleaning was one of the most important parts of the kitchen practice. The first fifteen minutes and the last twenty minutes of prep hours were used to clean the kitchen and equipment, so, everything in the kitchen stayed spotless.

One of the biggest challenges I saw working at Zen Center’s kitchen was that almost none of the residents, including the Tenzo and Fuku-ten had no professional culinary experience. I never became Tenzo or Fuku-ten, but I could tell that it would be difficult to coordinate everyone. For example, it took over thirty minutes for one person to small dice ten onions, because you first had to explain what small dice is and how to cut them. It would have taken less than half the time for an experienced prep chef to do so.

The worst part was that everyone moved so slowly and quietly. It was difficult for me to understand why people in the US perceived Zen to be “Quiet” and “Clam,” and the fact is that Zen in Japan is neither quiet nor calm. It’s loud, fast, quiet and calm at the same time. I heard it from my Zen teacher, who was trained at 750-year-old Zen Temple in Japan, that at the Zen kitchen, there were lots of yelling and people moved incredibly fast. Otherwise, Tenzo would scream, which sounded just like any professional kitchen. At Zen Center’s kitchen, all the residents almost pretended not to show their angry side, because it was against their beliefs of Zen being Calm. A similar thing seems to happen at Japanese-themed Spa in the US, where they play calming new age type music and everyone is so quiet, looking like they are meditating. At Onsen hot springs in Japan, people are a lot more conversational.

Almost everything was made from scratch at Zen Center. There was a bread maker, who baked the bread a couple of times a week for the residents to eat in the resident kitchen. Peanut butter and Jerry with a cup of coffee were always available for all the residents, and I must have at least a slice or two every day.

Breakfast was at 7:20 AM, Lunch at 12Noon and the dinner started at 6:30 PM, every day except Sunday. During breakfast, residents could pack their lunch if you were working outside and even if you missed the meal, we could always find leftovers in the walk-in to reheat later when we get back from work. We chanted before every meal, which symbolized the show of gratitude and regard food as medicine, which was a concept foreign to many Western societies until Zen was introduced. The chant extends our (eater) gratitude to those who brought the food: the chef, the farmer, the driver who brought the food, the land, water, air, the sun and the earth and the universe. It also extends to our ancestors and all being beyond this dimension. Though it sounds religious, it is more spiritualism, non-denominational, or you can simply call it naturalism. All we are doing is saying Thank you to nature and the universe, which includes everything we know and everything we have yet to encounter.

Zen Center Kitchen was a vegetarian kitchen, so the menu consisted of lots of fresh vegetables, notable from Green Gulch Farm in Marine, just across from Golden Gate Bridge. Green Gulch has been farming organically for over thirty years, and I have to say that their leafy vegetables are the best tasting salad greens I’ve ever had and I always felt so fortunate to have those every day for lunch. We ate lots of salad and soup for lunch and since cheese was allowed, pizza on Friday nights, many burritos for dinner, and lots of beans and tempeh as a source of protein. On Thanksgiving Day, some of the residents who stayed at Zen Center made a traditional “Neatloaf” made from nuts, beans, mushroom, onion, carrots, and cheese to mock the meatloaf, along with the side of mashed potato. I have to admit that when I tasted vegetarian meatloaf, I was amazed. Had I not known, I couldn’t tell if it was a vegetarian dish.

Because there was no scheduled meal on Sundays, some of the residents went out to eat at restaurants. Some stayed and either cooked using the ingredients in the kitchen or just reheated the leftovers in the walk-in. Those who wanted to eat meat, had to go out to eat outside of Zen Center, though, they never prohibited or interfered with the residents from eating meat outside of the temple. Though I was not vegetarian, I did not mind eating vegetarian dish all the time and during my three-year-old residency, I rarely went out to eat meat dish. On Sundays, I rather wanted to cook on my own, because in the walk-in were the variety of fresh vegetables I could use to make whatever my imagination took me, which I enjoyed a lot. I usually made quick stir-fry and soups, limiting my use of pots and pans so that I only needed to spend five minutes cleaning up the kitchen. When I cooked at Zen Center’s kitchen, I brought my own knives because all the knives in the kitchen were dull since there was no one who knew how to sharpen knives. In fact, I was the only one who knew how, so I occasionally volunteered my free time (which was Sundays) to sharpen all the knives (10 or so) using my whetstones.

I liked “No talking, except questions, instructions, or things related to cooking” policy in the kitchen at Zen Center, because when I am prepping or cooking, I like to focus on what I am doing and I cannot talk at all. It is very hard for me to engage in conversation with someone while I am cooking, especially when the conversation is chit chatting.

Greens Restaurant was the only non-sushi restaurant I’ve ever worked for, and I was a line cook. The first two hours of my shift was to prep and cook the dish we are serving for the dinner and it was extremely hectic. I made lots of vegetarian curries and to cook this in two hours was quite a challenge. Greens’ kitchen shared the same rules as Zen Center’s kitchen because originally, all the chefs were residents at Zen Center. So, I found labeling system very familiar. At the start of my shift, I had to locate prepped vegetables, herbs and stocks to make curry in the walk-in, took them out to the back kitchen to start cooking.

There were two kitchens at Greens. The front kitchen was used mainly for the service and prep, and the back was used solely for prep and cook dishes for dinner. Because all the tools were stored in the front kitchen, we had to pick and carry them to the back kitchen to cook curry and other dishes. In the beginning, I didn’t know what equipment I needed, so I made numerous trips back and forth, wasting my precious prep time. I also had to cook rice in two large 32 QT pots. I made at least two trips between the front and back kitchen to carry all the equipment.

Greens started dinner service at 5:30 PM and at 5:20 PM, there was tasting. The executive chef, or kitchen manager would taste everything on the menu for the evening, so each line cook must finish their prep by 5 PM, clean up their prep station, and then set up their line in fifteen minutes and whip out their two dishes they are assigned for. Annie Somerville was (and still is) the executive chef at Greens and she came to taste every dish almost every day while I was working at the Greens. I think Greens was one of the best companies I’ve ever worked for and the credit goes to Annie. She was communicative, attentive, listened and never forced anything on the kitchen staff. She of course, never lost her temper or raised her voice on anyone. She always said in the way of, “Let’s do this,” or “How about we do this.” I learned a lot of managing the kitchen from Annie and every time I experience a problem in the kitchen, I always think about the way she handled an issue in the kitchen.

My First California Roll

photo by Albert Law : www.porkbellystudio.com
photo by Albert Law : http://www.porkbellystudio.com

We were standing at the sushi bar. Toshi stepped forward and stood in front of the long cutting board.

“First, wet your hands in this bowl of water. That’s very important because otherwise, your hands will be full of rice. If and when that happens, just wash your hands in the sink and start over.”

There was a sink, right in the middle of the sushi bar. Water was running continuously so all the chefs could wash their hands quickly.

“Then grab some rice – about this size.” Toshi showed me a rice ball that was the size of a tennis ball. I imagined it was more rice to fit in a rice bowl. It looked big, or more rice than I thought it would go into one a Roll. He placed it on the top left the corner. “Now, start spreading, oh I almost forgot, remember to place rice on the back side of Nori.”

Though most Japanese should know this, Nori has shiny smooth side and rough, not the shiny side. Shiny side is the outside, and rough/not-shiny is the inside. No matter what roll you are making – inside out, seaweed out, hand roll – rice always goes on the rough/inside.

“Spread the rice using the only left hand, like this.”

Toshi begun to press and spread the rice from left to right of Nori. The rice moved, as if it was like play-doh or some soft bread dough.

“At the same time, make “U” shape with your right hand to guide the rice so that you cover only the top half of the nori.”

His hands moved very quickly. I already felt like I forgot many of the steps. It looked as if the rice was coming from his right hand.

“Your right hand is more important. I mean, both of your hands are important. In the beginning, many people think it’s the left hand that is doing all the work and forget to move the right hand, so you must remember to use both hands the same time. It’s a little bit like playing piano.

Only the top half of the Nori was covered with sushi rice.

“From here, spread the rice on the top and cover the bottom half, starting from the right end, center and the left. Also, keep in mind to make the rice nice and fluffy. When you press the rice too hard, you lose the texture, and the rice gets mushy. That’s no good. The texture of the rice is one of the most important things in Sushi. When you are finished spreading the rice, sprinkle some sesame seeds and turn it over so that rice is down, Nori is up.”

I remembered that part because I have seen it enough times. Toshi continued.

“Place some crab mix right in the center. As a matter of fact, put it hair below the center. It’s easier to roll that way. Then some cucumber strips and avocado slices.”

Toshi put then all the ingredients neatly, all the way across the nori, horizontally.

“Now we are ready to roll it up.”

Toshi grabbed the bottom end of nori with both hands and started to curl up and tuck in the top end before sealing the roll first; then another ninety degrees turn, so the seam is facing Toshi, not to the customer side.

“Pick up the makisu/bamboo mat and place it over the roll.”

All the makisu had the plastic wrap to prevent rice from sticking to it. You may wonder what did they do before the plastic wrap in Japan? Well, they did not have to because traditional Japanese rolls are all Nori out, so rice would never touch the mat. Since California roll is an American invention and rice outside, we must cover makisu with plastic. Otherwise, it will be covered with rice.

“Just squeeze the roll gently over makisu a couple of times, as you slide your hands left and right.”

When Toshi removed the makisu, there was a beautiful long roll, sitting on the cutting board.

“Cutting is difficult. You can move the knife back and forth like a saw and cut through. An experienced chef can do this with a single stroke like this.”

He quickly moved the knife forward once, pull back, and the roll was cut into two.

“The wrong way is to force your knife down, which will smash the roll, like this. Make sure your knife is wet before you cut, so wipe with your towel, blade facing out, not toward your palm. Never place the knife into the bowl of water because that is dangerous. When you have your bowl of water, that is OK to do that, but because we are sharing the bowl, never dip your knife in the bowl because when we get busy, you may accidentally cut other’s hand. Now, you try it.”

I was nervous but excited at the same time. I picked up a sheet of nori and put it down on the cutting board. I wet my hands in the bowl of water, took off the rid from the rice warmer, grabbed some rice, unsure if I had the right amount in my hand or not. I rolled up the Sushi Rice in my hand to form a tennis ball and my hands were already sticky, rice sticking to the palm of my hand. I quickly put down the ball of rice on nori, washed my hands in the running water.

Many people think Sushi Rice is “Sticky” Rice. However, it is (mostly) short grain rice. Japanese rice is short grain, and that is what Sushi Chefs use in Japan. The reason it is “sticker” is that Sushi Rice has Sushi Vinegar, which has Rice Vinegar, Salt and Sugar. Sugar is what bind each grain of rice together, like glue and also, makes it extremely challenging to handle with your hands. Wetting your hands is a must, but when your hands are too wet, rice will start to break apart. When handling, you need to find the happy medium – not too dry, not too wet hands.

I started to spread the rice with my left hand and it just did not spread at all. I kind of mushed the rice. Rice was uneven on the sheet of nori. It was spotty. By this time, my hands were ricey again. Not good, not good, I said to myself silently. I must have tried it several times, each time getting a better handle of sushi rice, until I was able to place some crab, cucumber, and avocado to roll it up. I picked up makusi and applied some pressure to form a roll, then cut into six pieces, just like Toshi told me.

My California Roll looked nothing like the one Toshi made. His California Roll was round, fluffy, cut evenly, the same height and had the same amount of fillings in each piece. Mine? Uneven rice, fillings, height, a sad looking California Roll.

How to make Inside Out Roll

090208-M-5936S-002-SUSHI

We are standing at the sushi bar. Toshi stepped forward and stood in front of the long cutting board.

First, wet your hands in this bowl of water. That’s very important because otherwise, your hands will be full of rice. If and when that happens, just wash your hands in the sink and start over.”

In the middle of the sushi bar was a sink with water continuously running so all the chefs could wash their hands quickly.

“Then grab some rice – about this size.” Toshi showed me a rice ball that was the size of a tennis ball. It looked big; more rice than I thought it would go into one California Roll. He placed it on the top left the corner. “Now, start spreading the rice using only left hand like this.”

Toshi started to press and spread the rice from left to the right. The rice moved as if it was like play-doh or some soft bread dough or something.

“At the same time, make “U” shape with your right hand to guide the rice so that you cover only the top half of the nori.”

His hands moved very quickly. I already felt like I couldn’t remember all the steps. It looked as if the rice was coming from his right hand.

“Your right hand is more important. I mean, both of your hands are important. In the beginning, many people think it’s the left hand that is doing all the work and forget to move the right hand, so you must remember to use both hands the same time. It’s a little bit like playing piano.

Only the top half of the nori was covered with sushi rice.

“From here, spread the rice on the top and cover the bottom half, starting from the right end, center and the left. Also, keep in mind to make the rice nice and fluffy. When you press the rice too hard, you lose the texture, and the rice gets mushy. That’s no good. The texture of the rice is one of the most important things in Sushi. When you are finished spreading the rice, sprinkle some sesame seeds and turn it over so that rice is down, Nori is up.”

I remembered that part because I have seen it enough times. Toshi continued.

“Place some crab mix right in the center. As a matter of fact, put it hair below the center. It’s easier to roll that way. Then some cucumber strips and avocado slices.”

Toshi put then all the ingredients neatly, all the way across the nori, horizontally.

“Now we are ready to roll it up.”

Toshi grabbed the bottom end of nori with both hands and started to curl up and tuck in the top end before sealing the roll first; then another ninety degrees turn, so the seam is facing Toshi, not to the customer side.

“Pick up the makisu/bamboo mat and place it over the roll.”

All the makisu had the plastic wrap to prevent rice from sticking to it. You may wonder what did they do before the plastic wrap in Japan? Well, they did not have to because traditional Japanese rolls are all Nori out, so rice would never touch the mat. Since California roll is an American invention and rice outside, we must cover makisu with plastic. Otherwise, it will be covered with rice.

“Just squeeze the roll gently over makisu a couple of times, as you slide your hands left and right.”

When Toshi removed the makisu, there was a beautiful long roll, sitting on the cutting board.

“Cutting is difficult. You can move the knife back and forth like a saw and cut through. An experienced chef can do this with a single stroke like this.”

He quickly moved the knife forward once, pull back, and the roll was cut into two.

“The wrong way is to force your knife down, which will smash the roll, like this. Make sure your knife is wet before you cut, so wipe with your towel, blade facing out, not toward your palm. Never place the knife into the bowl of water because that is dangerous. When you have your bowl of water, that is OK to do that, but because we are sharing the bowl, never dip your knife in the bowl because when we get busy, you may accidentally cut other’s hand.”

After the Sushi Class @HUB

Catering

After the Hub event, I quit working at Hecho but had no way to generate income. I also quit working at Graphic Design Company. The owner asked me if I would be coming back to help them as a freelance and I told her no, because, I thought having a backup plan would make me think, unconsciously, that I could rely on her, if things didn’t work out. The only way, I thought, I could succeed was to believe in myself and take a leap of faith: no backup plan whatsoever.

I had no client. I had no work. Nothing. No plan for the future income, but I knew, everything would work out fine. I never thought, not even for a second, that I was going to fail.

The first thing I needed to do was to secure an income. So, I applied for unemployment benefit. It was my first and only time I applied and receive $200/week benefit. While I was able to buy some time with the unemployment, I took on some on-call shifts at several catering companies, making $16/hr., or $300 ~ $500/month.

I still had some credit card debt, and my credit score was not good enough to get a business loan. I could not get a business line of credit either because my business was just starting. It sounded strange to me because the beginning of the business is when you need the money the most, and most small business owners don’t have that kind of money, so requesting to have a good credit history or a few years of business history seemed catch-22.

So, we had no money in the bank account. The rent was $1100/month, and after we had paid utility bill and credit card payment, I had no money left for groceries, but I had one credit card with $750 credit line, which I used to buy groceries. The balance was up to $500~$700 range, and I needed to pay as soon as I got paid from the catering companies or unemployment because otherwise, the card would max out and I wouldn’t be able to use it. I could claim unemployment when I had no work, but I couldn’t when I worked, so my monthly income was around $1500, but the whole idea of employment was to help me until I got job, so, I was determined to find a way to generate enough income so that I did not have to rely on the unemployment.

At the catering company, I signed up as many shifts as I could. The work shifts were First-come, First-served, so everyone rushed to sign up online after they got a sign-up email. I did both events and prep work. I also worked as Event Kitchen Manager. Working for a catered event is a whole different ball game from working at a restaurant. It’s lot less cooking when you work on a catered event. It’s half production, organization, and some cooking. Over half of the work consists of loading, unloading, packing, unpacking, setting up the tables, kitchens, tools and equipment and making sure you have all the tools you need and check to see if everything is working properly, all before you start cooking.

At a restaurant, you show up and all of the equipment and tools are there, always at the same place, working just fine. You do need to set up the kitchen, but it’s a lot less than a catered event. There are over hundred of tools, equipment, ingredients and platters at a catered event check up a list to pack out, load into a truck, load out to the room, where you would be cooking, pack out and lay out all of them. Again, all of this before you can start cooking anything.

I learned a lot about the organization, and how important it is because I was at an event where someone forgot to pack salt. You’d think that would be impossible. I say almost, almost anything can happen in an event. Can you imagine cooking without salt?  We had to send someone to buy salt from a nearby grocery store.

Also, similar to working at a restaurant, more or so, time is an issue with a catered event. You are working against the clock and if and when there is a problem, you need to solve it as fast as you can, using everything you’ve got. First, you need to determine what the “real” problem is, then quickly come up with a solution, then decide to act on it, even though, that may not be the best solution. It’s better to do something to resolve the issue than to come up with a perfect and better way to do it because again, time is the key. You must poses and attitude that says, “I will get it done no matter what.” If not, you are not fit for a catered event. I’ve seen so many people blaming on the person, who made a mistake. That does not help to solve the problem at all. In fact, blaming on someone always, always hurt everyone on the team, because it separates the person who made a mistake. Everyone in the kitchen should feel they are the team and one person’s mistake is everyone’s mistake and therefore, everyone should pitch in, do their best, to come up with the solution to overcome the mistake, as quickly as possible. I learned this through working at film production in LA and also for many catering companies in SF Bay Area.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve witnessed was at this 200-guest award ceremony event in San Francisco. It was one of the largest events of the year for this catering company. There must have been at least fifty staff working on this event, out of which, half were kitchen crew. They assigned me to the salad station, so my prep was cutting some vegetables, getting dressing ready, and setting up the stations. The main dish was fried chicken. They loaded in metal electric-cabinet warmer that was about 6.5ft. tall to cook raw Chicken. Now, these warmer do get to about 180F; so theoretically, they could cook fried chicken inside of them, if you give them enough time to cook. The only problem was that most of the warmer did not get high enough to cook raw chicken. Also, kitchen chefs plugged these warmers into the same electrical outlets, and it caused to blow a fuse. To make things worse, some of the warmers stopped working. (Normally, event manager and the executive chef would do an onsite visit to make sure the kitchen would have enough electric outlets, in case they need to use high amp/voltage cooking equipment. judging by what happened, I am guessing they did not do a through check or test.)

So, the executive chef and the sous-chef were both trying to fix the problem, and both of them spent good two hours trying to figure it out by themselves. (I had no idea about this because I was too busy doing my task.) By the time they figured there was nothing they could do to cook raw chicken, it was too late. Suddenly, someone was telling me that, we needed to cook four to six hundred of pieces of fried chicken in less than one hour. I asked one of my coworkers what was happening and they told me about the problem with electric warmers.

The solution they came up with was to use small home-kitchen-use electric fryers to fry 600 pieces of chicken. Now, this electric fryer could only fry five to six pieces of chicken a time, and it took 7-8 minutes to cook them. There were only three of these electric fryers. Now, anyone who graduated from grade school can figure this out that: it would take almost five hours to cook 600 pieces of chicken with this method.

The event manager was informed, and apparently, she did not do anything about it either or maybe she did, but nothing happened in the kitchen that I was aware of. I heard someone said, “Maybe we should go to KFC and get some fried chicken from there,” which actually was not a bad idea, I thought: it would be better than nothing.

The dinner service time came, and the kitchen manager told everyone to form the service line. We all lined up by the tables and started to pass the plates. The first person plated salad, and then side dishes the second, and the chicken. There were about fifty pieces of fried chicken ready and they were still frying some. After we served the first fifty of plates, everyone in the line waited for another batch of fried chicken to come. Remember it took 8 minutes to cook six pieces of chicken? There was nothing anyone could do at the time, except to wait. All the line cooks, waiters, event manager, sous chef and the executive chef waited, waited, until, an elderly gentleman stormed into the kitchen and shouted, “Where is the dinner! We’ve been waiting for it for the last hour and only less than half of the guests are served.” “I am sorry, we are waiting for the chicken,” the event manager said. “I don’t need an excuse. I need food. My friends are waiting and they are hungry.” And he stormed out of the kitchen. No one said anything after that and we all waited for the fried chicken. Finally, when the kitchen manager finally realized that we would never be able to serve rest of the five hundred fried chickens, she instructed us to serve dessert.

To make even matters worse, some of the dessert plates fell off from the table, making a huge shuttering noise in the kitchen.  (We didn’t know exactly how it happened. It could be someone hitting the table, or maybe someone placed them too high.)

The executive and sous-chef asked me to take to tell all the staff to start to clean up and left the kitchen. I was not even a kitchen manager and they never said anything or apologized to the crew but abandoned their responsibility and disappeared from the kitchen. Not only that, they made me responsible for cleaning up the mess they made. I wasn’t angry at that time, but I got angry when I saw the executive chef and sous-chef, smoking and talking outside of loading dock, after we finished cleaning up.

From this event, I learned two valuable lessons. One: Never wait till the last minute, hoping for a problem to resolve by itself. When you see a problem, find out the real issue, come up with a solution, decide and act on it. Two: never leave the responsibility to others, or never blame on someone else. Lastly, always, always, always inform your crew and communicate with them, no matter how small it may be.

The very first “breakthrough” sushi class@Hub San Francisco

Breakthrough HUB1

I was still working at a small graphic design office and was working part-time at Izakaya restaurant in Sunset. Also at a Catering Company, on-call catering chef.

The graphic design company’s main client was Dockers brand by Levis, doing their quarterly print catalogs. Because of the advancement of digital technology, iPhone and iPad, the workload was decreasing every season, and even during the three years I was there. I knew that it was a matter of time that they have no work for me, so I knew I had to find a different place to work before they let me go. I was forty-one, so it wasn’t like there were tons of opportunity for me. I knew I had to start something on my own. I tried to get a full-time designer job, but because I had a ten-year blank period with no portfolio, it was hard to get a job. In fact, I tried a several job placement agencies and got nowhere.

The only thing I had going was my part time sushi class. In November of 2010, Dockers had a massive lay off. As expected, Dockers commissioned fewer projects than the previous year. My hours were cut down, and I was making less money, just enough to make my ends meet. So, I took a leap of faith: To start sushi class business. It was a good idea, many of my friends told me so. However, coming up with the money to start the business was a challenge, so I had to find many creative ways to get things rolling.

I needed a business counseling and a good mentor. “Is there anyone who could give me a free advice?” I asked myself. I did an online search and found Score and SBA, The Small Business Administration, which is a US government agency that provides support to entrepreneurs and small businesses.  I was assigned to a counselor named Peter, who was retired food business expert. I met him every week and got his advice: “Do whatever you can to promote and establish your business. Put up flyers, business cards and get your website up!” I knew all that and I did not money and resources to put up a nice website up. Back then, designing and programming a nice site took some knowledge, and I was not up to learning HTML, nor did not have the luxury of studying it. I was in a hurry.

I did not have much – no business license, no permits, no business address, not DBA, no website, and no client. The one thing I had was an idea. An idea to make my sushi class business work.

I knew I wanted my class to be different. I wanted to my class to be more that just teaching people how to make rolls, nigiri, sashimi and sushi rice.  I wanted my class to be more than food. I wanted people to think outside of a box. I wanted class to be an experience, an opportunity for people to come together, be inspired, be motivated and learn something valuable so they can use it in their lives.

I wanted my first breakthrough sushi class to be a fun and challenging. So, I decided to use the Iron-Chef style sushi making a competition class. Now, all I needed was a venue to host my class.

I found a place called HUB San Francisco, a Non-Profit co-working space in San Francisco Chronicle building. I contacted the event organizer and offered my idea of breakthrough sushi class involving sushi challenge – to create a new style of sushi. She liked it and wanted to do as a community event for the members at HUB. The only thing was the fee. I wanted it to be $100 per person and the event manager said that would be too much. They could only charge $25. Only $25? I thought. It would not pay any fees or I would not make any money at all. But then, I had nothing, no yelp reviews, no Facebook page, no followers, and no news coverage. I was nobody. So, I agreed to do with $25 and asked for ingredients donation. I contacted several local supermarkets, and Whole Foods in SOMA said they could be our sponsors for the event because HUB was a non-profit. I got about $200 worth of ingredients donated to me: cucumbers, rice, rice vinegar, seaweed, sesame seeds, crab meat and smoked salmon to use for the class, as well as plates and just about everything, which cut down my cost drastically.

I got a venue and ingredients, now, I had to find a sushi chef to help me prep, set up and assist the class.  Peter at Score mentioned me about a chef who came in for a business counseling, wanting to start a sushi catering business. His name was Adam, so I emailed him to ask for his help. He had some sushi experience while working at many restaurants doing some pop-ups.

Adam helped me to find a kitchen to prep because at Hub, members were using the kitchen until 5PM and we did not have enough time to prep and set up by 6PM. There was a bar in Mission and Adam knew the owner of the bar. He did several pop-ups there and he said the owner allowed us to use the kitchen since bar does not open until 9PM. The kitchen crew did not come in till 5PM. That was great. The prep kitchen for free. Excellent. It worked out wonderfully.

On the day of the prep, I biked to Whole Foods SOMA to pick up ingredients, carried five shopping bags full of groceries out to the cab, which I called in. I asked the cab driver to go to the bar in Mission to rendezvous with Adam. We prepped for three hours. Adam was great. He knew many sushi techniques and also, western style of cooking and gave me some fresh ideas that I could adapt to my sushi.  After the prep, we packed all our food tightly in the containers, called another Cab and went to HUB on Mission and 5th Street. I had some of the equipment in the plastic storage containers, which I had to put in the cab also. The cab driver looked us rather uncomfortable, as we load all the equipment and food in the aluminum pan.

Upon arrival, Adam set up the food and I set up the tables with cutting boards, knives, and some ingredients. I did not have any aprons for people to wear, because I did not have any money to buy them. We made Tuna Temari Ball Sushi, Smoked Salmon Sushi on Cucumber, and Chirashi Sushi in a cup for people to eat before the class.

There were about 30 people there including Peter from Score, who told me, “You have a great turn out!” He seemed pleased with what I put together. Well, it was all thanks to the event manager at Hub, Calgary.

Guests were enjoying the food we made and socializing. I have to say that I wasn’t so nervous about hosting the class. I think I was more excited for what was to come.

I started out with a California Roll. I explained and showed each step thoroughly, as everyone watched me carefully, then, I told everyone to make one for themself. Spreading sushi rice on the sheet of Nori seemed the most difficult, yet, a fun part of making the roll to them. Many were saying how sticky the rice was, laughing, as they struggle with rice, sticking to their hands.

After that, I divided attendees into a group and it was time to do the Sushi Challenge, or I was calling it “Break.” The format was similar to Iron Chef TV series. I gave one fish to each group as (not so) secret ingredients to use to make sushi in thirty minutes. Because no one knew what the word “Sushi” refers to, I started by explaining what Sushi means. In the US, many people think Sushi as raw fish; however, the word sushi refers to Seasoned Rice, which says nothing about fish or raw fish. So, by definition, the sushi can be any form, shape and ingredients including fish both raw and cooked, as long as you use Sushi Rice, which is seasoned with Rice Vinegar, Sugar and Salt. After I explain this, I told the attendees to be creative and make new kind of sushi the world has never seen it before.

“This is the plate to plate your new sushi. When finished, please bring it to the front table and one person from the group must explain your sushi and the theme.”

After thirty minutes, five groups came up with such creative sushi I would never dream of. One of them made a Sushi Boat – putting sushi rice, some vegetables, and fish on a piece of red bell pepper to make it look more like a salad. The other group made pie-shaped sushi, cut into six pieces with smoked salmon and cream cheese inside, and called it “Sushi Cake.” Brilliant!

Overall, the event was a success and went almost exactly as I imagined. When I got home, I told my wife that the class was fantastic and showed here all the pictures I took during the class. It was one of the happiest moments in my life, as I always always wanted to start my own business since in my twenties and now, finally at forty-two, I knew I had something going. I knew it was the beginning of something fantastic!

Gin-san

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You may have heard of a story about the training of sushi chefs in Japan: an apprentice spends first three years doing nothing but errands and cleaning the restaurant, doing dishes, only then, he is moving onto doing rice for another year, two and three years and finally, he is allowed to touch fish, which means that, even after working for five years, you still don’t know how to make nigiri or sashimi.

To many Japanese, it’s perfectly understandable to go through such a rigorous training. Japanese see the value in hard work, devotion, and determination. To be a true master, one needs to master himself and every step in his training is important. Small things matter. 1mm of difference in a day seems nothing, yet in five years, it is 18.25cm, which is about the size of your feet. Mastering the art of sushi is an accumulation of daily practice and never ending improvement, focusing on efficiency, discipline, attention to the smallest details.

I was working at a sushi restaurant in Hollywood, CA, five days a week. I only had two years of experience as a sushi chef. I knew how to fillet basic fish like Tuna, Salmon, Hamachi after working at my first sushi restaurant on the infamous Sunset Strip. Unlike some of the Japanese sushi chefs who went through the “traditional” training in Japan, I started to practice making sushi rice one week after I started working, making rolls after one week, making nigiri and sashimi in three months, allowed to touch and fillet fish after ten months or so.

However, working with other sushi chefs who have more experience than I did, made me feel I wanted to improve my skills. I still did not know how to fillet lots of fish and I was slower than other chefs in making nigiri and sashimi.

I figured that the only way to improve my skill was to work at another sushi restaurant on my day off. I looked at classified ads on paper (it was back in 2002)  and found a place in Long Beach called Sushi of Naples (now closed). The restaurant was located on the street with many shops close to the beach. The street and the neighborhood felt like a small quiet resort town. It took me good one hour by car to get there, however, since I only had to drive down twice a week on weekends when LA traffic was light, I did not mind at all. After all, it felt like a mini vacation going there.

On my first day, I met Gin-san, who was the head sushi chef at the restaurant. He was a small but energetic person. He explained to me the set up at the sushi bar and the restaurant. The sushi bar stretched from the entrance to all the way the back side of the restaurant: about 10 yards or so.  Above the sushi bar was the second floor with more tables. Behind the sushi bar and below the second floor was their kitchen, where they made fried and cooked dishes as well. They also have some Latino chefs who made sushi for the tables. There were three to four other sushi chefs who took care of the sushi bar customers. They were all Japanese. The restaurant had about 70 seats all together.

Gin-san told me that he started his training at fifteen, becoming an apprentice at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo. He lived at the owner’s house, which was the second floor of the restaurant. He slept, worked and ate with the owner’s family and other apprentices at the restaurant. Gin-san’s story, sounded just like the ones I’ve heard before, but he was the very first sushi chef I’ve met, who went through that type of traditional training.

His day started at six in the morning. After getting up, the first thing Jin-san did was to clean up the restaurant floor, then tables in the dining area, sushi bar, bathroom and the kitchen. For the first year, his job was to take care of errands around the restaurant, delivery sushi orders, and doing dishes, cleaning, and organizing. Also doing occasional shopping and just about any small and big chores around the restaurant. The most important thing was to keep everything clean: kitchen, dining room, in front of the restaurant, outside and around the restaurant, tools, knives, uniforms: everything must be perfectly clean. Because he was so busy doing chores, he had no time to practice sushi. (Well, even if he had time, he was not allowed.)

Why would you become a sushi apprentice only to do cleaning and small chores, as if you are a forced labor, a non-Japanese person may think. Traditionally, Japanese value discipline and devotion. One way to find out how much commitment a person has is to let him go through rigorous training and small chores, which, on the surface, seem to have nothing to do with the real training.  However, fundamentally, all those “small” things will strengthen and train one’s discipline, which ultimately shapes the course of one’s career. Discipline will help to build a solid foundation for lifelong training. If you are unable to take care of small things, how could you take care of big things? The way you do one thing is the way you do everything in life.

Go’s Mart

 

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Photo by Paul L. yelp

 

I was working at Yoshida Sushi in Hollywood and my coworker, Koo told me about this sushi bar. Koo was younger than I was and had more sushi experience. The sushi chef was his part-time gig and way to earn some money, working only two nights a week. His really passion was music. Ko was a guitarist and had his own band. Koo started his sushi training in Japan, working in Tokyo as an apprentice, so he knew more about the traditional sushi techniques than I did.

Koo is the one who told me about Go’s Mart, while all the sushi chefs at the bar were talking about a newly opened restaurant in Hollywood. Quite often, we gossiped about other restaurants and other sushi chefs to find out what others were doing, keeping up with the trends, special menus, type of fish other chefs were ordering and so on. After all, it was the time before Facebook, Twitter, and all the other social medias: the year was 2002.

“Go-san is great. It’s a tiny place – only four seats at the sushi bar and a couple of tables. It’s my favorite place in the whole of LA. I think it’s the best Sushi bar in town and the best-kept secret. Not very many people know about it, even the sushi chefs. Only those who love sushi go there. In fact, it’s not really a sushi restaurant. It’s a fish market with tables. That’s how Go-san started. Nothing fancy. If you see it from the outside, you will not think it’s a sushi restaurant. Everything Go-san makes is fantastic. Oh, I want to go there again. Go-san is very nice, too. He is gentle and friendly. You should make a reservation. He will treat you good.”

I immediately called Go’s Mart and made a reservation. I decided to go there on Sunday with my friend Kai, who was also a sushi chef. We knew Sunday was not exactly the best day to go sushi restaurant because all the fish suppliers were closed on Sundays.

Knowing this, we decided to go to Go’s Mart anyway, because, for one, we believed in Koo and secondary, if Go-san could serve us great sushi even on Sunday evening, it meant that his sushi would be even better on regular nights.

I looked at the address of Go’s Mart: 22330 Sherman Way, Canoga Park, CA 91303.

Canoga Park?

I needed to check on my Thomas Guide – a map of greater Los Angeles area owned by virtually every single resident of the city. Everyone kept at least one copy in their car. (of course, there were no Google map and smartphones back then.)

We drove about an hour from Hollywood to Canoga Park. I was living in Santa Monica at that time and unless I had some business to do, (which I did not), Canoga Park was not a place for me to go: there was nothing there (for me).

As a matter of fact, as long as I could remember, I’ve never been to Canoga Park since I moved to LA ten years ago.

Canoga Park is a suburb of Los Angeles with lots of corner shopping malls and suburban houses, which is exactly where Go’s Mart sits – the end of a corner shopping mall with a big plastic sign.

Nothing stylish. Nothing extraordinary. If we did not know about it, we would never put our foot inside.

How could we have known?

The best sushi place in Canoga Park?

Not in Beverly Hills like Urasawa?

We parked right in front of Go’s Mart and walked in through the front door. The inside of the store had a small refrigerator with some fish and the sushi counter with bar stools: only four of them. And there were two tables with two chairs each.

It was like walking into a mom and pop ice cream parlor in a small town, somewhere in Iowa, perhaps.

Then, behind the sushi bar was tall skinny Japanese man with short hair and stiff, rigid looking face.

We figured it was Go-san. As Koo mentioned to me, Go-san did not like friendly, at least, at first sight.

“Umm, we made a reservation, for two people, under Kaz, ” I said to the man.

“Oh, yes, are you Kaz-san? We were expecting you. Here, please have a seat.”

“Thank you.”

We sat at the bar. Even though we knew the place was nothing fancy, we were bit anxious because we never been to a place like this before, and have great sushi. I think we were anxious because we knew it was going to be a great surprise.

“Omakase, please.”

“OK,” Go-san said.

“Anything you cannot eat, don’t like?”

“We eat everything,” I said.

“I understand. Thank you,” Go-san said.

“I work with Koo, the sushi chef. He told us about you, and that’s why we came here today.”

“Koo?” Go-san thought it for a second.

“He has very long hair, plays guitar,” I added.

Oh, yes, the sushi chef. Koo. I remember now. He’s been here a couple of times. You work with him, huh? Well, today’s Sunday, so we are a bit short of fish, you know. If you came on Tuesday, it would have been better, but, oh well, I’m sure you knew that, right?”

“Yes, when Koo told me about you, we couldn’t wait. We’ll come on Tuesday the next time. Today was the only day we could come. We are both off today. We wanted to come here as soon as possible,” I said to Go-san.

“I see. It’s not a problem,” Go-san smiled.

I think that was the first time I saw Go-san smile since we walked into his restaurant/fish market. I felt relieved to see him smile. I suppose I was nervous because Go-san had an intense look when we walked in.

We ordered a bottle of Sapporo and started drinking.

“Here is an appetizer – Nasu Dengaku – baked Japanese eggplant with some sweet miso. It should go well with your beer.”

“Thank you.”

The eggplant was sweet and moist, just off the oven. It was matching perfectly with the sweet miso paste.

“This is delicious,” I said. “What kind of Eggplant is this?”

It was round like a small ball.

“It’s Kamo Nasu or Kyoto Eggplant,” Go-san explained.

A good sushi chef can make a good sashimi or nigiri. One of the signs of a great sushi chef is a cooked dish he/she makes.

Tamago, egg custard is one of them.

In the movie, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” then apprentice Daisuke Nakazawa said that he practiced making Tamago for ten years until Jiro said “OK.”

We immediately knew, judging from the taste of the eggplant, Go-san’s sushi would be superb.

Using his Yanagi-ba sashimi knife, Go-san made two slices of white fish from the fish refrigerator case. He picked up one piece of the fish in his right hand, and then grabbed a small amount of sushi rice with his left hand.

He moved slowly and squeezed the fish and rice together, gently and firmly, which was totally different from our style of making sushi. Kai and I worked at a bigger Rock ‘n” Roll Sushi Restaurant, so we were used to making sushi fast.

“Here is Hirame.”

We noticed it looked slightly different from the Hirame we make. We were used to serving it with Momiji•Oroshi – Grated Daikon Radish with hot red peppers, and ponzu sauce.

“What’s this red topping?”

“It’s Goji Berry.”

“Goji Berry?”

“Yes, try it. It goes well with white fish.”

I never thought of using goji berry for nigiri. Sure, Go-san was right. It was brilliant.

“Here is Toro.”

Again, Go-san’s Toro looked different from the ones we used to see.

“This Toro is fantastic. Where is this from?”

“It’s from Spain. These are farm raised.”

“I did not know they could farm raise bluefin tuna?”

“Well, it’s kind of farm raised. They catch the adult bluefin and surround them in an inside of a large fishing net in the ocean. Then, they feed the tuna and let them grow until they are nice and fatty. So, it’s half farm raised, not 100% farm raised yet.”

(Note: In 2015, Kinki University in Japan announced that they have succeeded in farm raising bluefin tuna until then, it was considered impossible to farm raise bluefin.)

“Everything is fantastic,” I said.

“Thank you.”

We had some Kohada, Saba, and Uni. It was nothing like we’ve tasted before.

In fact, it was by far the best sushi I’ve ever eaten.

One of the most striking differences about Go-san’s sushi was a wide variety of toppings he used: Goji Berry, Gold Leaf, and Yuzu Peel. His finishing touches, as small as they may seem, were what distinguished his sushi from others and made our dining experience more than just fish on top of vinegar rice.

It was mesmerizing to watch Go-san making his nigiri – very calm, yet energetic as if he was putting all the energy into one tiny piece of nigiri.

He made sure he took enough time, which was the opposite of what we were used to. All the sushi chefs I worked with considered being “fast handed” as one of the skills of being a great sushi chef.

Apparently, Go-san had his own philosophy of being a sushi chef.

One squeeze at a time, Go-san looked as if he was making a perfect Origami Paper Crane.

He was, very meticulous in a good calming way.

After the very satisfying sushi dinner, we could not wonder why an exceptional Sushi chef like Go-san would have a restaurant in a remote place like Canoga Park. We thought he could have much bigger, a nicer restaurant in LA and it he would certainly do well, not to say he is doing badly in Canoga Park or anything.

I guess everyone has his own place in the universe.