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

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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.

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.

Caucasian Sushi chef

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During the late 80s to the 90s, The Sunset Strip was the place to party in Los Angeles. There were famous upscale Roxy club, The Whisky and The Viper room – the infamous rock ‘n roll joint where River Phoenix died. When I started working at Rock ‘n Hollywood Sushi, there was still The Whisky, Sunset Trocadero Lounge, Rainbow Bar & Grill, and then some newcomers like House of Blues and Saddle Ranch Chop House, for the Urban Cowboy wannabes. What used to The Roxy was now a big Japanese restaurant called Miyagi’s.

One and the only Caucasian chef, Tom, was working couple times a week at the sushi bar. None of us liked Tom because he was not really a sushi chef and did not understand the Japanese working ethics. I despised him because he did not seem to care about the craft. He just wanted to make some extra cash to support his dance career. I knew how hard it was to make a living as a professional dancer because I met so many dancers at College I attended. It was a small private art college called California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, just thirty miles north of Los Angeles. The school is one of the few schools in the United States that offers dance program. I had met some dance majors while at CalArts, and they told me how hard it would take a miracle to get a job as a dancer. They said that most of the jobs are for music videos, concert tours and shows in New York City or Las Vegas. There really is not such thing as Full-time dance jobs out there. So, they spent most of their time doing some part-time job, or some odd jobs so that they can do go auditions for a chance to get a one time gig.

Tom told us that he used to work at Miyagi’s.

“Oh, the sushi there is really terrible. But, girls are really pretty. On weekends, the place is packed and full of gorgeous looking girls dancing and ordering at the sushi bar.”

We did get occasional nice looking girls at Rock ‘n Hollywood Sushi, but what Tom told us, sounded better work environment for a single male sushi chef like us, however, if you were a serious about your craft, which all of us were, working at Miyagi’s did not sound so attractive.

According to Tom, Miyagi’s had several sushi bars and some were round shaped, like a huge donut. Each station can hold one or several sushi chefs and people would come and order there. Because each of three floors had sushi bars, it sounded like a nightmare just to keep track of all the fish inventories.

“Are there any Japanese chefs at Miyagi’s?” Toshi asked.

“No, all American chefs.”

We have no idea where Tom picked up the sushi chef skills. He was hired by Saito-san and Toshi objected first, but the owner said it’s good to have a diversity with a Caucasian chef behind the sushi bar was a plus, giving a good impression, welcoming novice customers. In other words, the owner wanted to attract amateurs.

Aside from Tom’s (lack of) skill as a sushi chef, Tom was, at a minimum, friendly and talkative to the customers at the bar. When all Japanese chefs, in some ways looked down on customers who only ordered rolls, Tom took good care of patrons who only knew about inside-out American rolls, because, that was what he knew how to make. Tom also knew that inside-out roll eaters loved Sauces – Spicy Mayo Sauce, Sweet Teriyaki sauces and lots of colorful decorations with colored fish eggs sprinkled over the Tempura fried roll. The sauce was the big hit with many of Tom’s customers, and they all said, “This is Soooo Good!”

One of the specials Tom came up, or we thought he saw someone else make at a restaurant he worked before, was Forest Fire – Spicy Tuna on Top and Albacore inside, with some Ponzu and Scallions. Saito-san decided to put that on the menu and it was an instant success. We figured it was the naming. A Japanese sushi chef would never come up with a name like Forest Fire for a special roll, yet, Tome, because he was a native English speaker and Caucasian, he knew what many Caucasian customers would be attracted to. I have to admit that I did learn something from Tom, though, I disliked him.

All of us realized that; we should at least acknowledge Tom’s talent in some ways. Still, his lack of personal hygiene like showing up unshaved, dirty uniform, messy work stations, not knowing how to prep, nor make nigiri properly was a disadvantage and again, most importantly, lack of enthusiasm and motivation we felt did not help.

At MIyagi’s, Tom told us that, they could hold two hundred, three hundred customers easily. We could seat seventy customers at the most, which sounded so small compared to Miyagi’s.

When Rock ‘n Hollywood Sushi started, it was the first Japanese restaurants on the Sunset Strip at the time and also, one of the first rock ‘n roll sushi bars in LA after the famous California Beach in Hermosa Beach.

California Roll

 

photo by Albert Law : www.porkbellystudio.com
Photo by Albert Law, Porkbelly Studios

 

After one week of standing behind the sushi bar and watching Toshi, Kai, and Jun, I was told that I could start learning how to make rolls. By then, I thought I looked at enough to know how to make a roll, only to realize doing was different from watching.

Here is what you do, Toshi started to explain.

“Put nori on the cutting board, inside facing up,” as Toshi reached one sheet of dried black seaweed from a tin can, sitting on top of the sushi refrigerator case.

“Nori has inside which is rough and dull surface, and outside is smooth and shiny. Can you see the difference?” Toshi showed me the nori, and I looked at it, but unable to tell the difference.

“Why won’t you touch is and feel?”

I touched the both sides and this time could fee the difference: one side was smooth and the other, rough.

“Place your nori, rough side up. Rice always goes on the rough side no matter what. Always. California Roll is Uramaki, inside out roll.”

Many of the Inside Out Rolls we see in the US and many parts of the world except Japan are American inventions.

As to who invented the original California Roll, one of the most popular stories goes to Ichiro Mashita of Tokyo Kaikan in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, circa 1970.

It is said that Mr. Mashita substituted avocado in place of Toro for its rich oily flavor. When asked by one of his regulars, he made sushi for Caucasians. At that time, most Americans never heard of sushi, let alone eat raw fish. So, Mr. Mashita thought of Avocado for its low cost and never ending abundant year supply. Traditional Japanese roll is seaweed out and Americans disliked the taste of chewing and texture of nori, which led to the invention of “Uramaki,” Inside Out Roll.

The second story of who invented California Roll came out in 2012. According to The Globe and Mail, a Japanese Sushi Chef, living in Canada named Hidekazu Tojo claimed he is the inventor of California Roll.

According to Mr. Tojo, he thought of using crab for sushi because fresh fish suitable for sushi was unavailable in Vancouver when he arrived in 1971.

Also, most Westerners disliked eating seaweed, so, he made Inside Out Roll to hide the flavor. Though against the Japanese tradition of nori out roll, many of his customers liked it.

Many of Mr. Tojo’s customers were from Los Angeles. They loved his crab and avocado roll, hence the name California Roll.

California Roll Factory

california-roll-factory

(Photo by Bobby A, from yelp)

Back in the 90’s, I became friends with some flight attendants from Japan Airlines through a mutual friend. Every time they were on a flight from Tokyo to Los Angeles; they stayed for three days and their first two days were off days. So, one time, I took them to Crazy Fish for the taste of American Style Sushi. I was unsure how they would think about American-style sushi, but they said they liked the Caterpillar and Spider Roll. One of the Japanese Chefs, seeing four young attractive Japanese female sitting in front of them, suddenly started to talk to them and hit on them. “No, no, it’s not like that. Let’s meet tomorrow and go to the beach and just hang out.” I knew what he was doing and so did everyone else. They politely declined his offer. They did say they enjoyed the sushi and it sure was their first time eating that kind of sushi.

A few years later, I found a new sushi restaurant opened up in Santa Monica Called Creative Sushi. I went there with friends of mine and saw their menu and immediately saw the similarity with Crazy Fish. I ordered Spider, Caterpillar Shrimp Tempura roll. They tasted different from Crazy Fish. Something was missing, and I could not figure out what it was. It was good, and I liked Crazy Fish better.

About the same time, when I found Creative Sushi, I found another sushi place that had a very similar menu as Crazy Fish. A friend of mine told me about this place, so I decided to take a visit. It was on Santa Monica Blvd. in West Los Angles. Like crazy fish, not exactly a place for a sushi restaurant, but then, so is Crazy Fish. It had a bright yellow sign saying “California Roll Factory.”

I walked in by myself and sat at the bar seat. When I saw the chef who greeted me and immediately, I recognized his face. However, I was unable to remember where I knew him from. A moment passed and realized he was the chef at Crazy fish. He was standing right next to the chef who started to hit on my JAL flight attendant friends. He was smiling and did not seem that surprised.

“I remember you from Crazy Fish, ” I said to him.

“Oh, yes. I remember you too. That was the night that my co-worker went “crazy.”

“Crazy indeed.”

“I am sorry about that.”

“It was not a problem. Besides, it wasn’t your fault. I think it was amusing and rather entertaining to watch. I think my friends enjoyed it as a matter of fact. They thought it was funny.”

“He acts like that sometimes. Please, have a seat at the bar.”

I took a bar seat right in front of him and ordered a beer.

“I would like to order something. It looks like you have lots of rolls…”

Right above the sushi bar, behind him was a big whiteboard, filled with names and description of the rolls. Walls are filled with menus with illustrations. At glance, I had no idea which was what. It was overwhelming.

“Yes, I quite Crazy Fish and opened this place a few months ago. Many rolls are from Crazy Fish, and I keep adding new ones with unusual names. They are catchy. As long as they catch the attention of the customers, that is good.”

“I see. I will take whatever you recommend.”

“Ok. No problem.”

His name was Kaz, just like mine. He created several different rolls for they and me all tasted good. It almost tasted as good as the one at Crazy Fish, but again, something was different.

“Every night, it’s kind of heartbreaking. I worry if customers would come and we’ll make enough money to keep it open. It’s different being an owner and running a restaurant. I have to worry about money and make sushi.”

I was just listening to him, and a thought of working at this restaurant came to mind. My working visa was soon to be expired, and I needed to extend or get a new one. Someone told me that if you were a sushi chef, it was easier to get a visa, so, I thought, maybe work here and get my visa and work somewhere else.

But then, I said to myself I did not want to be a sushi chef and work in a restaurant.

Kaz continued his talk.

“Also, I need to teach kitchen staff how to cook Japanese food. Most of them are from Mexico and they know nothing about Japanese food.”

“That must be tough.”

I was hearing the entire story about how challenging it is to run a small business and being a sushi chef. I never knew that a few years after this conversation, I would become a sushi chef and then, start my own sushi class business later on.