Tamago Yaki

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I watched Toshi made Tamago Yaki at Rock ‘n Hollywood Sushi for over a year and a half, yet in the end, he never taught me how to make one. I felt that Toshi taught me how to fillet fish only because the owner told him to teach me how, but not Tamago. He just did not want to teach it to me, or maybe, he thought I was not ready? Either way, the owner never suggested Toshi to teach me how. As it was the case for filleting fish, I felt I was ready to learn. I was eager. Every time Toshi made it, I wanted to try. His Tamago came out really good – fluffy, juicy with dashi, golden yellow in color, not burnt and had great texture, aroma of a freshly cooked sweet egg. I never learned the recipe from Toshi either.

It is said that a true test of a great sushi restaurant is Tamago, so you should order it at the beginning, to find out how it tastes

. The long time ago before I became a sushi chef, I heard that Tamago Yaki is a good test to determine the skill of a sushi chef. Maybe it was my Mom who told me that or I read on somewhere, I don’t remember now. It sounded strange at first because, why would you want to measure sushi chef’s skill with not fish, but with cooked egg?

One explanation I came to learn is that fish was given and that is what sushi chefs learn first. Cleaning, cutting vegetables and then comes rice. You do that for three to five years and then, you move onto fish and after basic fish, you get to make Tamago. So, being able to make good Tamago translates that you’ve been a sushi chef for a while.

Basically, there are two styles of Tamago Yaki at Sushi restaurant in Japan. The first kind is similar to the ones Japanese mothers make at home: egg, sugar, salt and dash of soy sauce. Tamago Yaki is one of the most popular items for Bento Box Lunch. Everyone in Japan, one time or the other, has enjoyed homemade juicy egg custard for the Bento lunch. Tamago Yaki, Egg Custard is slightly different from the one served at Sushi Restaurants. They are called Dashi Maki. Dashi is the traditional stock made from Wakame and Bonito Flakes. The recipe calls for about 1/3 sometimes almost 1/2 the amount of egg mix, which makes it very juicy and at the same time, harder to make. The reason it’s called Maki (to roll) is because of how it’s made. Dashi Maki uses a special rectangular pan made of copper used only to make Tamago. Here is how the cooking procedure works. You pour some egg and dashi mix onto the pan, let is sit for a while until it starts to harden half way, then, you fold the egg about two to three times to form a “roll.” Then, you pour the egg mix again, this time, to make sure it goes beneath the previously rolled half harden egg. Wait for the egg mix to harden, and then roll it again. Repeat until it becomes a desirable thickness.

One day, Toru came up to me and asked how I was doing.

“Hey Kaz, how are things going for you? It’s been about three months since we reopened. You’ve been working really hard and we like working with you. You are a great worker. You get along with everyone, and you are eager to improve.”

“Thank you, Toru-san. I think I am doing OK. I’ve learned a lot since I came here and it’s been really exciting. Half of the fish we use, I did not know how to fillet it before I started working here, all thanks to You and Ko. Ko knows a lot and is a great sushi chef. I like working with him also. He is very nice to me, teaching me a lot.”

“That’s good. I was thinking if you’ve ever made Dashi Maki before?”

“No, I have not. At Rock ‘n Hollywood Sushi, the head chef made it and I never got a chance to make it.”

“OK. I think it’s time you should start making one.”

“Really? I heard it’s tough. I always wanted to make one. I wish they had taught me before I came here. I watched it and could never figure it out. Is it an OK for me to learn? I’d love it if I could do.” Although I was eager, I was nervous at the same time.

“Sure, I think you should. It’s OK. You need to practice it every day for a while. In the beginning, you are going to make lots of mistakes. You will burn the eggs; you will not be able to roll up well. But, that’s OK. So, we will eat your mistake as Makanai every night. That’s not a problem. I am sure everyone will enjoy your mistake and gladly eat it”

“Great, but I am bit nervous.”

“You’ll be just fine,” Toru assured me.

So, my Dashi Maki training got started the following day.

I finished the basic prep, rice, vegetables, and fish, so I went into the back kitchen to ask Toru to start teaching me the egg custard.

“Ok. I am going to show you how to make the egg mix. You need to put together ten eggs, sugar, salt and a small amount of soy sauce and add dashi in a bowl. Soy sauce is for the flavor, not for the taste. Here, we make the dashi already for you. Dashi needs to be cold because if it’s hot, it will harden the eggs. You don’t want that. Use the chopsticks to mix it. Mix it slowly to avoid too much air getting into the mixture. Too much air in the egg makes holes when cooked, so you need to mix it gently but thoroughly. That’s tricky. After you finished mixing, you want to strain it to remove the egg whites so that cooked egg will only have the yellow part.”

Like Toru said, mixing the egg was not so difficult, but tricky.

“When you finish making the egg mix, put the pan on the stove, over medium heat. Fill the pan with oil, about half way. The oil will help to heat up the pan evenly. After a minute or two, drain the oil into the container. The pan goes back to the stove and keeps heating up.”

“The most difficult part is the heat control: Not too hot, not too cold. You want to cook it quickly without burning the egg. A trained chef can do it in less than five minutes. That’s how long you should aim for, when making Dashi Maki. You also want to heat up the pan evenly, so move around the pan side to side and up and down to make sure the pan stays hot consistently. Dip your chopstick in the egg mix and run the tips of the chopsticks on the surface of the pan. As you run the chopsticks, the egg should cook right away, and that is the sign the pan is ready.”

Then, Toru started to pour a small amount of egg mix into the pan. Immediately, the egg mix began to harden, but there was some half hardened mix on top.

“Speed and heat control. That’s the key. The faster the better, but when you have too much heat, you will burn your egg. The egg needs to be without burns and fluffy, texture, no brown, golden yellow. Now, you try it.”

“OK.”

When I tried it the first time, my egg got burnt on the first layer; the second layer came out all mushed up like scrambled egg. I was unable to flip the egg. It’s the same motion a chef would make when he tosses the contents of a flying pan in the air using just one arm.

“You only need to use your wrist, not the whole arm. Just quickly flex your wrist and you should be able to roll your egg,” Toru said.

I flipped the pan using only my wrist. The egg did not flip, just stayed on the pan. I tried it again, this time, with more force. The egg flipped kind of half way and it became a lump, instead of a nicely rolled sheet of cooked egg. Also, by the time I rolled the egg, the back side got slightly burnt, becoming brownish. I tried to turn down the heat and Toru-san said, “No, keep the heat. You need to practice with high heat. Lowering the heat is not the way to do it. If you need, you can remove the pan away from the heat, or raise it up to control the temperature of the pan and not the heat itself.”

“OK,” I said.

My first Tamago Yaki came out, nor “rolled” up and was a bulky lump sum of sad looking scrambled egg: Not juicy, fluffy nor had a nice texture. I felt awful. It tasted like tamago and was good enough for employee meal.

I practiced it every day for the next thirty days and finally, Toru said my tamago started to look, something servable.

I continued to practice for the next month or so and was able to serve my tamago in a couple of months. Since then, I’ve been practicing making it and I am glad I have a chance to learn to make it, because, it really is hard to make a good tamago.

I now understand why ordering Tamago at a sushi restaurant is a good test to find out the skill of a sushi chef: good tamago means the chef has spent a good amount of time practicing a variety of sushi techniques through several years of training. The tamago is a proof of that and his devotion and discipline in addition to the skill and to most Japanese, commitment and discipline come first and more important than the skill itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Second Day Prep

 

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Photo by Brian Allison

 

It was ten in the morning in Santa Monica, CA.

“We still can make it to 10:45 Yoga class,” my ex-girlfriend said, looking me down, sleeping on yoga mat on her floor.

“No thanks. I am going to rest until the time I am going to leave for work.”

Since I just returned from Tokyo and did not have a place to stay, I was staying at my ex-girlfriend’s apartment and that was why I was sleeping on the floor. I got up and immediately felt tired. My back hurts from being on my feet for fourteen hours for the first time in my life. Not only my back, but also my feet hurts as well. In fact, every part of my body felt tired. I tried to stand up from the floor and almost fell. I immediately put my arms to hold my body so I could get up, move my body off the yoga mat.  My body did not corporate with me. Thank god I still have five hours before I get ready to go to work. The sun was getting brighter and brighter. Around two in the afternoon, I got into my car and started to drive toward the Sunset Strip. When I parked my car in the back parking lot, I saw Jun’s car. I walked up the lamp to the back stairs and entered the restaurant from the back employee entrance into the kitchen. Inside of the kitchen felt warm, and there was an unpleasant smell of food.

“Ohayo Gozaimasu,” I said to Jun.

“Ohayo Gozaimasu,” Jun replied.

I grabbed my uniform and walked upstairs to change. Jun told me to place the fish in the Sushi neta case, so I walked to the front of the restaurant to the sushi bar and turned the refrigerator on. Just like yesterday, the Southern California Sun hit directly through the window, and the inside of the dining room was hot and musty. I opened the window to let the fresh air in.

The sushi bar and the dining room had old carpet and smelled like soy sauce. It must have been several years since they put that carpet in. I am sure many customers have spilled their Soy Sauce, Sake and Beer on the carpet.

Just like yesterday, I put down the long cutting board first and took out the white towels that were soaked overnight in soap and bleach. I took the bucket in the back kitchen, washed all the towels and took them back to the sushi bar for everyone to use. I forgot to grab the white tray for the fish neta case. They have holes to let the water drip through. I noticed that they are also perfectly sized for the neta case. I walked to the back kitchen and looked at the plate in the dishwashing area. I grabbed all of them and walked back to the sushi bar, still feeling fatigued from last night. After laying the plates, I quickly placed the plastic doors for the neta case to seal the cold air coming out from the compressor. It was really hot inside of the restaurant, so it was important to make sure the inside of the case was cold enough before you start to lay out the fish. I remembered to place old fish to the left side, but I could not remember the order of the fish. I stopped my hand and tried to remember it for a minute or two and when I figured I could not remember at all, I decided to ask Jun. I grabbed a piece of paper and pencil and asked Jun to tell me the order of the fish. “From left, Taco, Hirame, Tai, Ebi, Salmon, Hamachi and Maguro,” Jun told me. This time, I remembered to write it down. I thanked him and quickly went back to the sushi bar to lay out the fish.

“What should I do next?”

“We can do Katsura•Muki.”

“Again? We did some yesterday.”

“We need more cucumbers.”

At Rock and Hollywood Sushi, we put Julienned Cucumber in almost all the rolls, so we went through a lot of Cucumbers every evening. Because running out of Cucumbers were not an option during a busy evening, we made sure to have extra Cucumbers.

Jun brought six to seven European Cucumbers from the walk-in and started to peel the plastic off. Just like yesterday, I picked one of them the began to slide my knife up and down, us I rotate the cucumber on my left hand. I felt it was slightly easier than the day before, feeling more comfortable with the Sashimi Knife. I was really careful not to cut my finger this time.

I did not know anything about Sashimi Knife, let alone about Chef Knife until I became a sushi chef. Many people think there is Sushi Knife, and the fact is there is no such thing as Sushi Knife, only Sashimi Knife called Yanagi•Ba, a Willow Blade Knife. The name comes from its distinctive long and narrow shaped blade. The most popular length for Yanagi is around 270mm to 300mm. The reason for its length is so that you can slice sashimi with one stroke and to have a straight and flat surface on a piece of fish. That way, it maximizes the contact surface of the fish to the tongue for the maximum taste. The other unique feature of Yanagi is it is single beveled, while Western Knives are double beveled. If you look at a Yanagi•Ba from the front, one side is flat, and the other side is angled. Having one flat surface helps to do Katsura Muki. There is a Japanese knife called Nakiri (Vegetable slicing) Knife, which is perfect to do Katsura Muki. Most sushi chefs in Japan would have it and use it, but I did not have my own knife yet.

The most important part of doing Katsura Muki seemed like keeping the same thickness top and the bottom. It was easy to tilt the knife unintentionally, and before I knew, I was getting not flat, but angled sheet of cucumber, which made cutting matchstick more difficult.

At four, Toshi arrived to start his shift.

“Ohayo Gozaimasu,” Jun and I said to Toshi.

“Ohayo Gozaimasu,” Toshi replied.

“Are you still working on the cucumbers?”

“Yes, sorry,” Jun said before I said anything to Toshi.

After Toshi had gone to the back kitchen, Jun told me that we had to make some Tsuma, a thinly shredded Daikon Radish Garnish for Sashimi. We used Ben•Rina, a Japanese mandarin slicer.
“You need to be really careful using this. So many times, I’ve cut my fingers, and when you do, it takes a long time to heal because you lose part of your skin.”

I peeled off the skin on Daikon, cut it into three inches in length, and started to slide on the Mandarin, hoping yet again, not to cut my fingers.

Makanai – Thai Food

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Employee meal is a great challenge for a chef, especially when you are starting your training. If you were working at a restaurant in Japan, each employee would take turns to make Makanai. The challenge is to use what’s available, use something you normally throw away like stems from vegetables and use cheaper ingredients and make something that satisfies the taste of all other professional chef co-workers.

At Rock ‘n Hollywood Sushi, the owner Saito told me that I could use anything in the walk-in refrigerator except fish and expensive ingredients. I was thrilled. I could make virtually anything I wanted, unlike, if I were working at a restaurant in Japan. Cooking maknai sounded like a great training program, yet, how they did in Japan, sounded like a lot of pressure and I never enjoyed that type of pressure anyway. I felt so luck to have such a freedom in making Makanai than many chefs at other restaurants, though, I never knew what they did at other restaurants

During the first week or so, I made what was on their menu – tempura dinner, teriyaki chicken dinner, teriyaki beef dinner, udon noodles, yakisoba noodles, even okonomiyaki, the Japanese pancake. After I got used to making what was on the menu, I started to make extra for other sushi chefs. I even made some extra for kitchen chefs like Pedro but not for waitresses because they came in around five o’clock and we thought, if they wanted to eat something, they could eat at home before the start of their shift, or they could order something from the menu. Both sushi chefs and kitchen chefs was working at least two to three hours before they came in, so that was how we saw it.

After making just about all the combo dinner meals on the menu, I got tired of making it and eating it and so did the other chefs. I thought what I wanted to eat, what I wanted to cook, what cuisine I wanted to try cooking. I automatically thought I had to make something from the menu but because the owner said I could use anything in the fridge. When I asked myself which cuisine I wanted to learn, then the answer came to my mind. Thai food!

I’ve been to Thailand a couple of times, and I loved it there. The food was excellent and enjoyed street food like noodles, curries red, yellow, green, Panang just about everything I tried tremendously. I especially remember the crab curry I had in Patong Beach, south of Bangkok, a famous beach resort. I could still remember the fresh Papaya Salad I had at a shopping mall in Bangkok. After the first bite, I was sweating with tears in my eyes because the salad was filled with Thai “Hot” chili peppers called Prik Nu, known as one of the hottest chili peppers in the world. Later I learned that being able to eat Papaya salad was used as a test to see if a boy becomes a man in Thailand- to stand the heat of Thai chilies. No wonder it was hot. Everyone in the food court was watching me, laughing at me (or more like being amused) crying yet still eating and enjoying the salad. Or, perhaps, they did not think I was enjoying it because I was crying.

Rainbow Roll

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What makes rainbow roll harder than regular rolls like California is that a chef needs to slice a few pieces of fish before start making the roll.

Rainbow roll, like Caterpillar Roll is one of so-called Special Rolls. It’s special because it has double layers of fish: both inside and outside.

A California Roll must have both crab and avocado, while, there is not set rule as to which fish a Rainbow Roll needs to have to be called Rainbow.

For one, the inside of a rainbow can be anything, as long as the outside is colorful. The two standards, as far as the inside goes, are California and Spicy Tuna.

No one seems to know who invented the Rainbow Roll, and I am guessing one the reason for inventing the Rainbow was to use unwanted slices of fish.

Unwanted, not meaning, not fresh nor gone bad fish: when we slice blocks of saku fish, there always will be some end pieces which we will not be able to use for nigiri or sashimi.

One way to utilize those pieces are to mix into spicy tuna or put several pieces together and make a “special roll” and call it something like “Everything roll.”

Because everything roll could have multiple fish – tuna, salmon, hamachi, Hirame -all in one roll, it could become a nice roll.

In fact, I’ve made a roll like that and all of the customers loved it – especially when I told them that it had virtually all the fish we had at the sushi bar.

Perhaps, someone thought of a creative way to utilize those end pieces and made a Rainbow Roll instead.

At Rock and Hollywood Sushi, a standard rainbow roll had tuna, white fish, salmon, shrimp and avocados on top. The inside can be either California or Spicy Tuna and it was up to the customers to choose.

Back then, Tuna was expensive and so was Hamachi. Hamachi was farm raised and air shipped from Japan. Salmon was extremely inexpensive, going for less than $5/lbs.

So we put just one piece of tuna for color and used white fish and salmon. Adding more pieces of avocado was also welcomed to save the food cost.

“First, you cut the fish. One piece of tuna, two pieces of white fish, two salmon and shrimp,” Toshi explained to me.

Until then, I never made sashimi or sliced raw fish for a roll or nigiri, so I was anxious and nervous at the same time.

“You pull your knife backward when slicing the fish and never to press down the knife too hard. When you apply too much pressure, you will break the soft flesh of the fish and its tissue.”

The flavor of the raw fish, is stored in the tissue in the from of liquid, or more precisely, an amino acid. When you break the tissues, it will release the delicate flavor. To minimize the loss of umami, a sushi chef must develop a superb slicing skill.

“You also need to do is gentle with as little force as possible. You see that we tend to use more force when we have difficulty slicing, but that’s the opposite of what we should be doing. What we need to do is to let the knife “run” – use the weight and sharpness of the knife and slide through the fish, applying just a small amount of pressure. Let the knife do the work. The harder you try, more damage you will make to the fish.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Cooking Rice

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On my third day, I started doing sushi rice, at least, washing rice and cooking part of it. Jun told me so.

The rice cooker at Rock’n Hollywood Sushi was a 55-cup gas rice cooker, and it was the biggest rice cooker I’ve ever used. Though it was the largest rice cooker, at least washing and rinsing rice were the same processes that I’ve been used to, so it was not such a big problem.

There were few things I need to be careful of, like rinsing it thoroughly, using plenty of water, paying more attention measuring the rice and water.

In olden days, Japanese had to rinse and wash rice more vigorously to remove the polished starch and debris like sand from the rice. Thanks to the advanced machine polishing technology, these days, all you need to do is to run water through rice, a couple of times, as you rub rice gently with your hands in strainer.

“Once washed, soak the rice, add water and let it sit for fifteen to thirty minutes before you hit cook button on a rice cooker,” Jun said.

Soaking rice in water before cooking helps to bring our more flavors out of rice. It also reduces the cooking time of the rice. According to Sage Food.com, “It takes about 15 minutes in boiling water to get water and heat to the center of the kernel. So the outside of the kernel has been cooked for 15 minutes while the center has been cooked only a minute or so. The more the outside of the kernel cooks, the most starch leaches out and the mushier it gets. Soaking white rice for about an hour before cooking allows moisture to get to the center of the kernel. During cooking, the heat will transfer quicker to the center, and the rice will be done in six to eight minutes causing less damage to the outside of the kernel.”*

After soaking rice in water, you can hit “cook” on the rice cooker. Rice cooker is the easiest way to cook rice because cooking rice is a science and cooking it in a pot, requires a lot of guesswork and experience. The most difficult part of cooking rice is how much water to use and how long to cook. A perfectly cooked rice contains moisture between 58%~64% and that is what you are aiming for.

In the end, what matters the most is how much water you lose during cooking, rather than how much water you need to cook. The amount of water you will lose will depend on the container you use (i.e. pot with a lid, without a lid, rice cooker, etc.). It is impossible for the person who is writing a recipe to predict how much water you will. This is why the online recipes will never work.

Also, how much you water to start at the beginning does affect the final result. Soaking rice in water before cooking changes the moisture percentage in rice as well. This is why cooking rice is science, and most of the inexperienced cooks having difficulty cooking “perfect rice” with perfect moisture content.

I’ve been eating rice and cooking rice using pot all my life, so I am used to guessing how much water to use for a particular cooking container. Even then, I need some adjustment based on the type of rice, when and where the rice was harvested.

This is why they say in Japan: “Rice making three years for sushi apprentice.”

 

(* from sagevfoods.com)

 

Emma

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Photo by Yarat

Around 4:30 PM, the first waitress came in to start her shift.

”Hello. You must be the new chef. The manager told me about you were starting today. My name is Emma.”

“I’m Kaz.”

“Kaz, nice to meet you.”

Emma was a  petite, outgoing, energetic Asian American girl. Everyone liked her she made good tips. She was living in an apartment very close to the restaurant with her boyfriend, who wanted to become an actor. We heard Emma tried some audition and had not yet got any part, or got small part or something.

After saying hello, Emma wasted no time and started to set up the tables, placing chopsticks and napkins. I had no idea what her job was, but she looked like she knew what she was doing.

“So, have you worked at a restaurant before, Kaz?”

“No, I have not.”

“Oh, OK. Well, you look like a quick learner. Everyone here is nice and especially the sushi chefs, Toshi, Kai and Jun are all nice. I am sure you will be fine,” Emma said with a smile.

“We do get lots of young kids on weekends. It’s Tuesday tonight so that it won’t be that bad.”

“What should I do next?” I asked Toshi. It was five o’clock.

“Why don’t you take a break and have some dinner.”

“Where can I get dinner? Is there a makanai, the employee meal?”

“Well here, no makanai. Everyone eats on their own. You can make your  dinner or order something from the kitchen.”

“OK. Thanks,” I said to Toshi and walked to the back kitchen.

I was, very nervous because it was my first day. I was also nervous because I had no idea what to do, and how I should behave.

In the back kitchen was Alejandro, a Mexican short guy in his fifties with a mustache. I was not in the mood for making dinner, so I asked Alejandro to make me some tempura. I put some rice and miso soup in the bowl and waited for Alejandro to finish tempura.

Two hours of prep time went so fast, it seemed. I still had eight more hours to go until 2 AM.

Alejandro handed me a plate of shrimp, yum, carrots and kabocha and handed it to me.

“Thanks,” I said and went upstairs to eat my tempura dinner makanai. Suddenly, I felt exhausted from being anxious and nervous working in the professional kitchen for the first time, though, I was hopeful and really excited to start my new journey.