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.

Alejandro on Coke (Sushi, Drugs & Rock n Roll Part 2)

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It took me over six months to learn that Alejandro was on coke also. Alejandro was elderly, petite, dark-skinned Mexican chef in the kitchen. He was working the longest at Sushi on Sunset.

“Alejandro was there when I started working here eight years ago. The restaurant has been here for over twenty years, so I don’t know how long Alejandro has been working here, but I’m sure he is here a long time,” Toshi said.

It was time to ask.

“I’ve been working here over twenty years,” Alejandro told me.

We called Alejandro “Mario,” after Super Mario Brothers video game because of Alejandro’s mustache looked like the Mario’s. Alejandro, at first glance, did not appear to be friendly. He seemed crabby and quite, as I encountered him at the kitchen on my first day. He seemed angry, too and we were unsure why he seemed angry most of the time. Later I learned that Alejandro was just shy and quite guy. He did open up when he got drunk, though.

Supposedly, he did coke at least couple of occasions during the evening – one before the restaurant opened which was around five o’clock, then another one after the restaurant closed around one or two in the morning. Sometimes three times, when things got busy like on a weekend night.

What struck me was the fact that none of the coke users went out of control including Toshi and Kai. Well, I take it back. None of the chefs, but the waitress, boy, did they got emotional.

“That’s because the stuff we take is very very weak. It’s cut quite a bit,” Toshi told me.

I’ve never done coke because from what I’ve heard, it did not sound fun and I always felt that my body wouldn’t like it. Many times, other chefs at a restaurant asked me and said no. Many of my friends and people whom I met for the first time at a party asked me if I want to do a line or two and I kept saying no.

Toshi told me that doing it helps him during work: It gave me a good vibe: keeping him focused and relaxed at the same time. It was a very strange feeling I was unable to comprehend.

Even some of the waitresses were doing coke. There was one tall blonde girl named, Lillian. She was friendly and cute looking – the kind you would think popular among high school boys. She had that look. Until someone told me that she too was on coke most of the time, I had no idea.

The suppliers came in and out quite ofter. Some of the Latino waiters and bussers were one of the suppliers.

Javier was a Mexican waiter, who worked as sushi bar waiter on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. When busy, we needed someone to take a drinks order, bring out the kitchen orders, clean the bar table and so on. Sushi chefs took sushi order directly from the bar.

Javier worked as a bus boy occasionally and supplied coke to many of the restaurant staff and customers at the restaurant, l learned.

Maybe it was the location; maybe it was the owner of the restaurant, may e it was the people who worked there – I had no idea what drove all the people to do drugs. Either way, Sushi, Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll went hand in hand at Rock ‘n Hollywood Sushi.

Sushi, Drugs and Rock’n Roll

 

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Photo by Adam Swank

 

The previous owner, Shige, who died of cancer was a legend, according to Toshi.  Shige was a sushi chef and one of the owners of the restaurant. He came to the restaurant every day and partied with customers and staff. It all sounded something you saw on TV:  “True Hollywood Stories,” or something like that.

“He was energetic and charismatic,” Toshi said.

“He also drank a lot partied a lot. Shige was friendly and everyone loved him. I’ve heard that because of him, many of customers came back to Rock ‘n Hollywood Sushi,” Toshi said.

Shige was a regular drug user. During the 80’s and the 90’s, many of the restaurant’s patrons came to Rock ‘n Hollywood Sushi to party and many of the used and purchased drugs at the restaurant. Eventually, some drug dealers started to come to the restaurant to hang out and sell drugs to the customers. Many of the dealers did well on weekends just handing out the restaurant, drinking and eating sushi. The place was literally rocking.

It took me a while until I learned that Toshi and Kai were regular coke user as well as Alejandro in the kitchen and Juan was a regular pothead, smoking every day.

Juan was a Mexican sushi chef at Rock ‘n Hollywood Sushi. When I started working there, Juan had already over one year of experience working at the sushi bar. He started as kitchen chef several years ago and gradually, learned the art of sushi making filling in the sushi bar when things got busy during the weekend. Toshi and Kai taught him how to make rolls, slice fish and nigiri. Juan took on really well.

I was most impressed with how fast Juan made sushi. Given that Toshi and Kai had almost seven to eight years of experience, Juan could make a roll faster than anyone else. It seemed that, because he was non-Japanese, he was trying so hard, harder than other chefs, to learn and master the true art and philosophy of being a sushi chef. I suppose that was why we liked Juan better than Tom, not because he was Mexican and Tom was white, because it was Juan’s attitude and enthusiasm.

Juan was also younger than any of us. While we were all in our thirties, He was twenty-eight. Toshi told me that he was in a Mexican gang before he started working at Rock ‘n Hollywood Sushi.

“I remember when he started working here, he was, well, scary looking. His eyes were sharp, as if a hawk looking for a pray, but not a hawk, you know? It was more like Hyena,” Toshi told me.

I had difficulty imagining what Juan looked like a couple years ago, because Juan I knew was happy, friendly, laughing, hard working, loved making sushi and eager to learn the sushi. He seemed to be enjoying the every moment being a sushi chef.

“Juan has a couple of kids,” Toshi told me.

“Really? He is a father?”

“Yep, he is married, too.”

“Married?”

None of us Japanese chefs were married.

“I guess that is why Juan is such a hard-worker, right?”

“I suppose. He has a family to support and that’s doing him a good. He cleaned up, quit being a gang member and became legit, you know?”

So, you can imagine how surprised I was when I found out Juan was smoking pot every day. I’ve never guessed he was high all the time giving that he moved so fast.

“You didn’t know? Juan-chan smokes pot almost every day since he started working here. Everyone knows.”

I was dumb shocked.

“How could anyone move so fast on pot?” I asked Toshi.

“It’s a mystery to us, too. We have no idea. If I smoke like Juan, I would never be able to move that fast. In fact, I wouldn’t be able to work at all,” said Toshi.

“When I smoke pot, I want to be alone. After getting high, I want to stay in my home alone, watch TV or play a video game, so it’s quite astonishing how Juan-chan could work after smoking,” Kai said.

To get an answer, I figured that the quickest way was to ask Juan himself.

“It relaxes me,” Juan said.

“You never feel fatigued, or want to lay down on the floor?”

“No, not at all.”

I guess it all depends on your body and chemistry.

“I heard you used to be in a gang and now I see you working really hard. I think it’s good.”

“You know, I am grateful for Shige to give me the chance to work here. Without him, I wouldn’t be here and I could still be in a gang and probably, ended up being shot and die. I own Shige my life, and now he is gone, I am sad, but I am grateful.”

Juan’s story was inspiring. Later on, he was moved to the sister restaurant, which Saito bought.

Catching Sea Urchin

 

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Photo by cristty

 

The first evening was longer than I thought. Standing at the sushi bar, doing nothing but watching other chefs work made me extremely tired, both physically and emotionally. When I woke up the next morning, it was almost ten o’clock. It was bright, sunny, the usual 75ºF blue skies, a typical Southern California Weather. Some people love it, some people despise it, saying that they miss the rain, cold weather and snow. They complain the lack of opportunity to wear winter clothes like the long coat and down jacket. When I arrived Los Angeles from spending three years in Iowa, seeing the ocean was such a breeze, literally.  Growing up in Japan, I was so used to seeing the ocean and feeling the mass body of water. I was born in a small fishing village, grew up eating fish. I spent my teenage years in Matsue, a city by the Lake Shinji known for the beautiful sunset. The lake is also famous for seven delicacies such as Unagi and Shijimi – a tiny black clam like shellfish put in a miso soup. The Lake Shinji supplied over 40% all the Shijimi in Japan. In Summer time, I rode my bicycle with my friends for over an hour to the unpopulated rocky shores, passing the popular crowded beaches where people were basking in the sun. Upon picking a spot, we got off our bicycle, walked through the rocks down to the shore, then slipped on our bathing trousers and put on the diving goggles, jumped right into the ocean to catch some shellfish and Sea Urchins. After a couple of hours, we had enough to eat right on the shore and bring back home for dinner. Sea Urchins were my favorite. The kind I used to catch was called Bafun Uni; Horse Dropping Uni. The (surprisingly) unappetizing name came from its round donut shape, resembled the horse droppings. They had short spikes unlike Black and Purple Urchins which had longer spikes. Japanese Sushi chefs use purple or black Sea urchins at Sushi restaurants because Bafun Uni deteriorated quicker and Sushi chefs considered unsuitable unless they were fresh. Thanks to the modern advancement of transportation technology, these days many sushi restaurants in Tokyo can get fresh Bafun Uni all the way from Hokkaido. Still, nothing beats the freshly caught Uni. Fresher the Uni, the better it tastes. I was lucky to have taste Bafun Uni when I was young, long before I became a Sushi Chef.

Because I was used to Bafun Uni, I couldn’t understand why people were eating Spiky Purple and Black Uni. I thought they tasted inferior. Uni to me was Bafun Uni and nothing else. I later learned that it was because of the freshness. Japanese are one of the few people in the world eat Uni, until now. Thanks to the popularity of Sushi, many people in the western countries have discovered Uni. The United States is no exception. Currently, Santa Barbara and Mendocino Uni is exported to Japan and served at many of top rated Sushi restaurants in Tokyo.

First Evening

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After finishing my dinner break, I came downstairs and walked into the sushi bar. It was close to six o’clock, and there were some customers in the restaurant.

“I finished my break. What should I do now?” I asked Toshi.

“Why don’t you stand behind us and keep on eye on what we do. You can look at this sushi menu and learn about our rolls, nigiri, and sashimi. If you have any questions, just let us know,” Toshi said to me with almost no facial expression. Gosh, he seemed so unfriendly, I thought.

“Really? That’s is? That’s all I do for the rest of the evening, to stand here and do nothing but watch you guys work?” I thought but did not say that to Toshi or Jun.

The orders came in through a printer that was on the back shelf of the sushi bar. That was also where they kept all the plates, so every time they got an order in, they turned back and grabbed a plate or two. The printed made a sound like a smaller version of an old computer printer with holes in the paper. Jun reached out and grabbed the ticket and placed it on top of the sushi case. Toshi and Jun both looked at the ticket for a second, then Toshi said,

“Well, Jun-chan, you can do this order by yourself.”

Jun nodded and quickly turned around and grabbed a medium size plate from the shelf and placed the plate on top of the sushi case.

Jun picked up a sheet of nori and grabbed the stainless rice warmer lid. He then wet his hands and picked up some sushi rice he prepped this afternoon. He quickly spread the rice over the nori, sprinkled some sesame seeds, then flipped over and placed some crab, cucumber, and avocado. He reached for a bamboo rolling mat, makisu and gave a gentle squeeze after placing it over the California Roll. Then, removed the mat and cut the roll into six pieces with his knife.

It was my first time paying close attention to the making of the California Roll.

The whole process did not seem so complicated at all. It probably took Jun less than a minute to make one roll. I did not think it was easy but never thought it would be super difficult.

Just like California Roll, Jun made another roll: Spicy Tuna. Spicy tuna only had cucumber and no avocado. To make Spicy Tuna, the difference was to use spicy tuna mix instead of crab mix and the rest was the same: grab rice, spread, sesame, flip, filling, roll and cut. Even though Jun had been there for three months, he seemed to be relaxed and doing quite all right.

Jun finished his order, then picked up the plate with his tickets, and placed the plate on top of the small counter behind the wall by the sushi bar, so that waitress could pick it up. Jun did not ring the bell, or said “Order ready,” in loud voices, as I heard in some other Japanese restaurants.

“Don’t you say anything?” I asked Jun.

“No, no need to say anything. Once we finish the order, all we have to do is put the plate with the ticket. The ticket is very important. That is the only thing they will see and check to make sure we have every order on the plate. It not they are supposed to tell us. Just to makes sure to double check the order to make sure you make everything.”

Mis en Place, Sushi Way

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Jun opened the door for the walk-In refrigerator and grabbed 10 European cucumbers. They are long and thinner than American cucumbers, individually wrapped by plastic.

“OK, now we go back to the sushi bar and do some prep.”

We walked to the front part of the restaurant, into the sushi bar. The front, dining side of the restaurant was much warmer than the kitchen side.

“The sushi refrigerator was going on for about a fifteen minutes or so, now, we could start laying the fish. First place these white plates like this. You can put seven on each side like this,” Jun explained to me, as he moved his hands. The white plates had holes on the bottom to drain the water from fish.

“The older fish goes on the left side of the sushi case, and there is always an order. First, Octopus and Squid. Then, Saba, White Fish Tai or Hirame, Hamachi, Salmon, Tuna, and Shrimp. They need to be in this order all the time. Otherwise, everyone gets confused. The older fish is called Aniki, the older brother. The fresher fish is called Otòto, younger brother.”

“I see.” I did not fully understand the reason why they need be in that order every time. It took me a while to learn and realize the importance of Japanese way of Mis en place. I learned through doing it and I can say this now, after working in a professional kitchen for so many years that, it is a way to reinforce your mind so that you will remember where all your tools and ingredients are without consciously wonder about it. It’s a good thing, especially in a crunch.

After laying the fish, Jun picked up four plexiglass sliding doors, placed then and closed them to seal the cold air.

“We use snow crab pack,” Jun said after looking at a small refrigerator inside of a sushi bar.

“This is where we keep everything that doesn’t fit in the sushi refrigerator. We have ume boshi plum paste; we have tsukemono daikon pickles, we have mir•ugai/giant clam, we have crab, some extra tuna and spicy tuna mix, we keep ama•ebi sweet shrimp and so on.”

We had to keep miru•gai wet towel in a stainless container with a lid to keep it “alive.” I learned how to prep miru•gai later.

I looked inside and was half full with lots of things. It made me feel like looking at someone’s home refrigerator and felt I should not touch anything.

Jun walked to the back kitchen and brought a package of solid frozen snow crab, a size of a cookbook from the freezer. There was a walk-in refrigerator and walk-in the freezer next to each other. He placed it in a sink and let the water run slowly to thaw.

“This snow crab is called sandwich because lump meat is on the top and the bottom sandwiching the flakes in between. After thawing, we will mix this with mayo, but not leg meat. We’ll use Lump meat for nigiri or sashimi. On weeknights, we typically go through half of the pack a night, so we can mix half for tonight and leave unmixed crab in the side fridge. It takes a good hour or two because the whole thing melts, so we need to make sure to check the crab early during the prep because it’s our responsibility to make sure we have enough crab mix ready before the restaurant opens.”

That was when I realized and learned that each chef had his own tasks and must perform everything before the restaurant opens. If he forgets to do one thing, then, it could cause a problem for everyone. So, it’s an individual effort and team effort at the same time. Everyone must focus on his work and keep an eye on each other at the same time in the kitchen. I suppose it is similar to playing a baseball. I remember what my Jr. league coach used to tell us: one error equals one run to the other team. One simple mistake during prep, can lead to a delay or unhappy customer at a restaurant. So, every step in prep is important.

After thawing, Jun showed me how to mix the crab. It was very simple, except I had to remember how much mayo to put in and most importantly, how it tasted because everything was done eyeballing.

Dining Out

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I have no memory of eating “real” sushi until I was seven or nine years old. As a child, my father never took us to a sushi restaurant where you would sit down at a sushi bar and order omakase or whatever you like. As a matter of fact, I cannot remember any occasion where all of our family went out to a sushi bar at all.

The only memory of sushi we had at our home is Temaki Sushi dinner. Temaki, perhaps, is one of the most popular ways for Japanese to have sushi at home. It’s very economical and easy to make. Temaki is a hand roll and all my mom had to do was to cook sushi rice, cut some vegetables like cucumber, shiso leaf, pickled radish, buy a sashimi pack at a supermarket and make some tamago- egg custard and put them on a large plate along with nori seaweed. Cooking rice was an everyday chore, so to turn the short grain Japanese rice into sushi rice, all she had to do was to add sushi vinegar, which, she purchased at a supermarket. She sometimes made it by adding sugar and salt to rice vinegar. Everyone picks up a sheet of nori and put whatever fish and vegetables they want, roll it up in their hand and eat it. It’s that simple. Temaki is very simple to make, and almost anyone can make it without training. When it comes to rolls, some mothers in Japan can make them, but not all of them. Nigiri is something only trained professional sushi chefs can make, so naturally, temaki dinner is the most convenient and easiest to do to enjoy the fresh fish available at the supermarket.

Until I was ten years old, my main interest in food was eating, or more precisely, dining out. We had family dine-out-night every month or two and my parents took me to some nice restaurants. We all dressed up and took the bus and train to downtown, where many department stores were.

My favorite dish to eat was Steak, and my sisters’ was Unagi, fresh water eel. When I was a child, all I wanted to eat was steak. I was like meat meat meat guy. No fish. What the hell was fish? That was me. When I saw fish on our dinner table, I complained, “Where is the meat?”So, you can imagine we constantly had an argument as to which restaurant to go to as a family, as there was no restaurant serving both steak and Unagi. I wanted as much meat as I could have and always ordered the biggest steak they had on the menu, which, I think, was not easy on my parent’s wallet. $30 steak for the eight-year-old boy, around 1973 in Japan.

We ended up going to a Western-style restaurant more than Japanese because they had a nice view and a live band. I was happy every time I ordered my steak and listened to a jazz band.

Then, of course, my occasional trip to the Kaiten Zushi restaurant after the hospital visit was my early memory of dining out.

My dad only took us to two to three restaurants. Well, they are not exactly restaurants, but I should say two locations. One was the restaurant raw on the top floor of a department store, a thirty-minute train ride from our home. There, there was the Western-style and Japanese restaurant, and we alternated. Then, the other location was near my dad’s office in downtown Tokyo. It was a four-story building, which housed German style pubs like restaurant, Japanese, and Chinese cuisine. Again, we altered the restaurant each time. I liked the steak at German-style restaurant and egg drop soup, and egg white coated fried shrimp, which was so soft it only needed a sprinkle of pepper salt. I did enjoy occasional Unagi with my sister, though, I preferred my steak to fish.