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.