Sushi apprentices often train for over a decade before becoming sushi masters who are worthy of creating the beautiful, healthy Japanese food.
Traditionally, sushi chefs found their humble beginnings as a drudge boy in a sushi restaurant. Often the sushi chef would start working at a sushi restaurant when he was a young teenager, and his jobs would include fetching dirty plates, cleaning the restaurant each day and washing up.
The young apprentice would follow his master to the fish market each morning as a bag boy, often before dawn, and would watch and learn how to select only the freshest fish.
This position would remain unchanged for many years; the young apprentice watching his master from afar; soaking up information and learning without being taught. The apprentice would not be allowed near the fish, and was not allowed to be involved in the sushi preparation.
He would not be allowed near the sushi bar, situated at the front of the restaurant, and would have to learn the process of sushi making by watching from a distance.
As the apprentice began to learn more about sushi, he would be upgraded to a position at the rear of the sushi bar, where he would fan the rice while watching his master. At this stage, the apprentice was still in the background and did not communicate with the customers.
By this time, the apprentice would have been working in the restaurant for about five years. Only once the apprentice had perfected the art of preparing sushi rice would he be allowed the honourable position of standing beside his master at the sushi counter in the front of the shop.
At this stage, the apprentice would be known as a wakiita, which literally means “side chopping board”. He would be allowed to clean fish and prepare vegetables for the senior sushi chefs, and to make sushi for take-away orders.
It would be a few more years before the wakiita was allowed to stand at the counter as an itamae, which means “in front of the chopping board”. This position was granted only to sushi masters, who could prepare beautiful sushi quickly and in an artistic manner.
The preparation of sushi was an artistic process which has often been likened to a methodical dance in which the various ingredients are treated in a gentle and respectful manner. Many sushi chefs have gained fame for the way in which they wield a knife, creating precision slices in a rapid manner.
The sushi chef must not only be a culinary master, he must attract regular customers to the sushi bar, and be a valuable asset to the restaurant. He does this by paying individual attention to his customers, greeting them by name and remembering their likes and dislikes. The sushi chef will often create a unique sushi dish according to the preferences of the customer.
Sushi is a sensual delight. Watching a sushi master in action is satisfying and intriguing, the personal service and attention is flattering, and the flavors, textures and colors of sushi delight all of the senses.
Many modern sushi chefs do not undergo such a rigorous training process. This does not mean that their sushi is not worth eating, but their skills are still not akin to those of a master who has dedicated his life to the art of sushi making.
Among modern sushi chefs you will find a handful of female chefs. Traditionally, only men were allowed to train as a sushi chef.
There are few food cultures that involve such a long, rigorous training process, and few that can offer a meal as healthy, artistic and tasty as sushi.
Published in: Cooking