The acclaimed 2011 documentaryJiro Dreams of Sushi was a gateway for many into the complex and demanding world of the Japanese sushi chef. In many ways it was also a window into theshokunin culture of Japan, a tradition of craftspeople that dedicate their lives to a specific art, may it be sword smithing, ceramics, or cuisine, slowing honing their knowledge of the process from the most basic tasks to the most complex.
This can be seen through the experience of an aspiringitamae, the Japanese word for sushi master, which literally means “in front of the board,” in this case being the cutting board. For it is only with a spirit of commitment to dedicate one’s life to mastering this profession that one can become anitamaein Japan. One principle reason for this is that it generally takes 10 years of apprenticeship before a sushi chef is considered ready to open their own restaurant.
Step One: Becoming a Deshi
The first step of any aspiringdeshi, or apprentice, is to find a master under which to work and learn. Once they’ve done so, it might be years before they begin handling fish or preparing sushi.
For the first few months, even up to a year, adeshi will be on cleaning duty. This means washing dishes, scrubbing pots, and cleaning the restaurant and kitchen. The purpose of this is to show one’s devotion to becoming anitamae. By knuckling down, doing one's best, never complaining, and being an indispensable part of the team, adeshimight be given the most integral task of the sushi making process: preparing the rice.
Ask any sushi chef and they will tell you that rice is anywhere from 70% to 80% of what makes truly masterful sushi. Preparing sushi rice is the most foundational skill that showcases a master’s skill and can take years to perfect. Restaurants will sometimes have their own blend of rice, combining crops from different regions of Japan, but they will certainly have their own method of cooking it and recipe for mixing their rice with salt and vinegar, a closely guarded secret.
First, an apprentice will begin to prepare rice under supervision until they are deemed competent enough to complete the task on their own, a show of deep trust as that is the rice every customer will be eating that day.
One Step Closer to the Cutting Board
Once adeshi has proven themselves by making perfect rice day in and day out, they may be promoted to the position ofwakiita¸ literally meaning "beside the cutting board". Here they will begin to handle their first ingredients, grating ginger or cutting scallions, later on learning how to break down and prepare fish. They may be given tasks like curing fish and cooking others, even beginning to make the desserttamago, egg sushi. The skills they learn at this stage make up the foundational methods of cooking inwashoku, boiling, frying, marinating, and preparing raw ingredients.
Before they are allowed to step behind the counter to prepare the fish and form the sushi, they must learn how to wield the varioushochō,or knives, with dexterity and precision. The permission to use one’shochōin the kitchen is a clear sign that awakiita has earned enough trust and respect from theiritamae to become anitamae themselves.
A Long Way
Once they’ve reached this stage, an aspiringitamae may still have years before they are ready to open their own restaurant as they begin to learn the art of formingnigiri,hand pressed sushi. This is also where they learn another vital aspect of their profession, interacting with and serving their customers.
Hospitality is taken very seriously in Japanese culture, and the concept ofomotenashigoes deeper than merely offering the best service possible to a guest. The core ofomotenashiis to anticipate a customer or guest’s needs before they’ve even voiced them. In the aforementionedJiro Dreams of Sushi, it is said that the master Jiro Ono watches his guests more closely than they are watching him. He might adjust the amount of rice he uses for one guest’s piece of sushi or place it a little farther to the left if he sees they’re left-handed. It is thought that these small details are what show true hospitality and consideration.
So, it is after this long journey that anitamaecan continue the mission of theshokunin, mastering each aspect of their craft over a lifetime of practice day after day.
This all might seem overly serious, and that’s because it is. The decision to commit one’s life to a specific profession is both honorable and important. There is a respect in Japanese culture for people like this, and I share that admiration. For it is the wisdom and knowledge that masters are able to teach their students and pass on traditions.
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@waruishouten) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food!