Geri-Ayn Gaul had her first encounter with a raw-fish autocrat in August at Ino, in San Francisco. First, she tried to add some soy sauce to her seaweed salad. Big mistake. Chef Noboru Inoue scolded her, she says, telling her, “No, no, no. No soy sauce!” Then, she had the temerity to scrape some wasabi off a piece of sushi, because she doesn’t like spicy food. The chef’s response, she says: “‘No. It needs the wasabi.’” She obeyed, and choked down the fish. “I was so nervous, I spilled my miso soup,” says Ms. Gaul, whose meal for two, with no alcohol, cost $75 — before tip.Okay, let me just say, this sort of thing really gets my goat. I don’t like the way these chefs are behaving, I don’t like the idea that they’re doing it because of authentic centuries-old tradition, and I don’t like the idea that treating guests rudely and claiming authenticity gains you more money and respect from foodies, though the last point only goes to show my basic conclusion that 99% of foodies are idiots.
Each sushi dictator has his own pet peeves, but there is common ground. Most do not allow sushi bar patrons to order off the menu. Instead, diners must accept whatever the chef gives them, a tradition known as “omakase” — a Japanese expression that can be loosely translated as “trust the chef.” They reserve special enmity for spicy tuna rolls — typically made with scraps of raw tuna, mayonnaise and chili powder — which they say were only invented so that restaurants could mask the taste of substandard fish. And they generally loathe the ubiquitous California roll. Not only is it a newfangled American invention that combines avocado and cucumber, but it usually contains imitation crab — anathema to chefs who have spent so much of their energy and money securing pristine seafood.
Dealing with American diners who are unfamiliar with centuries-old Japanese culinary traditions can be agonizing for some chefs, says Andy Matsuda, head of Sushi Chef Institute, a Los Angeles cooking school. Requesting fried soft shell crab rolls at a traditional sushi bar is akin to “going to your grandma’s Thanksgiving dinner and someone brings a pizza,” Mr. Matsuda says. Dousing sushi in soy sauce is like pouring ketchup over the entrée at a three-star French restaurant. Other offenses, such as ordering miso soup at the beginning of the meal, only add to chefs’ frustration. But some chefs say that strict adherence to tradition is also a way to stand out in an increasingly crowded market.
Some Basics On Sushi
Sushi is not the be-all and end-all of high-end Japanese dining. Sushi is not centuries old. Sushi is not the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine. Sushi chefs are not guardians of tradition. All of this is absolutely nonsense.
If anyone has a claim to these various things, it’s kaiseki chefs. Their food tradition really does go back to chanoyu (tea ceremony) and the little nibbles you served with this extremely harsh and bitter tea. It has evolved tremendously from that point, and in fact barely resembles its origin-point (which is still represented in various places around Kyoto), but kaiseki really is that old. What’s more, it has been held as the pinnacle of Japanese culinary art for a couple of centuries now. Kaiseki chefs are quite often seen as upholders and guardians of a grand tradition bound up with premodern culture; some of them are very insistent about this, refusing to cook in convenient white jackets, or to use ingredients that were not definitely established in Japan before Commodore Perry arrived and opened the country, and so on.
Sushi is a Johnny-come-lately. It was invented in the 19th century as street food. It derives from an old system of fish preservation, in which you had a strongly vinegared rice cake and pressed raw fish on top of it, often salted; the vinegar and salt acted as preservatives. This kind of sushi is still commonly available, primarily in the Kansai region, and it looks and tastes almost nothing like the sushi you’re probably familiar with. Thus sushi as you know it is as ancient and authentic as the American hamburger.
The natural habitat of sushi, as of a great deal of Japanese food, is the bar. When you go out for sushi, you go to a bar, and if you don’t have a lot of people or don’t want privacy for close conversation, you should sit at the bar. You order drinks, and you order whatever you feel like from the menu, as you like it, when you want it. Take your time. It’s good to chat with the chef: what does he think is especially good? But the point here isn’t that he’s the master and you the acolyte. He knows better than you what he’s got, is all, and you don’t want to order your favorite thing when it’s not going to be all that great, especially if something else you love is super-great today. What’s more, “great” isn’t equal to “fresh”: all the seafood is going to be fresh, but contrary to popular foodie opinion, just because it’s fresh doesn’t mean it’s excellent.
I was struck by this last point just today when I was in Nishiki market and saw two guji (what non-Kyoto-ites call amadai, which I am informed is “tilefish”) that looked pretty much the same to me, but one cost ¥1800 (about $20) and the other ¥8000 (about $85). Based on the way Nishiki does business, and who with, I am sure the difference was very real, but both fish were absolutely fresh: I bought the cheap one, in fact, and am prepared to swear that even after a couple of hours of cutting and scaling and messing around generally, the eyes remained clear and the flesh sweet. The fish was indeed excellent, much better than just about anything I’ve seen in America — but I’m sure the ¥8000 one was genuinely a lot better. Fresh is a minimum, not the only point.
In any event, let’s just wrap our minds around this clearly, okay? Sushi is a recent culinary invention, served in an informal atmosphere, presenting fish (mostly) that is fresh in the way just about all fish here is fresh — though some is better than others — and you’re supposed to drink with it.
Would people get over the whole master-acolyte thing already? Here’s a translation: “prix-fixe menu.” An enormous number of Japanese restaurants of all types run heavily on these menus, and in fact many of them have no a la carte menu at all. To understand this, you have to think about two things: the food distribution system and the hyper-intense focus on freshness.
If I am running a very high-end restaurant, I serve guests by reservation only, and I use only prix-fixe menus, possibly graded by price (low, medium, high, and “how much were you interested in spending?”). That way I know how many I’ve got for dinner, and I and my staff go out and buy the ingredients we will need for them that morning. We spend the afternoon prepping what can be pre-prepped. When our guests arrive, we know who they are and what they are eating, and we begin finishing and plating dishes. The only thing that is not pre-planned is what they will drink, and how much, but drinks keep well. At the end of the day, I have nothing in the kitchen other than absolute staples like oil, soy sauce, and vinegar. (To be fair, there are some dishes that require advance preparation, and I can either choose to serve those only to people who reserved more than a day in advance, or I can estimate how many plates I will have on Tuesday and make that many pre-preps on Monday. But I won’t do this kind of thing much, because I really, really hate having to throw away food.)
This is how good kaiseki places work, for example. So now you understand the first dimension of omakase as a system. It means that there is no waste, and nothing sits in a walk-in freezer for months waiting to be ordered. This keeps profits and quality up, but it does mean that diners have to get used to not ordering à la carte.
The second part of omakase to understand has to do with the informal bar environment of sushi, as opposed to kaiseki and the like. If we sit and chat and drink, and order nibbles as we go, we can quickly run up a very high tab without realizing it. I mean, each thing was only $4, maybe, but we ate a lot, and all of a sudden our wallets are hurting. One way to avoid this is to ask the chef to work on a fixed budget. Again, most places will have pre-set grades for this. But the point is you say you’d like to do $60 per person, not including alcohol, and you don’t have to worry about ordering, about what’s good today, and what the final bill will be. Omakase isn’t about bullying people into eating the right way, it’s about relieving them of a certain amount of anxiety that can make the evening less enjoyable than it might be. If you’re flush, go ahead and order whatever you want, when you want: you’re not worried about the bill, so have fun.
These two dimensions of the omakase thing have an important implication. What if you want to go to a fancy kaiseki place but you really hate squid? Well, you tell them when you make the reservation, of course. They’re not going to serve squid to somebody who they know hates it; why should they? If you tell them when you get to the restaurant, you may be out of luck, because they’ve only got what they’ve got. But a really good chef will almost certainly be able to whip up a replacement for something on the fly. I wouldn’t try it: I’d give advance warning if I had a real hatred out there. On the other hand, if you patronize a good place regularly, the chef is going to know you hate squid, but he may some time try to tempt you with a special bit of squid preparation that might change your mind.
Once again, omakase doesn’t mean “eat what we tell you to or get out.”
Service at a good sushi place is a lot like service at a certain sector of the kaiseki world, specifically the places where you generally sit at the bar. Everyone always says the service in kaiseki is very graceful, and it is, but it’s also very subtly graceful.
So here’s you, sitting at the bar, and the chef puts a dish in front of you. He tells you what it is, and tells you what the dipping sauce is and which thing it’s for, and maybe he says that this particular thing doesn’t need a lot of sauce. Why is he doing this? Because you will enjoy your food more if you know what it is and if you eat it knowledgeably. If something comes with soy sauce for dipping, and the chef says you probably don’t want a whole lot, he’s making a suggestion for what he thinks is the best way to eat it. If you want to put more on, go ahead, but know that you may not be getting the flavor balanced quite the way he has in mind. Does that matter? Not necessarily, but quite often at a kaiseki place you have only a somewhat indistinct understanding of what you’re eating anyway, because kaiseki is so different from everything else. You think, “well, this dish is basically X, he said, so I season that this way, but the chef said to go light on that seasoning.” Maybe this is because this dish is based on something you know well, as is usually the case in kaiseki, but the flavors and such are sufficiently different from what you expect that the seasoning will behave differently.
Let’s suppose you’re eating this, and you just love it. You say, “wow, I always hated this when mom made it, but this is totally different. What are these red things in it anyway, pickles?” The chef is going to chat with you about it. Yes, they’re pickles, but they’re not the red turnip pickles you think; rather, they’re these special melon pickles, and they add this sweet vinegariness that balances with this other thing. What’s more, chances are, the chef is going to joke with you about your mother: “really, you hated this when your mother made it? What did she do to it?” And back and forth.
By the end of the meal, you’re full, you’ve eaten a huge number of little interesting things and thought about them with mind and eye and mouth, and you’ve got the impression that the chef cares about you. Are you having a good time? Do you like what you’re eating? If you’re deep in conversation with your partner, on the other hand, the chef will put things in front of you almost silently, just barely explaining and disappearing again. But if you’re looking expectant and interested, he’ll talk to you.
Here’s the trick: the chef is an entertainer. He entertains with his food, but properly speaking he entertains with the entire experience. He wants you to leave thinking, “gee, I had the most fabulous time, that was so great!” And everything he can do to make this happen is part of his art as a chef, concluding with his thanking you and seeing you to and in fact past the door: he’ll wait at the door until you turn the corner.
(Incidentally, I keep saying “he,” and the sad thing is that it’s true: women are essentially unwelcome in high-end Japanese kitchens, with a very few exceptions. Japanese food is very good, on the whole, but the place isn’t utopia.)
Now if you’re eating at a good sushi place, the same is basically true. There’s a lot less range in sushi — it’s basically seafood (mostly but not exclusively raw), with or without rice, with a narrow range of sauces. But still, the chef can entertain. He’s going to chat with you, make jokes, tell you what he’s got that seems extra-good, maybe give you a price-break on something you’ve already ordered twice and seem to be adoring, whatever.
So let’s suppose the sushi chef hands you some nigirizushi (the stuff on the rice ball). He says, “you don’t need much soy with this, and take it easy on the wasabi.” What does this mean? It means, “this particular piece of fish is a little different than you might expect it to be, and it will in my opinion taste better quite lightly seasoned.” It may also mean “I have partly pre-seasoned it, so if you use too much it will be over-seasoned,” but he’d probably say so. So let’s suppose you like a lot of wasabi, and you use it. What then? Nothing. I mean, so what? Maybe you didn’t get the most perfect experience of this fish, but you know, maybe you did — maybe your palate is different from his, who knows? This isn’t an occasion for anyone to be shocked. If you do habitually eat the way the chef thinks you ought to, without prompting, he may compliment you on this, but again the point isn’t that other diners are bad. Positive rather than negative reinforcement sort of thing.
So authentic service, if that’s what you want, means gracious, elegant service. But in the West, “gracious, elegant service” sometimes means “feeling cowed by a French maître-d’hôtel who seems to sneer at you.” I don’t mean that. I mean that true elegance and grace in food service means the diner feels welcome, attended to, and comfortable. If possible, the diner should enjoy the food, find the atmosphere pleasant, and find all the various pieces of the dining experience stimulating. Upon departing, the diner should feel that the hosts hope he has enjoyed himself, and that they genuinely hope he will patronize their establishment in the future. That’s a very high bar to set, and it’s one that almost no restaurants I have eaten in in America come up to.
Authentic Sushi Bullies
Let’s see about these places.
Is the food authentic to centuries of Japanese tradition? No, it’s sushi.
Is the service authentic to high Japanese culinary tradition? No, it’s rude.
I can agree with them that a lot of popular maki rolls are nasty, but you don’t have to be rude about it. Somebody asks for something with spicy mayo, try this: “sorry, I don’t keep mayonnaise, and I don’t know how to make this roll. May I suggest this other thing instead?” Gee, that was hard. But no, “Ted Golden, a 29-year-old technology entrepreneur, says he would sometimes try to converse with Mr. Kosugi, whom he knew well — he estimates that he ate at Soto roughly 100 times — but the chef would be so focused on his work that he would refuse to answer.” The chef won’t even talk to very regular patrons, except to yell at them and even throw them out if they violate his personal principles.
So how does this work? Why do people tolerate this nonsense? Simple: because they have been deceived by ignorant, prating food journalists and the like into believing that sushi is the pinnacle of Japanese culinary tradition: “Fans of the despots say they put up with the chefs’ behavior because the food is so good and they feel they are getting an authentic meal. Ms. Gaul, a 27-year-old pharmaceutical saleswoman, says she loved the monkfish liver and fresh sea urchin at Ino so much that she plans to go back, even though she is ‘afraid’ to go without a Japanese-speaking companion. ‘I will take his somewhat abrasive advice because he’s teaching me about Japanese culture,’ Ms. Gaul says of Chef Inoue.” Really? Or is he tricking you into believing this? Notice the linkage here: if Ms. Gaul is treated rudely, she is learning “about Japanese culture,” and “getting an authentic meal.” People have been cowed for years into believing that expensive means authentic, and that chefs are the arbiters of authentic tradition.
“For his part, Mr. Kosugi [of Soto restaurant] says he is deeply disturbed by characterizations of him as a tyrant, and that many stories about him are untrue. He admits, though, that the pressure can make him moody and that he is ‘very ashamed and cannot sleep at night’ after behaving badly. He moved to New York, he says, because he felt the market there was more conducive to serving only traditional, high-end food.” What’s traditional and high-end about sushi? Since when was it legitimate for a sushi chef to claim these things? (Answer: very recently.) Since when was it appropriate for any chef to berate customers whose palates are not precisely the same as the chef’s? (Answer: never.)
These sushi bullies capitalize on their patrons’ ignorance and willingness to bow low before the altar of all things Japanese: they state implicitly that they are the arbiters of all Japanese culinary tradition, and they hold out the possibility of legitimation to people who submit to their authority. If you come away from a restaurant like this and get a nod of approval, you feel that you’ve made it, you’ve succeeded at something. “It’s a point of pride for Teddy Zee, a movie producer in Los Angeles, that Kazunori Nozawa will make him sushi with slightly less rice than usual. ... ‘In a stupid way, it makes you feel a bit special,’ Mr. Zee says.” Congratulations, Mr. Zee: you have succeeded at paying a great deal of money to make yourself into somebody’s dog, who wags his tail when petted and gets nervous and guilty when ill-treated.
A Quick Counter-Check
I live in Kyoto, where sushi isn’t the thing. But we spent New Year’s (o-shogatsu) in Tokyo, which invented sushi. I asked about this phenomenon there, and they said that they had sort of dimly heard of it. This is my wife’s host-family, some of whom are pretty hard-core foodies, and well known at a number of fancy sushi and other places. They basically said that they thought this kind of behavior does exist in Japan, but it’s despicable, recent, and unusual. Their basic feeling is that a place where the chef acts like this is soon going to have a clientele of screwups and weirdos, not serious connoisseurs. My interpretation of that one is that connoisseurs of all sorts like to disagree — that’s part of the fun. And if three connoisseurs go to a fancy sushi place to argue about sushi, they don’t want the chef having tantrums because he disagrees with at least two of them — they want him to join in and tell them they’re all wrong... and maybe shave a tiny bit of this or that as a free taste to prove his point.
A New Tradition?
Unfortunately, there is more to be said here.
In the Edo period, from 1600 to 1868 when the country was closed, a number of Japan’s artistic and other forms developed into established za, or schools, headed by iemoto, masters of a “way.” You probably know about this primarily in terms of things like martial arts, where masters of karate, iaido, aikido, kendo, and the like became essentially living cultural artifacts. This phenomenon was particularly acute, however, in the arts: Nō drama developed and crystallized in this fashion, as did flower-arrangement (ikebana), tea ceremony (chanoyu), and the like. By the Meiji Restoration of 1868, many of these masters had established themselves as arbiters of Japanese tradition, and with the opening of the country they entrenched against Westernization and change. With the rise of fascistic militarism in the 1920s and 30s, a great number of these schools went all-out for authentic Japaneseness. It’s a dark chapter in Japanese art history.
With the end of the war and the dramatic turn in popular Japanese consciousness, however, this kind of insistence on authentic tradition for its own sake came to be seen as tainted. Some schools died, others opened to change, and others simply faded quietly into the background. Kaiseki, to take one example, became increasingly divided between traditionalists and those interested in learning from French and other culinary traditions. So far as I know, however, even the most hard-nosed traditionalists did imbibe from the Western cup, and for sure the nouveau types didn’t discard older traditions. This is part of what makes kaiseki (or kyo-ryori) a truly dynamic art form and not a static museum-piece.
A crucial factor in these various developments is very often Western perception. Martial arts were able to retain their dogmatic insistence on traditionalism, and in fact their right-wing political orientation, because Westerners idolized them. Think of the ninja phenomenon, the samurai shtick, the sale of “secret fighting arts” material, and so on, not to mention movies like The Last Samurai. On the other hand, one factor that has allowed major schools of ikebana flower arrangement to develop in wild, avant-garde directions is that very, very few Westerners idolize them, and the few who do are actually quite interested in and knowledgeable about flower arrangement.
So this thing about sushi bullies worries me. We’ve got the same factors: an isolated tradition in Japan that gets idolized uncritically by Western consumers, and the development of chefs who see themselves as arbiters of Japanese tradition. Because Westerners will pay more for this, these chefs legitimate themselves with their customers’ cash.
Ultimately I’m saying that the foodie idiots who buy into this are buying scary right-wing nationalist politics. I’m saying that in Japan, someone who holds himself up as the arbiter of true authentic Japaneseness and dictates what is and isn’t Japanese is under suspicion for being a right-wing menace. And by right-wing I don’t mean “conservative,” even as the Bush Republicans mean it. I mean right-wing like fascistic militarism. I mean right-wing like white supremacists who think saving America means white people with guns dominating “lesser” beings. That kind of right-wing: scary loonies.
I’m not saying that these chefs think like the Klan, but what they’re doing matches the classic Japanese model for that kind of development disturbingly closely. In the article cited above, it says that “Sushi Nozawa is one of the highest-rated restaurants in the local Zagat guide; the description says Kazunori Nozawa ‘makes the Soup Nazi look polite.’” What worries me is that this joking remark may be rather closer to the truth than anyone realizes.