In front of the sushi board
Getting a taste of the sushi making experience
Sushi Chefs and Chefs in general in Japan and referred to as a “Itamae” or “Itamae-san,” which makes a great deal of sense, as “ita” means board and “mae” describes a position in front of something.
Recently, I had the opportunity to take a 1.5 hour sushi making lesson at Tama Sushi, which covered making nigiri and temaki sushi. Reference http://www.deepjapan.org/a/4200 . The lesson covered the final part of the process, e.g., how to prepare the rice, how gather the rice up by gently using a rolling and raking motion with the fingers, getting the feel for how much rice is needed for one piece of sushi (ikkan), how to shape the rice in the hand with established hand movements and to get the proper amount of compaction, how to pick up and hold the fish or topping, how to apply the wasabi and how to put it all together. Each step requires deliberate care or you risk ending up with just an approximation of sushi and not the real deal. This experience also helped me better understand why many sushi lovers find the larger more automated conveyor belt (Kaiten) sushi shops an unsatisfying experience.
It takes commitment to be a sushi Itamae-san
As I looked around during the lesson I thought of all the other elements that must take hundreds of hours to learn, e.g., how to select the wide array of fish and seafood needed every day — including understanding the quality markers for each type, learning how to fillet and slice up all those different kinds of fish and seafood, knowing the secret to consistent preparation of the tamago yaki (the omelet like egg topping), how to prepare the Ikura (salmon eggs) and other toppings, and even how to grind the wasabi and take care of the tools, such as the specialty knives.
Unlike chefs of most other cuisines, the sushi Itamae-san takes orders from and interacts with the customers directly while they are creating sushi, so people skills and ability to multi-task is a job requirement. According Itamae Shimizu-Sensei at Tama Sushi, a proper Itamae-San watches how his/her customers eat their sushi, so they can make subtle adjustments to further improve the customers experience. For example if the customer is eating the sushi with ohashi (chop-sticks) the Itamae-san may want to compact the rice a bit more than if the customer is eating with his or her hands.
Those who wish to become a sushi Itamae typically begin with some formal training followed by a long apprenticeship. Apprentices are called “wakita,” which appropriately means “in the proximity of the board”.
More information on getting a sushi making lesson
Interested in getting a lesson on how to make nigiri sushi check out the Tama Sushi Experience. http://r.gnavi.co.jp/jge/en/entry/post-000814.html
*This DeepJapan report is sponsored.