Is it true that sushi restaurants in Japan make new chefs go through extreme apprenticeships?

I like sushi just fine but it is one of the more simple foods there is. However, I have heard that some of the more demanding master sushi chefs require a young apprentice to learn how to cook rice for two years or more before they even attempt the seafood preparation.

Seriously? Is that true at all? I think any skilled cook could learn a rice preparation technique in a week or two tops no matter how difficult it is at the beginning. The knife wielding may take a little longer but not years or decades like some claim.

Is this some class thing specific to Japan or is it possible that it really takes longer to learn how to make proper sushi than it does to earn an M.D.?

Well, if you trust Wikipedia’s take on it,

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As someone who has dined at several 3-Michelin star restaurants (and one ranked 9th best in the world), I disagree with your assertion that sushi is “one of the more simple foods there is.” Good sushi is sublime and complex – it’s affected by the cut of the fish, the sauce used (real sushi comes sauced – you don’t dip), and even the recipe of sugar and mirin used in the rice.

As far as the apprenticeships, the reason they take so long is that a sushi chef doesn’t just have to know how to make sushi. Besides knowing which cuts of fish to use, a sushi chef needs to know how to make rice, how to form the rice in his hands (sounds silly, but try it sometime – it’s not easy), and where and when to obtain fish. Then there are the peripheral items that a sushi chef needs to know – things like how to tenderize octopus, how to make tamago (sweetened egg omelets), etc.

Of course, this applies to high-end sushi restaurants. You can train anyone to make sushi in a few hours, and even faster if you use a machine that spits out pre-formed sushi rice. But there’s a world of difference between good sushi and assembly line sushi.

If you’re interested in the actual apprenticeship process, the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” covers this in great detail.

OK, what is the real point of all that? I know nothing about sushi except what I have eaten but I can cook rice fairly well. I am fairly certain I could learn to make great sushi rice to any specification in a week or two just like millions of other people can.

Is it really that hard or is it just a deeply, ingrained cultural tradition? Also, why do apprentice sushi chefs in Japan stick with it for so long? Does it pay decent money or is there a huge payout at the end? Again, we are talking about medical doctor levels of training for mixing rice and seafood in various ways. It seems to be a bit of an overkill from a utilitarian perspective.

On the other hand, you can get a certificate of Sushi Chef Training from The Sushi School in the UK for programs (excuse me, programmes ;)) lasting anywhere from 2 to 10 days.

It’s partly about skill and experience, but more about demonstrating one’s commitment to the craft. That’s a really big ethos in Japan, to separate the serious from the unserious by dull repetition.

My guess would be that, just as I can learn to whack up a wooden bookcase after a few hours or days of carpentry lessons but would probably require years or decades of apprenticeship to become a master cabinetmaker of high-end reproduction Sheraton or Hepplewhite furniture, sushi-making is probably something that can be learned fairly quickly on a basic level but would take a long time to master in all its details.

It’s really no different than the apprenticeship process in high-end French restaurants. Why does it take years for someone to learn to make sauces and classic french dishes, when there are classes out there that purport to teach French cooking in a day or two? A lot of it is that the process is meant to teach the culture and ethos of the particular chef, things that a two-day class can’t impart. Look at someone like Gordon Ramsey – he’s lately just sold his name for licensing on pots and pans, but at his height in the 1990s when he had 3 michelin stars his restaurant was lauded as being perfect – a lot of this came down to his training with Marco Pierre White, whose own attitude and approach to cooking is said to have been the source of Ramsay’s success.

The documentary I linked to above shows the same thing with the way Jiro Ono handled his apprenticeships. Sure, there’s lots of teaching his apprentices how to make tamagos and massage octopus, but a lot of the training involves the transfer of Jiro’s particular (and almost OCD-ike) approach to serving sushi.

With respect to making sushi rice, I’ve actually taken a class and it’s not easy. It’s not just cooking sushi rice in a bowl. You have to find the right kind of rice, mix in the correct vinegar-miring mix, and you have to fan the rice in a bamboo container until it has the right amount of moisture for sushi-making. I’m sure the top sushi chefs have their own recipe that they don’t share except with their apprentices.

Why It Takes A Decade of Training to be a Head Sushi Chef

Sushi is a major culinary art, not in just in Japan, where it’s become a serious tradition over the last century or more, but here in North America, too. To say that sushi is “basically simple” is a lot like a Japanese chef declaring that western cooking is simple, because what is there, after all, to turning a hunk of beef brown except exposing it to some hot temperature for a while? The difference is that most cooking has obvious complexities, while the complexities of sushi are generally a good deal more subtle – the careful selection of the fish, the preparation and seasoning exactly in accordance with the characteristics of that specific example, the presentation, and lots of other things. Including the quality of the rice, which should be exactly the right temperature and consistency to melt in your mouth without distracting from the texture and flavors of the main feature on top.

I know I’m in a good sushi restaurant when the chef presents the same type of fish at different times in completely different ways reflecting the different flavor attributes of the examples at hand. For instance I’ve had sea urchin wrapped in seaweed with various spices, or I’ve had it over rice with a touch of wasabi underneath and gentle flavorings on top like conventional sushi – and the latter was because it was exceptionally mild and subtle. Or the famed tuna belly, toro, or the most exquisite otoro best part of it – it might be served delicately sliced over a dab of wasabi and rice, or surface-seared with a blowtorch first, or chopped and made into a spiced hand roll. A good chef knows best.

I would personally doubt that there is any serious difference between the flavor of sushis, so long as the chef was a reasonably good cook, in general, and they had good, fresh ingredients. But, from living in Japan, I would certainly say that the focus on quality food is immensely high, and there’s really no limit to the amount of over-analysis that can be put into it and have the audience going, “Yeah, whatever dude.” They’re all in for as deep a load as you can lay on it.

And while most cooks are not particularly well-respected, a real, highly seasoned chef is the equivalent of a master painter or famous orchestra conductor, so far as the Japanese are concerned.

Traditional Japanese arts, crafts, and cultural activities are based on a master-apprentice training system, where the newest trainee starts of doing scutwork like cleaning and running errands and gradually learns things and works their way up the ladder.

Sushi is not as simple as it looks, and the techniques and product used at a high-end traditional sushi restaurant take time to master. That said, most run-of-the mill sushi restaurants (and there are a lot of them in Japan) don’t train nearly as long. Also, itamae don’t really have to train as long as the Japanese system requires (three-to-five years to even be allowed to touch the rice), and there are plenty of well-known Japanese itamae who left for overseas to make a name for themselves rather than go through the full apprenticeship, with Matsuhisa Nobu of Nobu fame being a prominent example.

Why not? The rice is what makes good sushi a good sushi.

Anyway, sushi chefs are highly respected craftsmen. Of course it takes years of apprenticeship and training to attain that title.

OP and many other posters seem not to realize the sushi means vinegared rice. If you’re just talking about raw fish, then that’s sashimi. Good sushi begins and ends with good rice and vinegar, no matter the topping, so of course an apprentice sushi chef should start with learning how to prepare the rice and how to mix in the vinegar.

This post needs to be a sticky.

The other thing to bear in mind is there are countless activities which can be taught in a few hours or days, but can still take a really, really long time to truly master.

It’s pretty straightforward to mix one alcoholic beverage with another and add a mixer, but learning to be an actual bartender takes quite a bit of time and practice to get it right and add a personal touch to it as well.

I understood that just fine. I was just wondering why it took much time to master that type of rice.

Of course, but that’s a lot like saying that the perfect pizza begins and ends with the crust. True enough, as far as it goes, because a crappy crust makes a crappy pizza. But as you move higher into the echelons of elevated goodness, eventually very good bread is just very good bread, and it’s the fine arts of the toppings that make all the difference. Substitute “rice” for “bread”, and with sushi this concept is truly elevated to an art form. It’s not just fine well-crafted rice that makes fine sushi – that’s just the essential base ingredient – the minimum basic – that lets the talented sushi chef truly express his creative abilities.