What makes one sushi chef better than another?

There’s a sushi place in japan called Sukiyabashi Jiro that’s supposed to be the best sushi in the world. Anthony Bordain has a segment on it:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yuhu4QZJZyw
and there’s even a documentary coming out called “Jiro Dreams Of Sushi” that spends two hours talking about what an incredible genius the chef is, etc.

But what makes his sushi any better than anyone else’s? It’s raw fish, he doesn’t cook it any special way. He didn’t invent any new recipies – it’s just raw fish and rice, same as everyone else. His soy sauce is the same recipe as anyone else’s. He doesn’t make any unusual rolls. He has no “signature dish” that only he makes and no other chef has. The decor of his restaurant is plain; the service seems ordinary. Maybe he pays extra to get fresher ingredients, but does that make him a great chef? By that logic, even I could be a great sushi chef if I just hired away his fish buyer.

So gourmet sushi foodies – convince me. What makes this guy’s sushi better than any other chef that is willing to spend the money to get equally fresh fish?

Well, as the chef with his reputation on the line, he can accept or reject a piece of fish as adequate for the purpose or not. Someone sloppier would, theoretically, serve something slightly sub-par.

Their skill with the knife is important. For example, sushi is to be served at a very specific temperature. Handling the fish excessively warms it. Someone more confidant can get the fish prepare and served before it changes. This is very serious to true sushi aficionados. Some believe that women can’t be excellent sushi chefs, because when they’re menstruating, their body temperature rises by 2 - 3 degrees. Sounds silly to me, but this is important, they say.

Listen. I eat supermarket sushi and like it. So I’m not part of this crowd. But real foodies are often obsessing over esoterica like this.

It’s just like in the US where somebody will break a story about “this little BBQ place in the beat-up trailer on the side of ghetto town has the best ribs in America”, and a line forms outside, and then the line gets longer because there’s a line. It’s the same thing in Japan, times 100.

What makes a good sushi chef, apart from the ingredients, is that he attends closely to his customers, notices what they like and dislike, makes special items according to their taste, slips in an expensive freebie occasionally, can spin some good yarns about fish or whatever, and generally makes everyone feel like they got a unique special snowflake experience.

At least with BBQ, there are different recipes – people cook the meat for different amounts of time and at different temperatures, rub it with different spices first, use a different recipe for the sauce, etc. Harder to see the differences with sushi, though.

Knife skill is important, it’s kind of hard to make paper thin slices of raw fresh fish.

Interesting – but I understand that in Japan, unlike American, they eat sushi with their hands, not chopsticks. If the slight increase in temperature from touching sushi was really such an incredibly huge deal, then wouldn’t chopsticks be necessary to eat it?

The rice is really important in sushi - actually, “sushi” means rice, not fish, and some types of sushi have no fish at all in them (mmm… plum rolls).

Preparation of sushi rice is one of those things where the most basic basics are simple but truly mastering the thing takes years, or even decades. So, in addition to the chef only purchasing the most excellent fish, he would likewise have to have the most exquisitely prepared rice. Likewise, all other ingredients would have to be the finest, like actual wasabi and not simply dyed horseradish, fresh vegetables, carefully prepared eggs, etc.

Also, some of the plain and simple appearing Japanese cultural things incorporate a really high level of precision. And a lot of sushi has to do with the presentation - the proper color and shape of dishes for serving maki and nigiri, ornamentation (in low-budget places that might be plastic representations of garnish, in truly high end establishments it’s elaborately cut/shaped/etc. leaves and stuff), and so on.

So truly high-end sushi involves very precisely prepared, very fine ingredients arrayed and presented on carefully chosen dishes/trays to complement the colors of the food, often with a very formal placing on the table. If the cook likes you, there can also be specially prepared items for your specific pleasure.

I went to a sushi place with a friend some years ago. After observing our choices - without us being aware of that observation - and our evident enjoyment the chef presented us with a tray that contained three specially made items: one for me, one for my friend, and one for us to share. The individual items were specific to our favored but differing tastes,and the shared one targeted those things we both liked. It was a very flattering thing to do for us, and how a sushi chef may distinguish himself from others. The two nigiri and the maki roll didn’t look particularly special, but they tasted wonderful.

Mind you, I am not some ultra-sophisticated sushi snob. I can happily eat “supermarket sushi” and enjoy it. But for a complete sushi experience there’s more than just the food, all the senses are supposed to be incorporated. It’s the difference between listening to opera on your iPod and actually attending a live opera production.

This is one of those bits of sushi folklore that gets tossed about a lot in the US… but in my 8 years living in Japan, I never once saw a Japanese eat sushi with their hands.

[nitpick]it refers to the rice, but the word sushi is actually an adjective meaning “vinegary”[/nitpick]

And even if one did it’s not like he’d be handling the sushi for more than a second or two.

My favorite chef was Korean, and did basic sushi and other items. He picked and prepared ingredients well, he had a number of personal dishes. He would, once you demonstrated a taste beyond California roll, present you with new things.

We did a number of items, one of which I got to name. We could also “Iron Chef” him - we could bring him or suggest to him ingredients, and he would crank out beautiful things.

If you have a chef like him, get him chipped, so he can’t disappear.

As for fingers versus sticks, it depends.

Sashimi - probably sticks
Chirashi - sticks
Nigiri - fingers
Temaki/Hand roll - fingers
Osaka/Hako-zushi - usually sticks, unless you want a real mess

I agree that preparing the rice correctly is a huge part, if not THE most important part in making good sushi.

I’m not a sushi snob, but if the rice isn’t perfect, then you aren’t the best sushi chef.

Everyone else is basically spot on when they say a great chef is someone who you like, who is nice, picks fresh ingredients, presents things well, etc.

I agree with Broomstick, the rice is key. I’d say the main difference between good sushi and bad sushi is the rice.

And personally I use chopsticks for all sushi except temaki.

Moved to Cafe Society from GQ.

Colibri
General Questions Moderator

Sushi in Japan is eaten with chopsticks, not with your fingers. As the above poster, I too am claiming this on the basis of having lived there.

As other posters have said, preparing the rice for sushi is very important. It must be cooked perfectly, and even the same variety of rice needs different amounts of water based on how old it is. Then it has to have the correct amount of Mirin added and mixed in deftly so that the grains of rice remain unbroken. While the sushi chef mixes the rice it is fanned by a junior chef to cool it off. When nigiri sushi is formed in the hands it should not be mashed together or remain so loose that it will fall apart. All that is just for the rice. If there is a seaweed wrap it needs to be toasted to be crisp, but not so much so that it becomes brittle. Fish need to be broken down correctly because different parts of the same fish have different flavor and textures. The blocks of fish need to be shaped exactly so when it is sliced the grain of the fish goes the right direction and the size of the pieces are consistent and pleasing. “Eel sauce” and other ingredients are made in house by good restaurants, and no they don’t all just use the “same soy sauce”. All of the ingredients must be of the highest quality so having the respect of your suppliers is important. Joe Schmo walking in off the street is not going to get the same stuff that a chef with 30 years of experience in a restaurant that may have been in business 100 years will get.

Japanese food is full of subtleties. Some of it may be snobbery, but there is no question that preparing sushi of the best quality is an art that takes years to master.

Nigiri can be eaten with the fingers. I guess you could try to eat temaki with chopsticks - with really large chopsticks.

My wife, who is Japanese, and her mother, who is even more Japanese both say it is ok to eat sushi by hand.

My mother in law, who is much more in touch with Japan than my wife (who hasn’t really been back since they emigrated in the '70s) says it is a relatively recent thing–not sure what that means when you’re 80–that eating it with chopsticks really came to dominate to the point that it has become borderline gauche to do so (but she still does at home).

Other people have mentioned the rice, and it’s true that it makes a big difference, but I must take exception to the statement that “it’s just fish, same as everyone else”.

Not all fish is the same. Not at all. In Japan, a good sushi chef must constantly be on the lookout for the best possible fish he can get. It’s certainly not a matter of just going to the market and picking out what looks good, even when that market is Tsukiji. A good chef will know that right now, the best place to get fish x is from port y. This can vary from week to week and depending on the climate varies from year to year. Often, really outstanding fish will get sold based on personal connections before it even makes it to the market. If you want to serve spotted halibut in your restaurant, you’d better have friends who are fish wholesalers, otherwise getting some is pretty much like playing the lottery.

Furthermore, at the absolute top end, sushi is not just about placing a slab of fish on a ball of rice. There are very simple but also subtle recipes. A chef may add a few grains of salt to one piece, and baste the fish with a touch of soy for another.

As for eating with the hands, you’re never going to see it in cheaper places, but from my experience, I would say that about 5 to 10 percent of customers in mid to high end places do use their hands and not chopsticks.

I think part of it depends on location and style, in gradients. For example, a very formal and traditional sushi chef that sticks to certain very Japanese aesthetics and ingredients is probably valued and venerated very highly in certain parts of Japan, and maybe considered a Sensei and transmitter of several generations of tradition and knowledge. Whereas, say the Sushi Chefs for Hard Rock Casino’s Sushi Bar or some Los Angeles Sushi Chefs are probably going to have a more fun, eclectic, and creative, fusion style and cooking POV. I guess the equivalent in prestige would be, say a French Chef, versus an American Chef, in classical terms. Really, I think it’s mostly a fetishization and romantic thing for purists or American Nippongophiles, rather than a huge difference in the actual food.