Sushi's Ascent in America
ANTHONY BROOKS, host:
Back now with DAY TO DAY. Finally today, a story about a new book called "The Zen of Fish." It traces the history of sushi from Tokyo street food to a gourmet delicacy to supermarket staple.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates went along with the author, Trevor Corson, to the California Sushi Academy.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: It's eight in the morning. Outside the California Sushi Academy, commuters are passing by this modest storefront on their way to work. Inside, huge stainless refrigerators thrum.
As he pulls fish of the day from his small personal cooler, Zoran Lekic is quizzing his seven students. They call out answers as they set up their cutting boards and lay out their knives.
Mr. ZORAN LEKIC (Instructor, California Sushi Academy): (Unintelligible) wasabi soy sauce? Yeah, that's it.
Unidentified Man #2: Ito(ph).
Mr. LEKIC: Ito means a (unintelligible). Ito's a (unintelligible), okay?
BATES: Here at the academy, class work can involve something as subtle as making whisper-thin slices of giant clam or as muscular as ripping apart an octopus to prep it for the sushi bar.
Mr. LEKIC: Wash up the slime. You can't work with all this slime, okay? Then taking off the head and legs, okay? Get up inside, twist and pull; feel the vertebrae and get your finger between there, twist and pull.
BATES: These seven have all signed on for a three-month intensive course the academy offers. At the end, they'll be able to staff a sushi bar as certified sushi chefs.
Writer Trevor Corson was interested in tracing how sushi evolved from a lowly street snack in Japan into an American favorite. He decided to focus his story to the students at the California Sushi Academy.
Mr. TREVOR CORSON (Author, "The Zen of Fish"): This was a great vehicle for getting into sushi because I was able to talk about sushi becoming American, but also we were able to - I was able to look at each different ingredient and type of fish and get into all of that because the students were studying them in class.
BATES: The result of his immersion into the student's work is "The Zen of Fish." It's a book about the sushi business told through their experiences. Today, Trevor is taking time from his book tour to visit a new class. He wants to discover what inspired them to become sushi professional.
Most had other jobs before they came. Marco Ensaldo(ph) is a former flight attendant. That experience taught him to read the customer, something he and Trevor agree is a skill that's important for sushi chefs, too.
Mr. MARCO ENSALDO (Student, California Sushi Academy): We know how to recognize the need, the fear, the behavior of the people.
Mr. CORSON: Sushi really should be a social experience between the chef and the customer. What you're saying is that it's the chef's job to help the customer go to new places.
BATES: Or, as academy founder Toshi Sugiura puts it…
Mr. TOSHI SUGIURA (Founder, California Sushi Academy): A sushi chef is also entertainer and customer is like the audience.
BATES: David Soun(ph) is the youngest student at the academy. Unlike the others, he didn't come from a previous job. David graduated from high school last year and he wanted to go to college but didn't have the money.
He had a patchwork of jobs in his Koreatown neighborhood, but, he tells Trevor, sushi might have saved him in more ways than one.
Mr. DAVID SOUN (Student, California Sushi Academy): (Unintelligible) was like street business, just selling, like, drugs and stuff on the streets. You know, one day I went online and looked up, like, careers. And I saw sushi, then I looked into it and it said it was only like three months. I was like, three months? If I get could this done in three months, man, then I'm good.
Mr. CORSON: So it's going to be a shift for you to take your street smarts and apply them behind the sushi bar, the interacting with customers.
Mr. SOUN: Yeah.
BATES: Zoran Lekic believes each one of the current students is dead serious about learning sushi. A lot of people think they want to do it, he says, then they find out what the job really involves.
Mr. LEKIC: I think I see when they go to a sushi bar, they see the glitz and glamour. They see the sushi chef happy, smiling, drinking sake and drinking beer and having fun behind the sushi bar.
So they think it's a great, glamorous job. But then when they come here, they see how many hours you have to work. You get up at 4:00 in the morning to go to the fish market. And you have to go back, clean fish, cook rice, wash rice and still have to smile at nighttime when you're serving customers. It's a long day. And then they learn the hard way it's not as glamorous as it is.
Unidentified Group: (Unintelligible)
BATES: Kate Murphy(ph) can second that. She's one of the students Trevor follows in his book. Kate came to a mini reunion at a Japanese restaurant in L.A. with Trevor and some of her classmates. As we sit in the courtyard, she tells me how she decided to go to sushi school.
Ms. KATE MURPHY (Former Student, California Sushi Academy): I saw a random sign off the freeway. I thought it would be fun. I put the phone number in my phone, had it for like a year before I actually went and ended up loving it.
BATES: She was a little intimidated on her first day.
Ms. MURPHY: I didn't have any kitchen experience or restaurant experience, and there were a lot of knives and I didn't know how to use any of them.
BATES: But she learned and now she's a successful sushi chef in San Diego. Outside the academy the next day, Trevor Corson says that the widespread appeal of sushi and even some of its accompaniments means we're going to have to eat more mindfully if we want subsequent generations to enjoy sushi, too.
Mr. CORSON: As we start to realize the environmental cause of transporting food and everything, we should factor that into our thinking about sushi as well. The popularity of sushi does make it worse. It puts extra pressure particularly on fish like blue fin tuna. And I basically don't really eat blue fin tuna anymore.
BATES: Trevor doesn't consider this a big sacrifice. Although we think of sushi as fish, sushi really is the vinegar-flavored rice that forms the platform for the fish. Anything on top of that rice become sushi - seafood, vegetables, even meat or poultry, and new fish we haven't even been exposed to yet.
Mr. CORSON: There's all kinds of other interesting fish to eat that aren't, I mean, all fish have some issues, but, you know, there aren't going to be that huge disaster for the environment, say, that wiping out blue fin tuna would mean.
BATES: Which means your next sushi chef may have to offer options beyond spicy tuna rolls and toro sashimi.
Mr. LEKIC: And tomorrow, catch a tiny fish tomorrow (unintelligible). So Wednesday, we (unintelligible) then Thursday we're going to do (unintelligible) or eggs. And then Friday, sushi review.
BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.
BROOKS: And I'm Anthony Brooks.