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Nothing Fishy About Love for Sushi

In a Sterling shopping mall, Yoshiro Katsuyama carves the delicate fish, cooks the sticky rice and folds the ingredients together with quick and efficient fingers like an expert origamist making paper cranes.

His work finished for the moment, he shares a quick smile and slides the white tray of colorful sushi onto the stainless steel surface of the sushi bar at Hooked, a new seafood and sushi restaurant in the Great Falls Shopping Center. Hooked is one of many sushi restaurants that have opened in the past five years in response to the growing demand from residents for a tasty and healthy meal.

"I think sushi is the McDonald's of the 21st century because it’s so healthy," said Martin Lake, 39, a sushi chef at a supermarket in Dulles.

Not all local sushi chefs take Lake’s comment as a complement, but none can deny American culture’s influences on its sushi industry. Many American sushi restaurants go so far as to put mayonnaise and hot sauce into some of their sauces because the tastes are familiar for most customers.

Similar to restaurants of other international cuisine, American sushi bars also often have stereotypical decorations. However, not all new establishments abide by tradition. Hooked’s modern interior design replaces the Asian decorations typical of many sushi restaurants with sheets of blue tinted glass, stylish lighting and an array of soda machines along its back wall.

Even the design of its sushi bar is devoid of Asian flavor, except for the colorful slices of raw fish visibly laid out before each bar seat and the experienced Japanese sushi chefs that work quickly and quietly behind the counter.

FEW LOCAL sushi chefs can boast of a résumé that equals that of Katsuyama, 42, who has 27 years of experience in Japanese cuisine. When he was a teenager in Tokyo, Japan, he says that he had a choice to either continue to attend school or to begin to work. Katsuyama decided to follow in the footsteps of his father, who owned a Japanese noodle restaurant for 50 years.

"The restaurant business was all I was thinking of in elementary school," said Katsuyama. "I didn’t like to study; I liked to eat rice."

So at age 15, he began working his way up the restaurant food chain from dishwasher to busboy to kitchen helper in the slow progression of the traditional Japanese apprenticeship. During the early years of his apprenticeship, he would walk to the Tokyo fish market at six in the morning to buy the restaurant’s groceries.

"In Japan, no one tells you what to do, you have to watch carefully and do it," said Katsuyama. He became a top chef at age 22 after seven years of training and worked at 28 different restaurants in Japan before he moved to the United States in 1993. Katsuyama says that one of the most surprising differences between the Japanese and American sushi industry is customer expectation.

"In Japan, people expect sushi chefs to make over 200 dishes," said Katsuyama. "In America, people expect sushi chefs only to make California rolls."

Katsuyama does not mind making California rolls, which include cucumber, crab and avocado, because that is what many of his customers like. However, he believes that so-called rainbow rolls detract from the sushi philosophy.

"Sushi is a story. Rainbow rolls are not a story because the flavors are all in your mouth at once," said Katsyama. He says that traditional Japanese sushi contain only a couple ingredients.

MOST SUSHI CHEFS agree that the two most important ingredients of sushi are the rice and the fish. But Katsuyama says that the most crucial step in making sushi is cooking the rice. The quality of the sticky rice, or what Katsuyama refers to as simply Japanese rice, depends on how well the rice is rinsed and how much water it’s cooked in.

Katsuyama does not believe, however, that fresh ingredients and good methods will always produce the best sushi. "Chef’s love for the cuisine is the most important," he said.

Ken Park, 33, sushi chef at Samurai Sushi in Ashburn, not only loves making sushi, but also enjoys the communication between the sushi chef and the customers. Park was born in Seoul, South Korea, but did not learn to make sushi until he moved to the United States in 1998. He worked for nine years in a sushi restaurant in Tysons Corner where he learned on the job from other employees, before coming to Samurai Sushi four months ago.

Someday, Park hopes to own his own restaurant, but says that he’ll still be making sushi for his customers even in his own sushi bar.

"Sushi chefs shouldn’t be back in the kitchen," he said.

Park and Katsuyama both believe that sushi can become art if the chef treats it like art.

"Any cuisine is art if it looks art and tastes art," said Katsuyama.

His pet peeve is customers that drown the carefully balanced flavors of his sushi in soy sauce. He says all you need is a quick touch.

"If you put on too much ginger or soy sauce, you ruin the art," said Katsuyama. "Sushi looks simple but there are so many flavors that you deal with."