Behind the bar: the secret life of a sushi chef


TODAY'S culinary topic is: How to make sushi. I happen to be an expert on
this topic because I recently put in a stint as a chef at an actual sushi
restaurant. (One of the first things you learn, as a sushi chef, is how to put in a

Before I give you the details I should explain, for the benefit of those of you
who live in remote wilderness regions such as Iowa, what sushi is. Basically, it
is a type of cuisine developed by the Japanese as part of an ancient tradition
of seeing what is the scariest thing they can get you to eat raw.

The way they do this is, they start out by serving you a nice, non-threatening
piece of fish, from which all the identifying fish parts have been removed. This
fish is safe to eat and tasty. But the trick is that it's served with a green
condiment called ``wasabi,'' which is the Japanese word for ``nuclear
horseradish.'' This is an extremely spicy substance, the formula for which must
never be allowed to fall into the hands of Saddam Hussein. If you put more
than two wasabi molecules on your sushi and eat it, your hair will burst into

So, after consuming some wasabi, you naturally order a cool refreshing
Japanese beer to pour on your head and perhaps, since you have the bottle in
your hand anyway, wet your whistle with. The result is that your judgment
becomes impaired, which is when they start trying to get you to eat prank
food, such as sea-urchin eggs. Sea urchins are vicious, golf-ball shaped,
poison-spined sea creatures whose sole ecological purpose is to ruin your
tropical vacation by deliberately not getting out of your way when you are
wading barefoot. If you eat the eggs of this animal, and fail to chew them
thoroughly, you could develop an alarming medical condition that doctors call
``baby sea urchins walking around inside your body poking holes in your

Other prank foods that they will try to get you to eat at sushi bars include eels,
clam parts, jellyfish, tentacles with flagrant suckers, and shrimp with their
eyeballs still waving around on stalks. If you eat those, the waiter will become
brazen and start bringing out chunks of coral and live electric eels. My point is
that, in a sushi restaurant, you must watch carefully what you eat. (This is
exactly what ``The Star-Spangled Banner'' is referring to when it says ``o'er the
clam parts we watched.'')

Despite this, I happen to be a big fan of non-prank sushi. And so when Bok
An, the proprietor of Sakura, my local sushi restaurant in Coral Gables, Fla.,
invited me to be a guest sushi chef, I enthusiastically answered: ``No!'' I was
afraid that I'd have to touch an eel. I am 51 years old, and I did not get this far
by touching eels.

But Bok assured me that we would stick to basic fish species such as tuna,
salmon and cucumber. And thus I found myself one Tuesday night wearing a
samurai-style headband and standing behind the sushi bar, blending in
perfectly with the other sushi chefs, except that my headband was actually the
belt of my bathrobe.

B OK stood next to me and prepared various sushi items, and I attempted to
imitate him. Here's the recipe: You start with a little rectangle made of dried
seaweed (I asked Bok where the seaweed comes from, thinking he would name
some ancient Japanese seaside village, and he said, ``a distributor''). Then you
pick up a glob of special sticky rice and spread it evenly on the seaweed. At
least Bok did. The majority of my rice remained firmly stuck to my hands and
started migrating to other parts of my body. I may have to have it removed

Next, you cut up your ingredients, using a lethal-looking, extremely sharp
sushi knife that causes professional sushi chefs to become very nervous when
it is being wielded by a professional humor columnist. Then you put these
ingredients on the rice and execute the secret sushi-rolling technique, which is
difficult to describe in English words, as we can see by this actual transcript of
Bok explaining it to me: ``OK, you go like this, Boom! Then you go, Boom!
Boom! Boom!''

The thing was, when Bok went boom, he produced this attractive, appetizing
cylinder of sushi. Whereas when I went boom, I produced this mutant food
unit leaking random seafood parts. I also had a problem with my sizing: Sushi
rolls are supposed to be small, bite-size morsels; mine were more along the
lines of seaweed-covered hams.

But I kept trying. Remember the movie ``Karate Kid,'' where the mean bully
beats up Ralph Macchio, but then Ralph studies karate under Mr. Miyagi, and
then finally, in the big tournament with everybody watching, Ralph stuns the
bully by rolling a reasonably tight cucumber roll? Well, that's what I did. In
fact, I may have a knack for it. So if one day you walk into a Japanese
restaurant, and you see, standing behind the sushi bar, what appears to be a
man-size blob of rice wearing a blue bathrobe belt on its head, feel free to say
hi. But keep your distance if I'm holding a knife.

Write to Dave Barry in care of the Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Drive, San
Jose, Calif. 95190.

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