I offer this anecdote as a relevant peek into Okochi’s personality: He’s no snob. He’s not some 50-year-old crank — well, he did hit the half-century mark last year — who totters to the screen door on lazy Sunday afternoons to yell at the kids to get off his lawn. He’s an open-minded guy, certainly when it comes to the kind of restaurants that Americans care to frequent. He knows dining all boils down to enjoyment, not some mystic quest for authenticity every time you enter an eatery.
Still, in his more reflective moments, he worries about the state of genuine Japanese sushi, the kind that requires years of training, an almost obsessive attention to detail and a passion for fresh, clean flavors. The more he looks around, the more he sees places like Sticky Rice: fun, relaxed but indulgent operations that don’t always bow before the traditions of authentic sushi.
In all fairness, I should say Okochi’s worries are not aimed at Sticky Rice; I am, in fact, the one who dragged him here to gather his impressions of the popular place, where the waits can stretch to 30 minutes or longer. Okochi’s worries are far more universal: He foresees an America full of casual sushi houses, where the fish might be frozen and the rice is not prepared in-house. A place, in short, where the designer maki rolls steal the spotlight from those
elegant rectangles of seasoned rice and raw fish known as nigiri.
You could say Kaz Okochi fears for the future of sushi. “Is it really bright?” he asks, recalling the bastardizations that have occurred with Mexican and Chinese cuisines. “I can’t say that.”
Driving Okochi’s concerns are a
number of trends, almost all of which are out of his control. One, of course, is the economy, which forces many customers to seek dining options cheaper than sushi. Another is China’s newfound appetite for raw fish and how that affects the availability of fish, not to mention the long-term sustainability of fish stocks. Then there’s the issue of trained sushi chefs back in Japan: Apparently their interest in working in the United States is waning.
A shallow chef pool
For evidence of that last trend, Okochi refers me to a Tokyo-based headhunter named Tachio Katabira, who works with restaurants in San Francisco, Seattle, Orlando and other cities to place Japanese chefs and general managers. “These days, we have a big sushi boom in Japan,” Katabira writes via e-mail, translated by Okochi, “and there is so much demand for sushi chefs. They can earn a good salary in Japan so less and less, chefs are willing to take risks to go abroad.”