Sushi standards and the American way


Kaz Okochi, chef-restaurateur at KazSushi Bistro, says he tries to be innovativewith his nigiri—to a point. “I just had tobe careful of where I drew the line.” (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
January 24, 2012

The bucket of tater tots has arrived at Sticky Rice, and I’m trying to figure out whether Kaz Okochi, chef and co-owner of the refined Kaz Sushi Bistro, will indulge in the processed snack at this semi-boho, pan-Asian, highly Americanized sushi house on H Street NE. He takes one of the bronzed nuggets, dips it in the spicy sauce and gobbles it like a pro. Before long, he’s outpacing my own tot consumption.

When I finally ask his opinion of the potato poppers, the usually composed Okochi gives it to me straight: “I love them,” he says. “I keep eating them.”

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.”

But more than that, immigrating to the United States is not as easy as it was in, say, the late 1980s, when Okochi left Japan and moved to America. Applicants from Japan often have to qualify for an E-2 visa, which is reserved for family members and employees of foreign nationals who make a substantial investment in the U.S. economy, perhaps as a partner in an American restaurant.

Darren Lee Norris, co-owner of Kushi Izakaya and Sushi in Mount Vernon Square, remembers the headaches involved in trying to bring over his Japanese chef, Yoshihisa Ota. Norris practically had to prove Ota was a national celebrity before immigrant officials would approve the visa. “We had to go through so much during the visa process,” Norris says.

“The U.S. consulate in Japan has been very tough to chef applicants and receiving a visa is much harder than before,” Katabira e-mails. “We believe the biggest reason is that in the past, there were so many chefs who got an E-2 visa who quit or got fired very quickly because restaurants [or headhunters] didn’t check the chef’s ability to adapt very carefully.”

The apparent crackdown on visas raises an interesting question: Who is preparing your sushi these days?

It could be someone like Jay Yu or Eliel Lopez, a pair of trained sushi chefs who work at Kaz Sushi Bistro. Yu is from China and Lopez from Guatemala, and both have been honing their skills in the raw-fish business for years. Their presence in Okochi’s restaurant underscores the owner’s belief that sushi chefs don’t necessarily have to be born in Japan (although, Okochi acknowledges, a chef’s immersion in Japanese sushi culture is invaluable).

Norris puts the nationality-of-a-sushi-chef question in different terms. “It has more to do with who trained them and who they worked under” than their nationality, he says. In the same breath, though, Norris notes the “talent pool in D.C. is kind of thin,” and it doesn’t appear to be refilling with sushi chefs arriving in waves from Japan.

One potential outcome of this shallow talent pool is that poorly trained sushi chefs will beget more poorly trained sushi chefs, the culinary equivalent of that repeatedly photocopied handout from college. Your sushi, in other words, might be a copy of a copy of a copy, until the nigiri you’re about to eat has little connection to the Japanese culture that birthed it.

The nigiri sushi at Sticky Rice certainly leaves much to be desired. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to single out Sticky Rice — mediocre sushi can be found on almost every corner and every strip center in the Washington area — and I practically have to beg Okochi to offer his thoughts on our nigiri. But proper manners aside, the flaws here are obvious: cold, hard rice shaped more like a miniature golf ball than like the classic oblong form found in authentic sushi houses. There is no smear of wasabi rubbed on the undersides of our fish slices, either. When we bite into the tuna and salmon nigiri, the rice doesn’t fall apart on the tongue, as it should, but instead sits there like a stone.

A couple of days earlier, at Okochi’s restaurant on I Street NW, the chef reeducated me in the precision and craft of genuine Japanese sushi: the knife skills required for different species of fish; the perfect rice texture; the correct plating of nigiri to accommodate either right- or left-handed chopstick users. (Yes, a good chef at a sushi bar will note your dominant hand.) The cuisine, Okochi says, appeals to the exacting nature of the Japanese.

“Everything has to be perfect or it is not accepted,” Okochi notes. “In general, Japanese are perfectionists.”

This cultural difference — the hard-wired fastidiousness of Japan vs. the Hollywood casualness of America — might help explain why Okochi feels glum about the future of authentic sushi. Americans might just not care all that much. They might prefer the wide-open freedoms of maki rolls, whose big flavors and boundless creativity are more aligned with America’s image of itself.

The roll, as Trevor Corson points out in his 2008 paperback, “The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice,” is a U.S. invention, “considered the key innovation that made sushi accessible to Americans.”

When I spoke with Corson by phone, he sympathized with Okochi about the future of sushi in America and even suggested that the future may already be here. The author sees no death of high-end restaurants, where the 1 percenters will still revel in the genuine experience. The loss will continue to occur at mid-grade sushi houses, where the standards have slipped, if indeed there were any to begin with. The subtle interactions of seasoned rice and fresh fish have been reduced to cartoonish wallops of wasabi and soy sauce.

“We could do with a much more authentic sushi experience” in the mid-grade restaurants, Corson says. “If we are going to eat fish, let’s taste it. There are so many sauces and toppings involved, you can’t even taste the fish.”

Cultural elitism

Corson thinks America’s sushi problem, however, manifested itself long before now. The crummy economy, the lack of skilled Japanese chefs, the price of fish and the competition from China may speed the decline of genuine sushi here, but the cuisine’s authenticity was probably dicey from the moment it was introduced to the States, probably in the years after World War II. Corson points a finger at the massive wave of Japanese sushi chefs who arrived in America in the early 1980s. They saw they could make more money by dumbing down the nigiri rather the adhering to its exacting standards.

“There has been a cultural elitism on the part of Japanese chefs, that Americans won’t understand traditional sushi,” Corson says. So some chefs didn’t even bother teaching Americans.

That theory, if true, would essentially point a finger back at Okochi, who arrived in the States in 1988 to work the next 10 years at Sushi-Ko in Washington. Okochi agrees that “some chefs may have had that kind of attitude” back then, but others just wanted to experiment based on the resources available in America.

Okochi himself began to push his cuisine in modern directions after trading ideas with peers and mentors such as Jean-Louis Palladin and Roberto Donna. He even started messing with his nigiri sushi, an area he once considered sacrosanct, by applying garnishes such as mango puree.

“At the beginning, I didn’t do anything with the sushi. But gradually I started to change my mind,” Okochi says. “I just had to be careful of where I drew the line.”

But Okochi will be the first to admit that chefs who followed in his footsteps may not have been rooted in the sushi basics, as he was, so their interpretations of his concepts were perhaps hollow imitations. So did Okochi himself have a hand in the destruction of sushi?

“In my mind, I never thought I was” contributing to the decline, he says. “I was just always trying to improve it.”

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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