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.”
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.”