Chefs Are Putting New Accents on Sushi

Napoleon Mejia of Honduras works at Sushi-Ko in the District. Only two of the restaurant's eight full-time sushi chefs are from Japan.
Napoleon Mejia of Honduras works at Sushi-Ko in the District. Only two of the restaurant's eight full-time sushi chefs are from Japan. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 23, 2007

If ever there were an institution that would appear to be impervious to the heat of America's immigrant melting pot, it is the sushi bar.

Every slice, every dice is steeped in elaborate Japanese ritual.

The rice must be molded with just the right amount of space between the grains. The fish must be presented according to rules of color and shape as exacting as those for a floral arrangement.

The true professional sushi chef, or itamae, is trained with the meticulousness of a brain surgeon. A year can be spent learning the technique for cutting the thin strips of daikon radish that accompany a sashimi platter, for example.

So particular is the sushi chef's art, so tied to the mother country is the 1,400-year evolution of the cuisine, that restaurants have imported the chefs since the first U.S. sushi bars opened in the 1960s.

But in the way that caviar was, well, overfished, so too have been sushi chefs.

Walk into any decent Washington area sushi bar, and -- although the chefs might greet you with the traditional welcoming cry of "Irashaimase!" -- there's a good chance the accent will be Hispanic, Chinese or Laotian.

At one of the District's oldest sushi restaurants, Sushi-Ko in Glover Park, only two of the eight full-time sushi chefs are Japanese. The rest hail from China, Vietnam, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

Tachibana in McLean employs a Laotian, a Vietnamese and a Salvadoran.

Tako Grill in Bethesda has sushi chefs from El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico.

From Arlington to Rockville, restaurant owners offer the same explanation: With new sushi bars sprouting like shiitake mushrooms and the wait to sponsor expert chefs from Japan growing ever longer, there simply aren't enough Japanese chefs to go around.

"We have four chefs in Japan waiting for the visa to come work for us. But these days, it can take up to five years, and they may change their minds or situations before then," said Terry Segawa, owner of Tako Grill and a founding member of the National Sushi Society. "So it's easier to find somebody here to train as a chef."

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