Kitchen, Culture & Tools

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In anticipation of visitors in Tokyo, many dream to eat the best sushi, the “real deal”.

So what is the “real deal” anyway? A question I frequently ask myself, this has been on my mind for a while but I just didn’t get around to writing about it. More because these past months I am in Internet hell with no real connection, coupled with many distractions.

The answer lies deep in the traditions of sushi, the discipline and know how of a chef, his style, attitude and approach to his work and customers. His place of work, his fish standard, the rice, making of the rice is all part and parcel to a sushi makers success. However individual technique is what makes the ultimate difference.

In the old days, thirty years ago, I would walk into a high end Tokyo sushi bar and typically the counter would be made from Hinoki, a massive 15+cm solid wood, cleanly finished with out any kind of obvious stains or painted polish. The texture of the wood would be as soft as baby’s skin and you would run your hands over and under the counter in awe.

The walls would be made from simple materials, plaster or paper, the ceiling (a central focus) perfect wooden planks, slightly darker color to instill mood. The lighting would be subtle and the focus was on the counter area and the chef’s area where he worked in quiet. This is not to say that all sushi chefs were quiet, you have two types; speaking and non-speaking types. Those that need to share their thoughts with clients and those that never say a single word. But a chef works in a Zen way, he must be gracious and swift, yet delicate and agile like a swordsmen.

The sushi bar, was not a bar at all, it was a space carefully constructed and signified order; the doorway (entrance) the counter, seating, the floor, walls and ceiling. It was all carefully connected. These spaces were always serene and soft, you would find the same Kitayama Sugi (cedar) used for traditional Japanese tearoom construction in the sushi establishment’s tokonoma alcove’s main column. These trees are immaculate, you couldn’t help to stare at them in awe. Any client could easily recognize their importance and the use of these natural materials, became the standard.

Pictured below is Kitayama Sugi the finish glass smooth, ridges rippled, these cedar trees were raised and processed based on the aesthetic ideals of tea master Sen no Rikyu and would be found in many first class sushi establishments. Class well defined by order and decoration was made up of all the sub-parts mentioned and more.

cedar1

But it wasn’t mandatory, because these traditional elements are complex and could appear in different forms and shapes. But they all shared the same values, a common denominator to construct order and signify culture, a respect for tradition. The design was not arbitrary at all; each design shared the same elements to set a standard, a mutual understanding.

The seats were wooden stools with low backs for good posture, the feeling was all about the “total experience” the idea that time stopped, you found yourself in a space within a space. A space that enhanced your experience, aesthetic values could not be left out or missed. All of this connects to the sushi, the master and his ideologies.

These days when you eat in Michelin restaurants (in Tokyo) young chefs often operate them. Few have any understanding of the tradition having been trained at mediocre sushi establishments. In my view the “Jiro craze” is partially to blame for the downfall of tradition in sushi today.

The glorification of Jiro san’s life and his sushi, his story is not much different then most chefs. But he is just too busy being famous, making movies and talking about his life. He didn’t spend enough time helping Michelin set the standards for sushi. Instead he was elevated to a three star status by Michelin through an intensive search guided in part by Mr. Joel Robuchon, a renowned French chef and close friend of Jiro san.

Jiro san’s celebrity status is just about over as he is too old to be a part of the sushi scene anymore. He is all about glorifying sushi without doing much to maintain its current values. How absurd is it to have a sushi counter where the master isn’t cutting the fish, this is Jiro san in a nutshell.

Look at the Michelin chef’s today, their knives are usually fancy, used to impress the clients who know next to nothing about sushi haven eaten in New York or LA or wherever. Their ugly granite counters are a symbol of their own ignorance because hard surfaces do not belong in important spaces in Japan. So you can see space is key, it must only include natural domestic materials and not any kind of imported shiny materials that so many Michelin restaurants have today. No imported flowers or objects that are non-Japanese.

Harmony is what it takes to experience a first class sushi experience, not mahogany handles or shiny blades that pierce your eyes. Their tools should be humble, simple and very sharp. But they are only valuable in the hands of an experienced chef, a person that works with a certain humility, and puts his customers first.

The fact that Japanese culture is becoming more and more based on cheap status, chefs continue (as many do in the rest of the world) to make mistakes that wouldn’t normally have happened in the past. The screaming out a loud in Nobu of “irashimasae” to welcome guests is almost laughable.

The disposable is more and more disposable, it isn’t about plastic containers, it is about how the lack of culture has taken a primary role in the way we live, think and eat. Life is all about our own fulfillment, fueling our stomachs with the ultimate experience without really understanding the experience itself. We forget too quickly how foods developed, how people and society respected the standards and those standards were not written in books, they were by word of mouth.

Sadly life is moving quickly and we are lucky to have “slow food” to help keep us on an even and straight track. Nonetheless it seems to circle back to being a continuation of showing off, flipping tuna, handling fish in a way that makes me cringe, or waving their hands in a sawing motion (making sushi) as if they are dancing with themselves.

This criticism isn’t meant to be targeted at customers that don’t know better. It isn’t their fault but at the same time, if no one cares about knowing the difference, they live in a fake state of bliss.

Many of the new Michelin sushi establishments are a fast fix, a short cut filled with too much wrong. We shouldn’t forget that without tradition, hierarchy and order, we have foods that we think taste good. In that case eat at McDonalds because their business is based on good taste.