At Sukiyabashi Jiro – the subject of the 2011 cult documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi – apprentices train for close to a decade before being allowed to even stand at the counter where guests are served. Years of gruelling, repetitive training goes into each task behind the preparation of sushi. While the once three Michelin-starred – revoked for being too exclusive – Sukiyabashi Jiro might be an extreme example, it sets the tone for working in most high-end sushi restaurants – an ascetic environment fraught with rules, tradition and hierarchy.
Given the language and cultural barriers, it’s a wonder that there are non- Japanese sushi chefs at all – and there are many who have overcome such challenges in pursuit of a singular cuisine.
We speak to three such chefs about their experiences.
Back to basics
Kevin Ho, Assistant head chef, Shinzo
Like most of his peers who started their culinary careers in the 90s, Kevin Ho entered the industry out of necessity. Now 46, he spent his first eight months as a waiter at Singapore’s first sushi restaurant Nogawa before being allowed to try his hands in the kitchen after an employee resigned.
As it turned out, Ho’s inability to speak Japanese was a non-issue as most of the chefs in the kitchen at Nogawa – barring the head chef himself – were Singaporeans or Malaysians. Instead of having to repetitively work on a single task, chefs were expected to have a grasp of every station, making it possible to learn almost all the basics in a matter of a few years.
There, Ho tells us, the head chef would test every chef’s craftsmanship. Nigiri sushi, for instance, would be lifted through the centre by a metal skewer, and passing would mean that the piece had held its form for at least a few seconds before falling apart, proving that the rice was packed to just the right tightness.
With decades of experience, Ho reveals that one of the hardest things to do in Japanese cuisine is also one of the first things sushi chefs learn: the maki roll. “You have to get the proportion of ingredients and rice right and roll them to a consistent thickness. And, because a Japanese knife is only sharpened on one side, you had to angle your blade to perform a straight, perpendicular cut. Chefs might be able to make one perfect roll, but to produce 20 identical rolls is extremely difficult.”
(Related: Not all fine dining is created equally)
Nigel Loh, Sous Chef 1, Fat Cow
In his early 20s, Nigel Loh was given two choices: further his studies in college in Malaysia or head to Singapore to work. After stints in casual Japanese restaurants, Loh decided to further his craft and went on to work at places such as Hide Yamamoto and Nogawa. Coming up in this world, he had to navigate idiosyncrasies like the Japanese code words used to denote omakase prices in the presence of customers as well as the names of ingredients. Learning new things required persistence, especially because the senior chefs would not readily volunteer their techniques and recipes. Loh sacrificed his break to observe them and constantly asked for the chance to try his hand at recipes. The senior chefs eventually relented.
Even though being an apprentice or junior cook in a Japanese restaurant in Singapore didn’t entail the grind shown in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the environment is often no less strict. “We would be scolded in Japanese – you can’t understand it but you can tell from the tone – for things like not having the right posture while at the sushi counter,” he shares.
It was also at Nogawa that Loh learnt that years of experience meant more than just the ability to cook. “I’ve always had trouble with butchering anago, but chef (Yoshio) Nogawa took just one look at my technique and was able to correct it within five minutes.”
Now 39 and Sous Chef 1 at Fat Cow, his responsibilities include taking care of the chef’s table omakase – with impeccable posture – as well as the unenviable task of paperwork. While he misses the early days when there were constantly new things to learn, Loh still finds joy in discovering new ingredients – like sea bream fed with mandarins – and techniques, including molecular gastronomy.
Nick Pa’an Head chef, Fukui
Halfway through his first day of work at a Japanese restaurant, chef Nick Pa’an was ready to give up. “I was overwhelmed by all the Japanese terms used in the kitchen, but I decided to stick through with it because it was my first real job,” he shares. Then Pa’an fell in love with the refinement that went into the kaiseki, the traditional multi- course Japanese dinner, cuisine being served at the now-defunct eponymously named Santaro restaurant.
As with many other non-Japanese speakers, Pa’an struggled with the names of techniques and ingredients at first, writing translations down in a notebook he always had on him. While the kitchen environment was a little more localised than those run by Japanese chefs – Santaro’s birth name was Li Kwok Wing – it was no less disciplined. “Santaro-san would often berate me in Cantonese in front of everyone. Although this wouldn’t work in today’s kitchens, it motivated me to work harder then,” shares Pa’an.
Of course, Japanese cuisine has changed since his time at Santaro when all the imported fish came in whole, and restaurants had to clean and prep the seafood for sushi and sashimi. “These days, the fish is already filleted and trimmed, so some younger chefs don’t know how to break down the seafood,” he says. It has also become requisite for Japanese restaurants to stock and use luxury ingredients from the West like caviar and truffles, which is something Pa’an does at Fukui.