Think Training to Become a Sushi Chef is Easy? Think Again
There is a misconception in the United States about sushi: because passable sushi can be made at home, many believe that making sushi is as simple as tossing vinegar and sugar on rice, throwing some fish into the equation, and drowning everything in soy sauce and wasabi. However, as the popular Japanese cooking blog Just Hungry details, the best sushi restaurants in the world elevate this humble dish to something else entirely. It all starts with the shokunin, the masters of sushi.
While the majority of local sushi restaurants in the U.S. are staffed by unskilled cooks, fine sushi restaurants from Tokyo to New York only employ master chefs who have completed the rigorous ten year apprenticeship that transforms neophytes into shokunin. As you’ll see, this lengthy training period allows artisans to focus on each facet of sushi making. In the end, these masters help carry on the proud tradition of one of the world’s top cuisines.
The Exhaustive Training of Sushi Masters
- Years One Through Three
- Years Three to Five
- Years Seven and Eight
- Year Nine
- The Final Year
As detailed in the documentary “Sushi: The Global Catch,” the first three years of an apprentice chef’s schooling are focused on learning to cook rice. This includes proper cooking temperatures, separating the grains in a large bamboo bowl, and being able to bring them back together with the proper texture by incorporating vinegar and sugar. This bit of training is why the rice at good sushi restaurants is light years ahead of the rest.
Years three to five see young chefs finally getting to work with the fish that most people associate with sushi. Don’t mistake the meaning here, however, as this stage typically involves learning how to clean the fish. For instance, an apprentice will spend much of this stage learning how to remove the scales from fish with the flat of his or her blade, or learning how to get the toughness out of octopus flesh by massaging it with salt water for hours at a time.
In years seven and eight, the chef is finally able to work with the fish they’ve spent the last few years learning to clean. The chef will really develop his or her knife work, as their master teaches them the proper strokes for cutting perfectly sized pieces of toro, or fatty tuna, for making great sashimi or hand-rolled sushi. At this stage, young chefs will also learn to craft artful displays out of Japanese parsley and other vegetation, the fruits of which can often be seen at the best sushi restaurants in the world.
In the ninth year, apprentices are finally allowed to work by their master’s side. The master will often provide the conversation to the guests, while the apprentice prepares all the sushi. This is the final stage before an apprentice can be called a master.
As highlighted in the award-winning documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” the tenth year of training sees chefs given free reign to entertain and prepare food for the restaurant’s guests. It’s at this time that the title of shokunin, master or artisan, is bestowed upon the chef. After this year, shokunin have their pick of the best sushi restaurants in Japan and elsewhere to work.