Sushi is a traditional Japanese food that has found its way into the hearts and stomachs of people all over the world. As a now famous and hugely popular food, whether it be a fine restaurant meal or a quick takeaway lunch, sushi is well and truly in the mainstream and now forms a regular part of many Westerners’ diets.
The components sound simple. Some seaweed, some rice, and some fish. It can’t be that hard, right? Wrong. What many people don’t realise is that it can take upwards of 10 years of training to be an expert sushi chef.
Significance of the sushi chef
In Japan, the title of head sushi chef is extremely prestigious, and as such, is not loosely awarded. Known as Itamae in Japanese, which translates to “in front of the board”, the head sushi chef is ultimately the one in front of the chopping board, responsible for the production of all the sushi. In Japan, the Itamae is even in charge of entertaining guests as well as calculating the final bill at traditional sushi restaurants.
The skills required
Making sushi demands expert knife skills to cut and clean each fish in the appropriate manner. It also involves creating perfectly formed rice cakes, with the right balance of rice and vinegar to complement the fish it is being served with. The rice recipe is in fact a closely guarded secret amongst sushi restaurants. This truly is a precision skill, as the consistency and form of the rice is crucial to the overall taste of the sushi. Finally, knowing which ingredients work well together is absolutely crucial to a successful sushi dish.
So how does one become a sushi chef, ultimately striving for the white apron and chef’s hat of the revered Itamae? The short answer is: years of training, starting at the absolute bottom. This is no exaggeration as in Japan, the expectation is that you will start as the cleaner, eventually graduating to the rice maker, before finally gaining your apprenticeship as a wakiita (which means ‘near the cutting board’). This is a significant event and after this, a student can spend years trying to reach a point where they are able to wield their own set of sushi knives (known as hocho in Japan). Years of investment in practicing and training will eventually see a student go on to become an Itamae, if they are deemed good enough.
If this all sounds a little too serious, it’s because it actually is. Being a sushi chef in Japan is highly revered and honourable. An Itamae must handle their ingredients, knives, and customers with precision, grace, and charm. It is the reflection of Japanese culture’s deep appreciation of respect and honour.
With the rising global popularity of this culinary art form, there are many sushi schools available both in Japan and overseas. Some are just quick certification courses while others are intensive programs. In the past, the minimum amount of time required to become an Itamae was a decade, however as the younger generations have grown increasingly impatient, newer courses have emerged to cater to this demand.
For true legitimacy as an Itamae, you can’t beat training in Japan where there is even a formal grading system. While formal training isn’t necessarily required, it is definitely the fastest and most structured way to learn the trade. In the end however, a certification from a sushi school is no replacement for many years of on the job training as an apprentice. Maintaining the ancient Japanese tradition of sushi making is extremely important, and the decision to become a sushi chef should not be taken lightly!