If there’s one knock on sushi, it’s the extreme lack of diversity in its ranks. Japanese males overwhelmingly dominate the field, and many believe that no one besides this narrow subset of practitioners is capable of making sushi properly. This prejudice has existed since modern-day sushi was conceived in the early 19th century, much to the chagrin of women who have entered the field only to meet fierce resistance from traditionalists.
While gender poses a threat to the established hierarchy, so too does race. Just ask John Daley, a Caucasian sushi chef at New York’s Sushi Ko, who has been studying the craft for 11 years. Being white in a Japanese-dominated art form presents a different set of hurdles, drumming up questions about authenticity and culinary responsibility. We asked Daley to recount his experience and shed light on his journey so far.
Even without the handicap of race, the world of sushi is extremely demanding. The practice of making sushi is one of the hardest and most taxing trades—you’re up at 6am and work until midnight. It’s just what people do. It’s a crazy business. Factor in he added hurdles that come with being Caucasian in the field, and that will pretty much stop you at the door unless you speak Japanese fluently or have prior sushi experience. You have to understand that Japan is a relatively closed society; they have been secluded on the island for a long time.
I was lucky enough to take the back door in. Essentially, I am a classically trained sushi chef. I was a line cook for about six years before going to Masa, which was my first exposure to Japanese food, and specifically sushi. I gained experience by being a tempura chef, and during my downtime, I would clean fish and show interest in what the sushi chefs were doing. I spent about 2 ½-3 years just washing rice. Only after that I was able to clean fish, and only clean fish—never cut it. To get in the door, you have to go above and beyond. Like I said, you either have to know someone in Japan or prove to someone in the States that you are worth the trouble to take on.
I’ve been making sushi for about 11 years now. For three years, I was under the tutelage of my master at 15 East after already having 12 years kitchen experience. A lot of apprentices in Japan don’t have that background, and that’s because usually they’re teenage boys when they start. I began my official apprenticeship at age 28. My master physically beat me, which is a common practice. It’s corporal discipline. But this was well into adulthood. That’s a lot different than a 20-year-old boy. I can say confidently that after the first time it happened, all of my co-workers had a newfound respect for me.
Even so, it’s hard to win over the Japanese clientele. Years ago, gaining respect from traditionalists might have been a fear of mine. They would say things like white people have too big of hands, or that we don’t understand flavors because we didn’t grow up eating the foods. Any excuse you can think of. I’ve had everything said to me.
“A sushi man is someone who just puts fish on rice. A sushi chef thinks, tastes, feels. That’s the difference between a sushi man and sushi chef.”
When I was working at 15 East, some customers would get up and leave once they saw my master wasn’t there. They’d see I was Caucasian and have their doubts. It was really rude—you see me working with my master every day for the past three years, then my master goes on vacation, and all of a sudden you don’t want to eat his rice, his fish, his vinegar, because his sushi is being made with my hands? It’s a very frustrating situation to face repeatedly. It’s one of those things where I know that if I do the very best I can, use the best of my ingredients, and use the best of my training and people skills, it should be no problem.
I’ve been facing this judgement for so long now. I’ve had times where it brings me to tears, where I’m so confused. I’m not stupid, and yet people still second-guess me and think I’m a child. That happened in Japan a few times. I remember one instance: I took the order correctly, translated it correctly, and yet people started doubting my ability, asking “oh, did he get it right?” It’s like, just trust me a little bit.
What I do find amusing is the way in which Japanese chefs patronize non-Japanese chefs. I often contrast it with Japan’s whole-hearted embrace of baseball: Americans aren’t leery of Japanese ballplayers in the same way that Japanese sushi chefs are leery of American sushi chefs. Sushi in Japan is a national pastime, but so is baseball in America. And yet some of the best baseball players are Japanese. So I want to prove that some of the best sushi chefs can be Caucasian.
“Right now, if I had a sushi bar in Japan, I think it would be decently successful, but…I would be a novelty. They have cafés for cats. I would be another cat café. Are we ever going to reach a point where a Caucasian chef is as recognizable as someone like Nakazawa?”
Generally speaking, it’s true that white sushi chefs operate in a more relaxed setting. I find that lends itself to risky exposure. I prefer to adhere to a stricter tradition. Because, for lack of a better term, that’s how I’ll get my street cred. If I start acting like I’m not Japanese, that’s the moment I fail.
I think other than having a few tattoos and sometimes being a little bit louder than I should be, I conduct myself in a manner fitting of a Japanese sushi chef. You have to be a little stubborn, but there is a vision, and I want to see that vision through. The other day I had two Japanese females at [Sushi Ko] and they said, “Wow, there are a lot of rules!” I said, “Those rules are here for people’s enjoyment.” I was kind of shocked to hear that from a Japanese person who should understand the importance of structure. But at the end of their meal they were satisfied, and realized why I enforced these rules in the first place.
Sushi is strictly Japanese—not like ramen. There are several images you conjure up when you think of Japan: a big red circle, a mountain, or a piece of sushi. So the Japanese have been very guarded about it. I want to respect that, and I want to keep sushi guarded. So I try to do everything to not be American behind the sushi bar. Of course, I still try to be myself, and let my American qualities shine through Japanese parameters. But only once we’ve established the rules. Even beyond my own restaurant, I have to uphold that. Think of it this way—I follow a formula that has worked for hundreds of years. For me to stray from that, that would be my first mistake. Do you want to make sushi, or do you want to make raw fish and rice? To practice sushi, you have to adhere to those practices and traditions. Otherwise, you are not honoring it.
That’s the difference between a “sushi man” and “sushi chef.” Those are terms Japanese people use. A sushi man is someone who just puts fish on rice. A sushi chef thinks, tastes, feels. You have to be intuitive. You have to talk to your guests. There are two-, three-, four-hundred people that can make sushi that I would never allow to step behind my sushi bar in a million years. That’s just the truth.
People call themselves a sushi chef after two to four years of making sushi, or going from restaurant to restaurant instead of taking up an apprenticeship. That doesn’t fly in my book. When a white sushi chef says, “I would work there, but it was too demanding,” then I say you are definitely too weak and we are not cut from the same cloth. I’m sorry, but I’ve personally worked too hard to overcome those obstacles. I’m really adamant about that.
“When a white sushi chef says, “I would work there, but it was too demanding,” then I say you are definitely too weak and we are not cut from the same cloth.”
I get eight meals a month to eat outside my sushi restaurant. The last thing I’m going to do is spend that precious time dealing with someone who doesn’t have the same system of beliefs with their food. If you’re going to be creative, make sure you build on tradition rather than ignore it. Use your brain, but don’t start putting apples on a sashimi dish just because apples taste good.
But here’s the thing: In many respects, I also recommend eating with a white sushi chef. He’s probably had to train a lot harder and knows a little bit more about what is actually going on then, let’s say, someone who can just land a sushi job just because he is Asian; in that sense, they literally bring nothing to the table besides being Asian.
Right now, if I had a sushi bar in Japan, I think it would be decently successful, but for a slightly different reason: I would be a novelty. They have café’s for cats over there, and I would be another cat café.
Of course, things will keep evolving. Are we ever going to reach a point where a Caucasian chef is as recognizable as someone like Nakazawa? Yes. I think there are going to be a couple of us in the running for it. You are going to have a recognizable white American sushi chef soon, a household name. And I hope that individual adheres to tradition and is a hard-ass. Because when it comes down to it, I want to look up to that person.
As told to Justin Bolois
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