|In these days of instant communication and immediate gratification, it is unusual and scarce to find members of the younger generation willing to sacrifice the many years and long days learning a skill such as authentic Japanese sushi making under the tutelage of a master chef. In the western world, the term “apprentice” may conjure up the image of a sharply dressed, self-assured young college graduate fighting for the opportunity to work for the well-known corporate icon, Donald Trump. In the Japanese culture, the term apprentice is the old school definition of trainee; somebody who is being trained over a long period of time by a skilled professional in an art, crafts, or trade. Unlike the few weeks commitment that is required on the television show by the same name, the true apprentice in Japan is committed to working for many years under the master until the master sees fit to allow them to work unsupervised.
A typical apprentice to a sushi master is expected to commit to many years of training; ten to fifteen years before they are able to open their own sushi bar. A typical day of a young sushi apprentice starts early in the morning, when the sushi shop must be thoroughly cleaned to the satisfaction of the master. As sushi is prepared raw fish, cleanliness is absolutely essential. Then, it is off to the fish market with the master chef who selects the fish for the day, and the apprentice accompanies him to not only learn the art of careful selection, but is expected to deliver the purchases back to the shop. This stage of apprenticeship continues for several years, the apprentice is learning by watching and soaking up information and is not yet allowed to be in the front of the shop where the sushi bar is located, nor is he allowed to handle the fish.
While the business is ready to open; the apprentice will be in charge of hanging out the “noren” to signify that the business is ready for customers and also will remove the “noren” at closing at the end of the day. During the business hours, the apprentice is expected to help out the master as he is ordered, at first it will be simple tasks such as preparing the “oshibori” or warm cloths that are handing to customers to wipe their hands, or preparing the “agari” or hot tea that welcomes the diners. It is up to the master chef to decide when the apprentice will be allowed to hold the “hocho” or Japanese kitchen knife and actually get to slice the pieces of fish for the sushi or even learn to make “nigiri” under his tutelage. For the time being, the apprentice is relegated to simple tasks on a daily basis that will show his commitment and dedication to the craft. The apprentice’s day at the sushi bar will end with him cleaning up the shop, much as how his day has started. Only late at night, when the customers are long gone; will the apprentice have the opportunity to practice making “maki-mono” or sushi rolls on his own, using the bits of leftover sushi fish from the day.
After five years or so of shadowing the sushi master from afar, the apprentice is finally ready to take on his first important task related to actual sushi making; the careful preparation of the sushi rice. The rice must be prepared according to the strict instructions of the master. Each sushi shop will have their own combination of cooked medium grained rice mixed with their special blend of seasoned rice vinegar that must be delicately blended and fanned into the rice using the special bamboo “oke” that absorbs excess moisture to keep the rice from becoming over saturated. Once the master chef is satisfied with the consistency of the sushi rice making on a daily basis, the apprentice can finally stand next to the master at the sushi bar.
This promotion takes the apprentice from the back of the shop to a more prominent location, where he stands alongside the master at the cutting board. This position is called the “wakiita”, meaning to stand next to the chopping board. The next task that is delegated is usually the preparation of the fresh ingredients for the day. The fish must be scaled, shrimp de-veined, the octopus and squid must carefully cleaned and these tasks are usually relegated to the “wakiita”. As his training progresses, he may also be allowed to prepare sushi rolls for take-out diners. The apprentice will also prepare the accompaniments to the sushi; such as grating the ginger for cutting down the fishiness of cuts such as mackerel and slicing the scallions for toppings on flounder.
After a few years of training as a “wakiita”, the sushi chef may finally be designated an “itamae”. This means that he is allowed to stand in front of the cutting board alone and signifies that he has achieved the status of a master chef, capable of creating artistic and beautiful sushi creations. The “itamae” is not only a superior chef whose skills have been honed from many years of dedication to learning his craft, he must also be skilled at engaging customers; as it is often the popularity of the “itamae” that will draw customers to a specific sushi bar amongst many.
Another interesting element to the apprenticeship of the sushi chef is the rarity of female sushi masters or trainees. Although it may seem to be sexist in our “equal opportunity” culture, it is still a largely held belief in Japan that men make better sushi chefs than women. The reasons for this include the mistaken belief that women’s hands are warmer than men’s, thus making them less desirable in handling the delicate raw fish in the sushi preparation. There is also the mistaken impression that the hair products and make-up used by some women will subtract from the culinary experience of the diner whose focus should be solely be upon the smell and taste of the raw delicacies. Of course, with the changing times; there are more and more women taking on the challenges of sushi apprenticeship in this formerly “men only” world and it is not as rare to find women “itamae” as well.
So, the next time you enjoy a lovely sushi meal prepared by an authentic “itamae”, take a moment to appreciate not only the flavor but also your sushi chef’s long term commitment to the craft of sushi making.
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