Monday, October 22, 2007

First Day at Sushi School... Itadaki Masu

For those of you in the know, I signed up with a school here in LA for a two month program to get a certification as a sushi chef. Honestly, I don't know what I'm going to do with the certification. But since my loss of my dear husband David in the past year, I've been floundering. This at least gives me some sense of direction and accountability for my life. Maybe I'll go into catering, or eventually open a place... or just do what I've been sort of doing and go into culinary consulting of some sort. Regardless, I'm excited to have a purpose for the next little while, and I plan on making the most of it.

Why sushi? I think the best reason I have here is that I'm part Japanese, and I wanted to learn something that would perpetuate some aspect of my "native" culture. Yes, I speak Japanese, and can follow a cookbook, but the skill set is very different from a French/Euro-centric cooking set which I have a fair amount of hands on skill in. Yes, the skills are analogous (a cube cut is a cube cut the world around), but often the tools and methodology are different. Just look at traditional Japanese knives. Many are single-edged and thus handed (meaning my pocketbook screamed when I learned of the surcharge for lefty knives). I have several Japanese knives that I owned before starting school and purchasing the knife kit they recommend. I have a small deba (fish cleaver), an usuba (vegetable knife), and a yanagiba (sashimi sliver), but never learned how to properly handle them. Don't get me wrong, I have decent knife skills with "Western style" knives (gyu-to/French chef's, for example), but the feeling is completely different when cutting something with a double edged versus a single edged knife. The best way I can describe it is that while a standard double edged knife goes "straight" into the product being cut, a single edged knife feels like it "curves" into the product... way weird if you're used to the one over the other. Right here alone was a reason I wanted to learn.

Ok, onto my first actual day of school. I got up early (6:30AM!) and got dressed in my uniform, picked up my knife kit, and trekked down the street while it was still semi dark out. Good thing I left early. Not being used to morning traffic, I didn't realize it would take me as long to go the couple, three miles to the school. Then I didn't realize that the gate to the lot was automated, and I was circling like a dumbass waiting for someone to call me back to give me directions on how to get into the lot (drive up... the sensor will open the gate... duh). But all things said, I got there, and was only several minutes late... Housekeeping was going on, and nothing had started yet.

After the obligatory filling out of paperwork and limitation of liability forms and such, the chef/instructor (who will be referred to from here on out as "Sensei" which is the Japanese term for teacher) gave us an overview of his background, and why he's teaching the class. The reason he wants to do this is because he feels that he wants to pass along the skills that he learned to the next generation. Great!

We were informed of the way the course is set up, and wow, it's fast paced! We're apparently covering all the basics of non-sushi Japanese cooking in 12 days. Of course, we're expected to study and practice on our own time, and to hone our skills. Oh, and we were also asked, if we could, to show up on Saturday to help the school cater an event for 800 people. Whoa! We won't be cooking, but may be asked to help prep basic things and to do some grunt work around the exhibition. I'll definitely have to keep that one in mind.

Onto the kitchen. Today was "basic knife skills." Sensei started out with a potato and showed us how to julienne it by hand. Gorgeous movement. We each got a potato, and were told to do the cuts. I guess 30 plus years of experience makes it look easier than it actually is. I got through this one without too much trouble. I know that I need to get better at making the cuts more uniform, but this wasn't too horrible. Nothing I can't do at home with a couple taters and some time. Then onto a couple other cuts like "half moon" cuts and so on so forth. Each time, we were shown once, and then told to do it. When needed Sensei and his assistant would come over to correct us and guide us in the right way. Still, so far, so good. Stuff that I can do but just need to practice to perfect... then we're asked to do a Katsura-muki. What? That on the first day??? Now I'm feeling inadequate. A kasura-muki is when you take a relatively cylindrical vegetable and make a continuous peel of it which is evenly paper-thin. Suffice it to say that I sucked hardcore on this one. I just kept on angling the knife wrong and just didn't seem like I was getting anywhere on this one. Ugh.

Well, that was day 1. Sensei made dishes out of all the veggies we sliced and we all ate in the cafeteria outside the kitchen and then cleaned up before going home.

Yes, I bought potatoes to practice on.

One thing that was brought up during family lunch really touched me. The idea of food to the Japanese given to us by someone whose worked with it all his life. Sensei explained that the term "Itadaki Masu," said like bon apetit before a meal in Japan, refers to the idea that no matter what one eats, that it has to die for us to be able to consume it. It is with the idea of gratitude that he translated "Itadaki Masu" as "thank you for letting me partake of your life." Even though I speak the language and know the culture, I never thought of it this way. I thought this was a simple and beautiful way of looking at things and also one that spoke to the level of respect on needs when eating and especially handling food.

So, in this new quest of knowledge of mine, I start by saying "Itadaki Masu" to all the knowledge and skill that will be shown to me. I hope I can remember to keep the spirit of respect to be worthy.

Happy Cooking and Eating!

1 comment:

Greg H. said...


I found your blog while searching for sushi school. I appreciate and enjoy reading about your first day. I'm looking forward to reading about the other 11 days.