Some days I wonder if it was John Belushi who ruined sushi in America.
If you've seen Belushi's "Samurai Delicatessen" skit, originally performed on Saturday Night Live in 1976, you'll remember him channeling a touchy Japanese chef, perpetually on the verge of violence, who screamed out loud while slicing ingredients with a sword.
Belushi's character was a riot, but would you really want him making your lunch? Apparently, for many sushi lovers in America, the answer is "yes."
Consider this inquiry I received from a reader named Peter the other day:
"Does etiquette permit a customer to request sushi without any wasabi? I've always been afraid to ask. ... There are those famous sushi chefs who kick you out of the restaurant."
Here we have a patron with a simple request--no different, in fact, from a customer at a deli who asks that his sandwich be "very lean on the corned beef," as the customer does in Belushi's "Samurai Delicatessen."
Yet poor Peter is genuinely terrified that the chef will banish him for his insolence, if not disembowel him with a fish knife.
It seems to me that no dining experience should involve this much fear. Unless you're deliberately after a plate of poisonous blowfish. But as Peter's comment reveals, many sushi chefs in America have built reputations by inspiring just such dread.
Chief among these is probably Kazunori Nozawa in Los Angeles, whose habit of ejecting customers for minor infractions of etiquette earned him the nickname "the Sushi Nazi"--a formulation borrowed from a popular episode of Seinfeld that featured a dictatorial soup vendor called "the Soup Nazi."
Every profession has its share of nitpickers and curmudgeons. So why have Nozawa and his ilk acquired such fame? Last fall, the Wall Street Journal even published a report about them called "The Sushi Bullies." The article claimed that such behavior is the norm in Japan.
But the article also quoted a Japanese chef and instructor named Toshi Sugiura who said quite the opposite--that traditionally, sushi chefs are trained to be polite and friendly, like neighborhood bartenders. So which is true? Is the caricature of the crazy samurai chef based in reality or not?