Video: "Roll Reversal"
Trevor Corson visits a diverse group of chefs who are adding new cultural inflections to traditional Japanese sushi making.
A quiet revival of authentic Japanese sushi is under way in the U.S., and it contains the seeds of a revolution that could make eating sushi both more enjoyable and more ecologically sustainable. But this trend is easy to miss, because the new face of sushi isn’t always Japanese, or even Asian.
During the pleasant years I spent in Japan, friends would take me to neighborhood sushi joints. Most of the customers would sit around the counter, while the chef, a convivial character who knew many of his patrons, would suggest dishes based on the seasonal and local delicacies he had purchased that morning. After I returned to the U.S., I made a strange discovery: most American sushi diners sat at tables and ordered from menus, through waiters. Confused, I would seek out the sushi bar, but when I sat down, the Japanese chefs were initially standoffish, even dismissive. As soon as I explained—in Japanese—that I’d lived in Japan, they treated me differently.
Jeffrey Nitta helped me understand what I was experiencing. Nitta, a restaurant consultant in Los Angeles, has watched the sushi business since it took root in the U.S. in the 1970s. He and I quickly bonded over our nostalgia for the Japanese way of eating sushi. “The whole industry of sushi worries me,” Nitta told me. “There’s no more chefs getting to know customers.” Nitta’s explanation: “Most Japanese restaurant people think that Americans ultimately cannot appreciate the real deal.”
Instead of teaching us about the full range of sushi fish and shellfish, as well as the varied tastes and textures of the cuisine, most sushi chefs in the U.S. have neglected the Japanese style of eating and force-fed us simplistic menus that feature the least environmentally friendly—and least healthful—items: at the high end, bluefin tuna; at the low end, fatty belly cuts from lesser tuna; along with fatty industrial salmon, and factory-farmed shrimp and eel saturated in sugar. Until the latter half of the 20th century, none of these was considered suitable fare by connoisseurs of traditional sushi; none adheres to the Japanese practice of highlighting local, seasonal ingredients.
So imagine my delight when I walked into a sushi bar one evening and found not only a welcoming neighborhood atmosphere, but a chef who explained that he doesn’t serve bluefin tuna, because he doesn’t want it to go extinct. And imagine my surprise that this restaurant was in western Massachusetts, and that the chef was a rambunctious American whose ancestors had come not from Asia but from Europe.
At Fin Sushi in Lenox, Nick Macioge jokes with his diners and encourages them to get to know each other. Like a sushi bar in Japan, Fin is small and dominated by the counter. It’s not just the atmosphere. Macioge also tries to serve a more authentic meal. Instead of suggesting tuna, for example, he’ll talk his customers into sampling one of the most traditional sushi fish there is—saba, a mackerel that Macioge lightly marinates in salt and vinegar to bring the fish to the peak of flavor.
Macioge admits that it’s hard to persuade Americans to try the more traditional fish and shellfish, even though they’re more flavorful and generally less fatty. (These sea creatures also live lower on the food chain, they’re smaller, and they reproduce more quickly, which means they tend to contain less mercury and the catch is more sustainable.) But his approach has earned the food at Fin Sushi an exceptionally high Zagat rating—27 out of 30.
Macioge is one of a growing number of successful non-Asian sushi chefs. In 2005, Food & Wine magazine chose as one of its Best New Chefs a Caucasian sushi chef in Texas named Tyson Cole. A few months later, a San Diego chef named Jerry Warner was picked as California’s Sushi Master. Two years ago, one of the most high-profile Japanese restaurants in America, Morimoto, in New York City—operated by Masaharu Morimoto, an “Iron Chef” of Food Network fame—chose as its head sushi chef a young Caucasian named Robby Cook. And this year, one of the most talked-about sushi bars in San Francisco has been Sebo, run by chefs Daniel Dunham and Michael Black. (Black is half-Japanese and spent the first seven years of his life in Japan.) These chefs offer sushi fish so traditional that most Americans have never heard of them—which is why Dunham and Black chat across the fish case with customers about what they’re serving, just like the chefs I remember in Japan.
Exactly because these new chefs are rooted in American culture and society, they are well equipped to offer an experience that is, in important ways, authentically Japanese. Consider the case of Marisa Baggett, an African American chef based in Memphis. She told me her goal is to teach Americans in Tennessee and Mississippi to appreciate authentic sushi, but she approaches the task through the local idiom. She educates her customers about traditional sushi etiquette, using clever comparisons to southern manners. And she creates sushi with local ingredients such as smoked duck and pickled okra. This is a fair interpretation of authenticity—in Japanese, the word sushi can refer to just about any dish that includes rice seasoned with vinegar, sugar, and salt. Chefs like Baggett put the lie to claims by Japanese sushi-industry lobbyists that eating endangered bluefin tuna is essential to Japanese culture. Indeed, in Portland, Oregon, the head sushi chef at Bamboo Sushi, a Caucasian named Brandon Hill, has just had his menu certified by conservation groups.
Happily for American devotees of authentic sushi, this peculiar new breed of home-grown sushi chefs seems poised to assume the mantle of the cuisine. But I would love to see a new generation of chefs from my home away from home—Japan—try to prove me wrong.