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.”