Rise of the American Sushi Chef

In the June issue of The Atlantic, sushi concierge and author Trevor Corson highlights the rise of American sushi chefs.

At Fin Sushi in Lenox [Massachusetts], 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 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.

Yum. Pickled okra or smoked duck sushi sounds pretty good to me. Pickled pig’s feet sushi might not be too bad, either. But let’s leave sushi and gravy to Hardee’s, shall we?

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Filed under food, Japan, U.S.

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