Aug. 14, 2006
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal
FISHING FOR COMPLIMENTS
With a knife
in his hand and a joke on his lips, can disaster be far off when our
reporter works as a sushi chef?
Matt, a retired software manufacturer from Toronto, is waiting
longer than he expected for his spicy tuna roll. Little did he know
that poker wasn't the only gambling his latest Las Vegas vacation
I'm his sushi chef. Sushi Roku invited me to roll raw fish for
unsuspecting customers at its Forum Shops eatery.
I sense second thoughts when I arrive at the agreed-upon time, 9
p.m. Saturday, to discover that my shift won't begin for another
hour and a half.
"We're too busy right now," says general manager Kenji Tamida
who, I suspect, hopes most of his customers are either gone or
sauced by 10:30.
I can't say I'm surprised, considering how off a roll I was
"You made it the wrong way, you put the sauce on wrong, and you
squashed it with the knife instead of cutting it," said sushi chef
Mario Catayong, 26, of my first attempt at popcorn shrimp.
Other than that, though, it was great.
Unlike me, sushi chefs — who earn around $40,000 a year —
usually train for a year or two as a minimum-wage sushi prep worker,
then a sushi helper. Also unlike me, virtually all sushi chefs know
what they're doing.
"One time you mess up, OK," said my other trainer, Kiichi Okabe,
39. "Two times, OK. Third time, no more finger!"
This was not a threat I took lightly. I saw "Black Rain."
"I never joke in the sushi bar," Okabe added.
Although commonly considered easy, sushi preparation is a
precision art requiring years to master.
To start with, only the perfect coating of water will make the
rice stick to the seaweed wrap and not your fingers or sushi
The fish or other filling must be sized so that the seaweed ends
meet but don't overlap.
And forget about your Ginsu skills transferring over. Authentic
sushi knives (which range from $200-$2,000) are razor-sharp on one
side, Olsen twins-dull on the other. Only at some angles, therefore,
can they cut sushi; at most others, they squash it.
What we call sushi was invented as a fast food in early-1800s
Tokyo. But the art of sushi began more than a thousand years
earlier, when Southeast Asians preserved raw fish by fermenting it
with salt and rice (which they used as a fermenting agent instead of
"Watashi-wa baka-na Americajin!" I greet my fellow chefs just
before donning my chef's apron and taking my bar post.
Nobody laughs at the self-effacing ice-breaker I formulated by
typing "I am a stupid American" into an English-to-Japanese
translation Web site.
"Are you sure you know what that means?" asks Sushi Roku
assistant general manager Young Lee.
This will not be my last inappropriate sushi joke, either. Two
minutes of silence ensue after I ask my colleagues where the fugu
is. (It's illegal to serve fugu in the U.S., and sushi chefs in
Japan must practice 7 years before getting their knives on this
particular blowfish, which is poisonous if not properly gutted. But
ever since Homer Simpson walked into a sushi bar and demanded, "fugu
me!" on a 1991 "Simpsons" episode, stupid Americans such as myself
think that the mere mention of this dish at a Japanese restaurant
constitutes an hysterical joke.)
"Irasshaimase!" my fellow chefs shout the traditional welcome to
a steady flow of customers walking in and, invariably, past us to
the dining room.
My first customer doesn't arrive until 11:15. (He is also my only
customer.) I bow my head deeper than Matt's eye level.
"That's how you show true respect," Lee told me earlier.
Well, then, my respect was really true, since my head was below
Matt's eye level before the bow.
"Can I interest you in some world-class sushi?" I ask, neglecting
to mention that Bizarro is the world I'm referring to.
I grab a geta, the footstool-like sushi preparation plate, and
sprig on ginger and wasabi. (The presentation of Japanese food is
just as important as the food itself.)
Matt — who informs me later that my lack of Asianness convinced
him I must be Vegas' greatest sushi chef — asks if I can recommend
the softshell crab. I cannot (because I cannot make it). He asks
about spicy tuna instead. I highly recommend this roll. (It was one
of six I trained on.)
I begin spreading the oblong mound of rice in my wet palm into my
rectangle of seaweed when I suddenly remember that I can't remember
what, besides spicy tuna, goes in a spicy tuna roll.
"No," Okabe says, quietly, in my right ear.
Spicy tuna is served inside-out. Right. I pick the fish out and
flip it to the nonrice side and begin filling it with spicy tuna
and... spicy tuna and...
A lightbulb flashes above my head. Shredded green and red bell
peppers, of course!
I roll Matt's sushi the short way, like sweatsocks.
"No," Okabe says again.
Sushi is always rolled the long way, like cigars. I knew that.
I'm just nervous.
Okabe then replaces my apparently improper ginger and wasabi
sprigs — quickly, like Lance Burton, so he doesn't think I see him,
but I do.
Right about now is when I become aware of the location of each of
As I'm pressing Matt's sushi in the bamboo rolling mat, trying my
best to make it appear tube-shaped, Okabe sneaks his own perfect
spicy tuna roll under my nose and onto Matt's geta. (Domo aregato,
Mr. Cheapshotto, for ruining my only chance at having my sushi
skills honestly appraised.)
I look up at Matt, who is wondering what I've been making this
whole time if not his dinner, and ask if he'd like some free sushi
in exchange for some feedback.
He agrees to Ebert my masterwork, and his eyes widen when my
rice-speckled fingers present it. My sushi pieces appear melted,
like wax replicas left on the dash of a black SUV parked in direct
sunlight all July 4th weekend.
"Am I gonna want any soy sauce on this?" Matt asks.
The look of fear on his face morphs to surprise, however, then
something approximating pleasure, as he crunches.
"It tastes better than it looks," he says, adding, "I like the
Bell peppers don't go in a spicy tuna roll, by the way.
Matt laughs when I reveal that I'm a reporter. To reward his
sportsmanship, I make the softshell crab he wanted in the first
place. Like my previous roll, this one also contains a bonus
ingredient — spicy tuna bits, because I forgot to wash my station
in between rolls.
"As long as you washed your hands," Matt says.
Next time, I will.
Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section.
Levitan's previous adventures can be found at