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Aug. 14, 2006
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal


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?

Watch the video...


Click on the photos to enlarge them...

Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Corey Levitan asks for help from another sushi chef as customers wait for their sushi at Sushi Roku in the Forum Shops at Caesars.
Photos by Jane Kalinowsky.

Levitan places a spicy tuna roll on Matt Wilson's geta. Levitan practiced making rolls then worked as a sushi chef.

Levitan grimaces during an attempt to cut a spicy tuna roll.

Levitan's technique for building a spicy tuna roll has room for improvement.

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 would include.


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 during training.

"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 station.

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 eating).

"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 my fingers.

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 peppers."

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 www.fearandloafing.com.




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