Lettuce Life: Kaze Chan to Kaze-san – What it takes to become a Sushi Master
Here at Lettuce Life, we take a deeper look at the incredible talent that makes up Lettuce Entertain You. Meet Kaze Chan, more commonly referred to as Kaze-san, the master sushi chef at Sushi-san in Chicago’s River North.
This world-class chef has been involved in every influential sushi restaurant in Chicago in the last 25 years. Starting as a dishwasher and working his way through the ranks to become an executive chef and eventually a sushi master, here’s what Kaze’s journey looked like – and why he is such an incredible asset to the Lettuce family.
A Full-Time Architecture Student Becomes A Part-Time Dishwasher
While pursuing his degree in architecture, Kaze picked up a part-time dishwashing job at Boston’s now-defunct Restaurant Suntory. It is here that he fell in love with the art of Japanese cuisine. After repeated attempts – and much rejection – to peer over the sushi master’s shoulder, Kaze was finally granted access to watch the chef butcher fish. And so his training began.
The Journey To Becoming A Sushi Master
For the next several years, Kaze continued his culinary journey, eventually apprenticing under Japanese Sushi Master, Shozu Iwamoto. Here is what each step of his training looked like, which is typical for any aspiring itamae, or great sushi master, and usually takes a decade to complete.
Step 1: Cleaning Duty
The first two years are spent cleaning – cleaning the restaurant, the bathrooms, the dishes – and receiving basic deliveries. No touching ingredients or interacting with the staff. You must prove you are trustworthy, loyal and dedicated.
Step 2: Learning the Basics
Learn what are the different types of fish, how to answer specific questions and most painstakingly – how to prepare the traditional rice, sumeshi, under the watchful eye of the itamae. This may seem like a simple task, but it is the crux of sushi-making and is an hours-long process. The rice must be perfect in consistency, flavor and color every time.
One must start with the proper short-grain Japanese rice, which has a much higher ratio of starch to produce a very stick rice. Next, the rice grains must be rinsed with fresh, cold water repeatedly to get rid of the starchy powder that clings to it. After careful cooking, the rice is transferred to a wide shallow wooden bowl known as a sushi-oke and dressed with sushi-su (a mixture consisting of rice vinegar, sugar and salt). The rice must be gently “cut” and folded with a rice paddle while simultaneously being fanned to facilitate quick cooling and to ensure that every grain has been evenly coated with the sushi-su.
Step 3: Becoming a Wakiita
Literally meaning “near the cutting board” a wakiita is one step closer to becoming an itamae but still requires a number of years until reaching that point. Here, wakiita undertake simple tasks like grating ginger, slicing scallions and preparing wasabi — for the latter, learning the proper technique of grating the fresh rhizome on a sharkskin grater called an oroshi. Wakiita may also be allowed to break down fish and prepare simple sushi for to-go orders.
Step 4: Wielding the Hocho
At this point, an apprentice can use their own set of hocho, or sushi knives. These knives are incredibly sharp – designed to perfectly prepare sushi ingredients – and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They are also incredibly expensive, especially for a bespoke collection. Kaze’s favorite includes a particularly impressive Maguro Bocho, a 37-inch knife with a two-foot blade. Its sole use is to break down whole tunas, which Kaze-san does each week. The Maguro Bocho provides the cleanest cut possible, void of any serration marks on the 400-pound tuna.
Wakiita are now given more hands-on responsibilities like slicing the fish for sashimi and nigiri but are still not permitted to make the actual items. However, with hocho comes great responsibility, as the Master now trusts you enough to move on.
Step 5: Becoming an Itamae
The time has come, after years of training as an apprentice and then as a wakiita, for one to move up to an itamae, which means “in front of the cutting board”. Itamae are now able to make sushi – sashimi, nigiri, temaki and more – and interact with guests at the sushi counter. This has required 10 years of painstaking hard work, dedication and precision as well as mastering the knowledge and handling of all ingredients, perfecting the hocho skills, learning the proper way to communicate and socialize with guests and fully embracing the work and life of a sushi master.
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