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What it takes to be a sushi chef

Train like a samurai, karate cut like a pro, the art of becoming an Itamae-san takes patience and pride.

The next time you eat sushi at a top Japanese restaurant, spare a sigh of awe for the man who’s prepared it. His is not the easiest job to attain. It demands an almost samurai-level of devotion, a love – obsession, even – for white grains and the raw stuff. This is a pact for life.

So you want to be a sushi chef? If you’re truly talented and willing, the title of ‘Itamae’ (meaning ‘in front of the board’) could be yours in as little as 5-10 years. This decade will be required for you to cover the basics. And, for the 1st year, you’ll not be allowed near the fish. You’re not ready yet.


Part 1: Your journey starts with just watching and observing other chefs at work. How they cut the fish, how they roll and how they plate their dishes. To learn, you must ‘steal with your eyes’. As long as you’re paying attention, everything you need to know is in front of you.

Part 2: Once you’ve been deemed qualified enough to start, you’ll begin with preparing the rice. There’s a fine art to perfecting sushi rice, it’s no easy feat. The key is to keep the rice whole and intact, whilst carefully maneuvering in sushi vinegar with a Shamoji (a wooden paddle).

Tasks may be unpleasant for the first few years. There’ll be scrubbing, cleaning, prepping the rice, massaging dead octopuses for 30 minutes at a time, even.


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Part 3: When your senior Itamae is suitably impressed, you’ll be whisked to work alongside them in a new position called ‘Wakiita’, translating to ‘near the cutting board’. Yes, you guessed it, it’s time to get busy with a knife, finely dicing fresh ingredients like fish, ginger and spring onions.

You’ll be gifted with your own set of sushi knives (‘hocho’) and will learn to slice fish flesh as gracefully as a prima ballerina goes en pointe. Just by looking at gills, colour and eye clarity, just by checking texture with your fingers, you’ll understand a fish’s quality and taste.

Even as a Wakiita, you’ll still be very much ‘stealing with your eyes’ observing how your senior interacts with customers.

Part 4: 4-5 years later and you may be ready to start on expensive fish, like tuna.

Part 5: 7 years in, you’re now worthy of Nigiri. Nailing the aeration of the rice. Getting the wasabi just so. Your balance between fish and rice is pinhead precise.

Part 6: 10 years in, you may be skilled enough to be bestowed the much-esteemed title, ‘Itamae-san’. Sushi legend has it that such masters must be able to create such perfect Nigirizushi (hand-pressed sushi) that all the grains of rice roll the same way.

Natural talent comes in the form of a sensitive palate and sharp nose. Success comes in the form of an iron spirit. Mastery comes in knowing you still have everything to learn.

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