Sushi Star? From Starkville to Cooper – Young to New York, Marisa Baggett’s career is rolling along

By Leslie Kelly
Commercial Appeal
10/19/2005

How does a woman from Starkville, Miss., end up rolling over-the- top sushi at The James Beard House in New York, the culinary equivalent of Carnegie Hall?
Practice, practice, practice.

That, and a whole lot of gumption.

Marisa Baggett, the itamae (head sushi chef) at Do, had $300 in her pocket when she got on the bus in 2003 and headed to Los Angeles, determined to enroll in the prestigious California Sushi Academy.

“I got off the bus, which was in a scary part of town, and wondered how I was going to live here for three months,” said Baggett, 28.

It was touch-and-go about halfway through the three-month program. “I called my parents and asked for them to send me money to come home. My dad told me, ‘You’ve got to finish.’ “

Those were words she didn’t expect to hear from him.

Baggett had been set to follow in her father’s career path, enrolling at Mississippi State University to study civil engineering. Then, she felt the tug of the professional kitchen.

At 22, she started a cafe called Chocolate Giraffe. She did a lot of catering for an upscale audience, and it was a request from a client that first led her down the sushi path.

“He asked if I would do some sushi,” said Baggett. “I said, sure, even though I didn’t even know what it was.”

She studied cookbooks and wondered: “Why would anybody want to eat this?”

To play it safe with her debut sushi party, she served only cooked fish. The more she worked with it, the more she learned about sushi traditions, and the more she thought: “This is cool.”

Sushi was an unknown in Starkville, like barbecue nachos in Tokyo.

Soon, she had requests for sushi in her restaurant.

“I started doing it once a week,” she said. “It was a big hit.”

She learned about the California Sushi Academy and started dreaming of going there.

But not before moving to Memphis and working at various restaurants, including Automatic Slim’s and Tsunami.

“I was trying to save enough money to go, but I woke up one morning and decided I just had to go,” Baggett said.

On her last night in town, she was having a cocktail at The Beauty Shop in Cooper-Young.

It proved to be a fateful send-off.

“The bartender said he heard I was going to learn to do sushi, and asked had I heard that (Beauty Shop owner) Karen (Blockman Carrier) needed a sushi chef,” she said. “That’s how it began.”

After initially being hired in a supporting role at Do, Baggett stepped up several months after she started.

“Japanese tradition says women aren’t supposed to roll sushi, period,” said Carrier, owner of Do, The Beauty Shop, Automatic Slim’s and Another Roadside Attraction Catering. “When I got a call from Marisa asking for a job, I said, of course, I’ll hire you.”

Baggett occasionally has customers who test her sushi savvy, experiences that she sometimes chronicles on her blog: marisabaggett.com .

When one customer cleaned his plate and asked where she learned to make sushi, she teased: “I’m Japanese.”

She definitely adheres to Japanese traditions when it comes to making classic renditions of sushi and sashimi.

Like French cuisine, it’s important to nail the basics before exploring more adventurous territory, Baggett said.

She feels comfortable crossing between traditional and exotic. For the menu at The James Beard dinner – set for Oct. 27 – Baggett collaborated with Beauty Shop chef Brett ‘Shaggy’ Duffy and Carrier.

“We went through lists of specials we had come up with over the course of a few months,” Baggett said.

One piece of the sushi puzzle that Baggett never plays around with is the rice.

“I’m obsessive about it,” she said. “It’s crucial.”

Her day often begins with rice preparation. She uses a short grain rice from California.

“There’s a big difference in the taste,” she said.

The rice can be a wild card, though.

“If it’s a new crop, it can be difficult to gauge how much water to use because the new crop has more moisture,” she said. “I aim for it to be a little chewy.”

Sushi rice is traditionally cooled with a fan while a mixture of vinegar and sugar is mixed in. Baggett adds her own “secret” ingredients, which include a little salt and a squeeze of citrus.

The one constant?

“It’s got to be consistent,” she said. “If it’s too mushy or overdone, I’ve been known to throw it out and start over.”

To that chewy, seasoned canvas, Baggett and her team tempt sushi lovers with an ocean of fresh fish, and a pasture full of turf.

One of her signature sushi creations is an offbeat play on surf- and-turf: cocoa-dusted beef tenderloin with mustard greens and thin slices of scallops that are torched and drizzled with a cherry-soy reduction.

It was this kind of maverick approach that helped land her a profile in a Japanese magazine called The Hiragana Times.

The story in this month’s issue ran with a headline: “Freestyle restaurants seem to be popular! Southern-style sushi breaks out in Memphis, USA.”

“I hope to take some time off and come to Japan next year,” she said in the interview.

Baggett’s ambitions don’t stop with sushi, either.

She said she is working on a cookbook aimed at making entertaining easy for young hipsters. “There’s a lot of people my age who don’t feel comfortable with somebody like Martha Stewart. She’s too perfect.”

Baggett wants to show that sharing food with friends doesn’t have to be a hassle.

“I want people to look at a recipe and think, maybe I could try that,” she said.

The chef, who never wears a chef’s coat, would also like to design a line of stylish threads for kitchen crews.

But for the next week or so, she’ll be doing nothing but prepping for the biggest meal of her career – served to discerning palates at the Greenwich Village townhouse that was once home to an American culinary icon.

How does she feel about rolling her rockin’ sushi at The James Beard House?

“I’m a little nervous because I’ve never done anything like this before, but I’m also very excited because I’ve never done anything like this before,” she said.

Chef Marisa Baggett will blog about her trip to the James Beard House in New York on her Web site: marisabaggett.com .

——————–

SUSHI PRIMER

Marisa Baggett demystifies the most traditional of Japanese cuisines with this sushi crib sheet:

Wasabi – the hot green paste served with sushi and sashimi. Insider’s tip: Smear a bit of this on top of your sushi rather than mixing it in your soy sauce. You’ll avoid a mess and get more punch out of it!

Gari – Pickled ginger used to refresh the palate in between bites of sushi and sashimi.

Sushi – not raw fish, but the term used for sticky, vinegar- flavored rice that’s the foundation for the fish.

Sashimi – Seafood (or sometimes meat) that is raw or barely cooked, served without rice.

Nigiri – Hand-formed balls of rice topped with raw or cooked seafood, usually served in pairs. Try these if you want to ease your way into becoming a lover of raw fish.

Maki – Various types of rolls made with sushi rice. California rolls – crab, avocado and cucumber – are one of the best-known maki rolls.

Te Maki – Cone-shaped hand rolls filled with rice and assorted seafood.

Try these if you don’t like to share your sushi or if you want to try a variety of things without filling up too fast.

Hoso maki – Thin rolls usually containing just one ingredient, like cucumber rolls. Try these if you like small dainty bites or like the simplicity of one flavor.

Futo maki – Thick rolls containing several ingredients. Try these if you like a mouthful and/or enjoy a powerful combination of flavors.

Ura maki – Rolls where rice rather than seaweed is on the outside: Try these if you’re a beginner or if you aren’t quite sure whether or not you like the taste of seaweed.

——————-

From the Blog

Excerpt from Marisa Baggett’s James Beard Diary on her blog marisabaggett.com :

James Beard Diary/Oct. 17

Saturday night, I made the green tea salt that we’re going to give out to each guest. It was carefully packed into these neat little tins and topped off with special stickers that bear both Do and Beauty Shop logos. What a clever idea! But I began to wonder what we were going to do with the leftover green tea salt. Originally, it was to be a condiment with our fish course, but the devastation in the Gulf has caused some problems with what we had planned in the beginning. It’s been somewhat of a nightmare trying to restructure things based on the fact that we can’t get any form of seafood from that area. . . . With less than two weeks to go, looks like the whole fish course is going to change completely. . . .

When we packed up the sushi rice, I packaged enough for two batches. I got this new rice in and I’m not quite familiar with how it likes to be treated just yet. I’m very particular about the way the rice is prepared. Now was probably the worst time I could have a new one to deal with. On top of my rice anxiety, I don’t know what sort of rice cooker they would have in that kitchen. Electric? Gas? It makes a huge difference on the way it steams. And then, we have yet to figure out or even discuss having a hangiri, the special cypress wood bowl used for marinating and cooling down sushi rice. Next to the fact that no one is going to get any sleep at the hotel because of my very loud snoring, the preparation of the sushi rice is my biggest anxiety right now…

From the “Favorite Things and Funny Quirks” section of marisabaggett.com :

Since she has very little time for pets, M enjoys the quiet company of her pet fish whose name is Sashimi. M is currently contemplating getting a robotic pet cat. “Sashimi needs an antagonist to keep him busy when I’m away,” says M.

For the past 2 years, M has practically lived in the color pink. “I have pink everything! Even glasses! If I ever decided to change signature colors, I’d let my friends and family vote for my new signature color.”

M’s favorite food is Southern fried chicken. And speaking of food, you can always count on M to have a stash of M&M’s behind the sushi counter.