Class Cutups: Whether Sushi Chef Wannabes or Just Weekend Warriors, Students at a New Academy Learn the Delicate Art of Pressing, Rolling and Wielding a Mean Knife

Los Angeles Times

The trick to fixing a messy maki roll at the new California Sushi Academy: Eat the evidence. Not a bad tip if you are a sushi addict.
Like a vineyard opening its gates to oenophiles, the Venice-based academy is cracking open the doors of a once ultra-exclusive domain and inviting diversity into the world of sushi chefdom. Founded by Frank Toshi Suguira, CEO and head chef at Hama Restaurant, California Sushi Academy is America’s first and only registered Japanese culinary arts academy. If the instructors are successful, the face behind your favorite sushi bar will be as likely to look like the St. Pauli girl as Ronin in the years to come.

The school opened in early September, and 23 people are enrolled in the program, including two dedicated Mexico City residents who drive up from their temporary home in Tijuana three times a week for class. Two intensive three-month classes are offered. The Basic Culinary course requires 126 hours of training and renders the student employable as an assistant sushi chef. Emphasis is on the fundamentals of Japanese food preparation, such as yakimono (grilling), sunomono (marinating in rice vinegar), nimono (simmering) and teriyaki, with an introduction to sushi and sashimi.

The Professional Japanese course takes 144 hours and delves more deeply into the art of sushi (a combination of rice and fish) and sashimi (fish only), presentation and restaurant management, prerequisites for becoming a sushi chef. Chefs and assistant chefs can expect to earn from $3,000 to $7,000 a month.

But for weekend culinary warriors, the academy offers a one-day sushi class. Students pay $65 to spend three hours with master sushi-maker Andy Matsuda. Matsuda has been a sushi chef for 25 years both in Japan and the U.S. He’s also the straight man to assistant instructor Phillip Yi, a sprightly, wise-cracking acupuncturist-cum-sushi chef whom the Japanese might call a tanoshi hito, a happy man.

The academy, located in a renovated office building next door to Hama, is a long sunny room with a center-island workstation. There is enough room for 10 students, each with a sink and cutting board, plus a small refrigerator underneath. Students are provided smart chef hats, aprons and a booklet that Yi put together full of helpful hints, but are asked to bring their own knives. Conveniently, an excellent selection of knives is available for purchase.

Matsuda brandishes his own special carbon steel saber.

“It cuts fish like butter,” he says.

Mouths are already watering.

He demonstrates his knife skills with a few swift slices that render a Japanese cucumber into perfect uniform sticks. The class crowds around wide-eyed. One blink and you miss three steps. Press, press, flip, pat, roll, slice and ta-daaa! A six-piece California roll. After listening to an overview of the work ahead, we trot back to our workstations to give it a whirl.

Matsuda has actually done all the hard work for us in advance, namely shopping for ingredients and making the perfectly sticky vat of rice, or shari. Without good rice, any at-home sushi efforts are doomed. The other key ingredient is magic water–a no-stick combination hand rinse and knife treatment made of 20% vinegar and 80% water. Without the magic water, hands become sticky mittens of white rice.

After earnestly plowing through the steps, I have bits of rice stuck in my sleeves and hair and my first attempt in hand. Enthralled by the copious amounts of tantalizing ingredients at my fingertips–bowls of fresh crab, spicy tuna, avocados, cucumbers–I have greedily overstuffed my tiny slip of nori. The result: a soggy seaweed taco.

Across the way, classmate Sinai Moses Prado isn’t faring much better. Prado, a chef at Cafe College down the street, has a matching taco and a matching frown. Mariely Gonzales and Kim Lucas at the far end of the island put us to shame with their tidy maki rows and rice-free bangs.

My next one comes out looking like a green cigar. But, finally, I roll my first perfect maki, complete with outstretching ornamental cucumber wisps. Soon, a veritable log pile of maki balances on my cutting board, and we are ready for lesson No. 2–edomae zushi.

Matsuda explains his eight-step system for producing a piece of sushi, then rockets out five perfect cuneiform confections and sends us back to our places. After playing patty-cake with a slab of fish and sticky rice, I am holding something that looks like a sad bug.

Evidence snack time.

It is as if Matsuda’s fingers are the tuning fork that put all the ingredients into harmony while I’m plucking along on a warped ukulele.

Matsuda moves around the tables, spending time at the side of each student, offering gentle guidance. Suddenly, everyone seems to be hitting the right note.

The final step is creating a little “catching eye decoration,” as Matsuda puts it–organizing the sushi, sashimi, maki and hand rolls on an elegant ceramic platter. The trick is to keep it simple, which means forsaking more than half of today’s output. Only about a dozen pieces fit. The reject pile is enough to feed a party of four, but Oishisoo-desu-ne! It looks good! A Polaroid camera materializes, and each student poses with his or her platter.

Finally, it’s time to eat our work. Matsuda has prepared a delicate miso soup for us.

Stuffed like blowfish and stoned on sinus-clearing wasabi, each student is faced with a dilemma. We’re too full to gorge ourselves, but due to an unfortunate incident with a previous student who fell ill, any leftovers must be tossed. The threat caused by raw fish left out too long is too great.

Having eaten enough evidence to count for an entire meal, we barely make dents in our platters of food. What the instructors had failed to tell us in advance is that for a mere $8, we could have invited a guest to join us at the end of class to help us clear our plates.

Some of the students make valiant solo attempts. Prado actually clears one large platter. But the mountains of sushi are insurmountable.

“I just can’t do it. I don’t want to see it twice,” Lucas says.

The room fills with groans as we shovel our projects into the trash. Hundreds of dollars of sushi is dumped. It’s like a bad dream.

But the aftertaste is still good. Students are eager to return for more lessons, and several encourage Yi and Matsuda to conduct two-day intensive courses that will cover more territory.

Yi points out that this course is “hardly even an introduction.” He assures us that we will not master the art of sushi in one day. We will have to go home and practice on our friends and families, and even then there is no assurance of success.

And, he adds with a wink, “if you’re really bad, don’t tell them you learned it here.”