Do Sushi chefs have to be Japanese? Lau on chowhound had a lengthy post related to Yuba restaurant. He began with his skepticism about Chinese chefs making sushi (I believe he is Chinese) yet concludes that Yuba defied this concern.
IN that thread, Silverjay suggested that the result was a sort of "Pied au Cochon" style of sushi, the notable Montreal restaurant that serves delicious, but extremely rich and oppulent food with a surfeit of fois gras included in many of the dishes. He intimated that the result is not restrained and subtle and as the "yuba" name suggests since "yuba" is a Kyoto style dish. Kyoto cuisine is noted for it's elegance and refinement. So if this is in fact a divergence from Japanese cuisine-is it the amalgamation of Japanese training (the Chefs trained in Japanese restaurants) with American sensibilities along with Chinese culture?
I have some thoughts of my own. Some people judge food by the feeling it conveys. This feeling reflects the attitudes of the kitchen staff and the wait staff. It also reflects the artistry and precision of the culture. The Japanese culture has an enormously precise component that feels elegant without being compulsive; movement is economical, precise and almost meditative. There is an enormous visual aesthetic and some of it is related to their historical religious roots in the Zen tradition as well as Shinto traditions. I believe you can actually feel the difference when an attentive mindful chef makes sushi. I had dinner at Arubaya Kinosuke with a Japanese friend a few years back. WE both commented that sushi made by non-Japanese doesn't feel right. He was surprised that I recognized that, but it was important to him.
So if I want Kyoto style cuisine, I want the cultural feeling. IT's the same when I go to Pied au Cochon-I really enjoy the rich opulence of the Quebecois tradition of Martin Picard and his Quebecois chefs. If I go to an Italian owned and manned sandwich shop in Boston's Little Italy, there is something almost magical about the tradition that has been carried on for generations reflected in that sandwich and even in the bread itself.
Japanese is perhaps the most "persnickity" of these cultural affects. You can't just reproduce it by adding the right ingredients. You have to have the movements of a Japanese chef which seems to require enormous training. In the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi, it became apparent that the training process is extensive and demanding. The apprentices literally spend years learning just how to prepare rice-I believe they said 10 years. They would even massage the octopuses to soften their meat before they cooked them. This produces an incredibly satisfying result that actually, for me, imparts a sense of peacefulness and elegance. This is not somehow conveyed when I eat Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese made sushi.
I remember going to a small noodle shop in Tokyo once. It was totally amazing and there was this sense of care that went into the food preparation. It was not a nervous kind of intensity, but rather a relaxed sense of precision that went into that food. I'm all for fusion, but there's a great place for respecting tradition. In fact, some of the best fusion comes out of highly skilled professionals who are adept in their own tradition. Hence, when, for example, Eric Rippert at Le Bernardin puts an Asian spin on his cuisine, there's something quite decent, though I must say I prefer his French style dishes. Or when Nobu Matsuhisa combines Japanese and Peruvian, it's quite nice.
Does anyone have that same feeling or am I halucinating?