Since I’ve been thinking about sustainable seafood lately, and lamenting that one of my favorite foods, sushi, is a big part of the problem, I was interested to find an article in this month’s Atlantic on a new wave of sushi chefs who care about sustainability and the authentic sushi experience. The surprising thing about these sushi chefs is that they’re American. Not Japanese-American, but American, and of every stripe.
The author, Trevor Corson, who also wrote The Story of Sushi, recounts that when he came back to the US after living in Japan, he was perturbed to find that, even when he sat at the sushi counter, Japanese sushi chefs in America didn’t really chat with their customers about what was available and seasonal, which he says is an integral part of the authentic sushi experience in Japan.
Not only that, but the fish served was totally unsustainable:
“…most sushi chefs in the U.S. have neglected the Japanese style of eating and force-fed us simplistic menus that feature the least environmentally friendly–and least healthful–items: at the high end, bluefin tuna; at the low end, fatty belly cuts from lesser tuna; along with fatty industrial salmon, and factory-farmed shrimp and eel saturated in sugar. Until the latter half of the 20th century, none of these was considered suitable fare by connoisseurs of traditional sushi; none adheres to the Japanese practice of highlighting local, seasonal ingredients.”
But there is a growing number of American sushi chefs who are serving sustainable fish, and also creating the close chef-customer relationship that’s integral to sushi. At Fin Sushi in Lenox, MA, a young Caucasian sushi chef runs his restaurant with an emphasis on sitting at the counter where chef and customer can talk, and won’t serve bluefin tuna, because it’s going extinct. He serves fish such as mackerel marinated in a bit of salt and vinegar, which is not only delicious and sustainable, but also traditional.
Then there’s Marisa Baggett, an African-American chef in Memphis who uses local ingredients, and educates her customers about sushi etiquette by drawing parallels to Southern manners, and a sushi restaurant with a Caucasian chef in Portland, Oregon, that has just had its menu certified sustainable by conservation groups.
If it feels odd to you to be served sushi by non-Japanese, consider that many of the sushi restaurants in New York are actually owned by Chinese folks, and that Latin American chefs are ably cooking virtually every cuisine imaginable. There’s no cooking DNA. And sometimes, a relative outsider, like an American sushi chef, is the one who is able to make needed changes.