In Japan It Takes Longer To Become A Sushi Chef Than It Does To Be A Doctor

While it may be inscrutable to Americans, in Japan it makes perfect sense that it would take longer to become a Sushi chef than a doctor. One of the biggest reasons is a lifetime commitment to a craft that makes cooking or any other art a refined and noble task.

We may call them Sushi chefs but the proper title is itamae. It literally means “in front of the board” and is an honor that is earned after as many as 10 years of preparation. In Japan an itamae is afforded great respect. They can be seen wearing the stereotypical white chef’s hat and apron, with their hocho (sushi knives) worn around their waist.

Americans have cooking schools, but to become an itamae you must literally begin from the bottom rung of the apprentice ladder. You begin by cleaning up after the chefs for some time, perhaps as long as a year. The purpose of this exercise is to prove your devotion to the art. To advance to the next level you need to learn to never complain and act as a valuable servant to others.

That next level is preparing the rice. Simple? Not at all. The goal is perfection, and the preparation method is a guarded secret. It must meet the standards of the itamae, who takes great pride in the texture and appearance of the rice. You reach this level by committing yourself to the craft and recognizing the honor associated with moving up to this level. It will be the itamae who decides whether your commitment is worthy of advancing you to the next level.

You then become a wakiita. There is still a ways to go, and the word “wakiita” translates to “near the cutting board.” This makes it clear you are one step closer to being in front of the cutting board. Here is where the real work begins, and under the direct instruction of the itamae you will learn everything it takes to earn the title. Trust is an essential part of the learning process. The more you earn greater trust from the itamae, the more responsibilities you will be given – and the faster you can advance up the ladder.

Preparing the rice to perfection was just an introduction to the high standards of the itamae. As a wakiita you will learn to prepare everything to perfection, whether it is grating ginger or preparing fish – a task that comes much later for many a wakiita. You will know when you have mastered all the techniques because your itamae will allow you to have your own set of hocho. But mastering the handling of these knives is yet another rung in the ladder.

There is no one-size-fits-all hocho. Each knife is created to meet the standard of perfection in preparation expected years ago when preparing the rice. There is a special knife to be used to cut each sushi ingredient, each with its own specific blade end and length. One knife, the Oroshi Hocho, can be as long as 6 and one-half feet. All are beyond razor sharp.

The journey from the bottom rung to the top can take as long as 20 years. There is no average, but the range can be from 10 – 20 years. But the journey is not about just preparing the food. Great attention is paid to how you handle the ingredients – and how you handle your clients. Your interaction with people is a critical part of reaching the top, and how you work is only one criterion. Your general behavior is also assessed.

All this may seem to be extreme to many people outside of the Japanese culture, but the end goal is mastery of the art. The commitment can be made at a very young age, so the 20 years of service and commitment may have a person reaching mastery well before they reach 30 years old.

As an example of the end result of mastery in the Japanese culture, check out this video of the preparation of what appears to be a simple dessert.


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