My Sushi Chef ignorance

As someone who loves Sushi and could eat it every day if my wallet would allow, it’s embarrassing that I’m ignorant about what makes a great sushi chef. Obviously, experience, and proper cutting technique but as someone who has enjoyed all types of sushi from the todai and worse buffets to omakase at Sushi Zo, Sassabune and Q, (not ursuwa too pricey for me) I don’t really get how a good chef can really enhance the fish itself. I’ve watched Jiro loves sushi and respect a sushi chef with a lot of experience and a devotion to perfection but can someone please educate me on how a precise cut can enhance the piece of fish other than aesthetics? The reason I ask is because for example, if I buy a hunk of Salmon sashimi from mitsuwa and bring it home and chop it up over sushi rice, am I a moron for not being able to discern the flavor downgrade of this method as opposed to eating it at a restaurant?

For me I have tiers of sushi spending since it can get pricey very quickly.

Do it at home- cheap and effective, although looks ugly

Ayce- some very decent ones in the SGV (around 30 bucks)

Great Value lunch deals (Sushi Gen sashimi platter 17 bucks, Kazunori etc)

High end omakase (Sassabune, Zo, Q) (200 and less)

There’s nothing worse than getting mediocre sushi that doesn’t wow you and realizing the bill is getting close to “Could have omakase’d it” range!

Anyhow, I realize this post is all over the place, but point being, besides the freshness of the fish itself, how does making the proper cut actually enhance the flavor of the fish when it goes into your mouth?

(sorry, someone the last part of the post is cut off)

Anyhow, I realize this post is all over the place, but point being, besides the freshness of the fish itself, how does making the proper cut actually enhance the flavor of the fish when it goes into your mouth?

The way you cut anything makes a difference in how it is perceived. Thin slices of lox versus chunks of lox for example. An obvious sushi example is scoring and cross hatching of squid and clams to make them more tender. A less well known fact is that food chefs will adjust the size of sushi for a person’s mouth.

And beyond cutting, good chefs do many things to maximize the taste of each piece of sushI. For example, warming the rice to the perfect temperature in their hands. Some chefs will even watch how fast you eat and adjust the temperature accordingly.

And finally, aesthetics is an essential and inseparable part of Japanese cuisine. More so than in any other culture.

First thing I judge is the sushi rice or shari as taught by my Grandmother.

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Foodies and chefs I’ve read, from Ripert and Bourdain to (Former Alpha Hound) Jim Leff and IIRC J. Gold, seem to suggest, without providing explicit info, that there may be “seasoning”, “marinating” and “flavoring” going on, which makes sushi as provided by a serious sushi chef in a serious restaurant taste different than exactly the same piece of fish would taste four hours out of the water at, say, Tsukiji market in Tokyo.

If you can’t tell the difference between buying a chunk of Salmon from Mitsuwa and going to very good Sushi bar, then stick with Mitsuwa.

let’s face it; there are always going to be a percentage of people who patronize places because there’s a cachet associated with that and not because their palate is able to discern what makes the food exceptional. and when it comes to ethnic cuisines, there will be a wide spectrum of opinion in terms of adherence to authenticity/purity of the cuisine. as such i think it’s important that each person be honest with themselves and assess what their own values are along these various spectrums, because it really won’t matter how good/pure the cuisine is if one’s palate inhibits them from being able to tell.

having said that, starting off, it’s probably easier to look for things that may suggest that a sushi chef is NOT a great chef - assuming that you place a certain level in the value of the traditions of sushi. and this starts as you enter any establishment - and you always sit at the bar, to be able to observe your sushi being prepared.

technique/skill/training is important, but that’s maybe half the story; i look for a certain level of calmness, no wasted motion on the part of the chef as well as the rest of the staff; i lean towards a purist view, so i don’t expect a lot of noise/ loud conversation. that calmness and precision extends beyond how the chef handles his instruments and ingredients to his appearance and how he carries himself in general. i look for a disciplined “vibe”.

before i even order, i typically ask a few questions that suggest that i am knowledgeable about sushi - not to show off, but to suggest that i am capable of discerning and appreciating his level of skill. great chefs typically have special items stashed away so i will look over the display and then ask about certain fish if the time of season is right, and follow that up with more questions and/or ask him what are some of the fish he recommends that day. the litmus test works both ways - i am also discerning certain things about his experience depending on his responses. personally, i tend to distrust the response of ‘everything’ when i ask what he recommends that night. granted, this can be tough to do at peak times, so if i visit a new place, i like to go after the initial lunch crowd rush and it’s much more likely that i will be able to engage the chef in conversation. developing rapport with a chef over a period of time can have a tremendous impact in your experience; i have often enjoyed a meal more with a good chef who i’ve known over the years over a meal from a ‘great’ chef, but with whom i have no relationship - that experience allows a chef to tailor a meal to your personal palate - and you’re also more likely to get higher quality freebies over the course of a meal.

but i maintain that when it comes of something like’s own preferences and palate are as much factors as the skill of the chef, especially if the palate is one with largely western sensibilities; asian cuisines in general value contrasts of texture as much as taste and certain textures valued in asian cuisine are often ill-regarded by western palates.


There are thousands of different fish species out there, and it’s very rare that two taste exactly alike.

For each different fish species, there is therefore a differently flavored and textured piece of fish. Even within a fish there can be stark contrasts (for example, halibut – the main fillet and the strip of meat closest to the dorsal/anal fins [“engawa”] or toro vs maguro/akami in tuna)

So the task of the sushi chef is to present each different fish in the most delicious way, which often means a slightly different preparation. How thick to cut each piece (or rice:fish ratio), seasonings to apply, how fresh from the ocean that type of fish of should be, whether any other prep like marinating in kombu should be used, or the use of charring/searing, or the use of knife slits and how exactly the fish is cut – these are all decisions chefs make for each fish they serve you. As is every part of cooking the rice – doneness, seasonings, amount, etc.

Nothing in sushi is done by accident. Every detail, (sometimes literally down to the grain of rice,) is done with conscious intent. The difference between your sushi and the best sushi is that you are flying by the seat of your pants – I’m sure you can cook rice and cut a slice of fish and put them together, but it’s all way more haphazard. These great sushi chefs have done it for years and years, and every step, from exactly how much sugar is in the rice to exactly what angle they cut their fish to exactly how they form each piece, and probably hundreds of other tiny steps, they’re all done for a purpose. The way these top of the line guys do every tiny detail is their tried-and-true method adopted and practiced over years.

Maybe you feel you can’t appreciate the cumulative benefit these details make on the overall experience. That’s probably because a piece of Mitsuwa salmon on homemade rice is fucking good. That’s a good meal right there! Then when you go to an AYCE place, they’re basically doing what you’re doing (just pumping out fish on rice – nothing more) but you get the basic variety. Those moderately-priced places vary, but if you pick the right one, you get a competently made piece of sushi + the usual variety + often some more options beyond that. The very best places give you a real master’s work, where every detail is done by absolute artists and the places people prefer will come down to subjective tastes and preferences.

It’s OK to not think the master’s work is so much better than the lower tiers as to warrant the extra price (which of course can be substantial). But my guess for you is that you haven’t ever taken the time to really look and think about every detail of every bite before. Next time you eat sushi, pay attention with each bite to every flavor, texture, and choice the chef made in making that piece of sushi. Compare what you get at each tier, and then think about how deliberate your choices are when making sushi at home and what you were able to execute. Do that and I highly suspect you’ll gain the appreciation you seek. If you don’t, at that point I would advise you to stick with Mitsuwa :wink:


i’d go one more step - circumstances permitting - especially if you’ve eating something suggested by the chef. tell the chef that you are learning about sushi and ask him if he wouldn’t mind explaining WHY he suggested that particular order. many chefs are happy to educate their patrons especially if it helps them better appreciate their skill.

actually, they’re both typically the fattiest (and richest) selections of those fish, but engawa is quite chewy - that texture contrast again - while the highest quality toro (oh-toro) literally melts on your tongue - although some cuts of oh-toro can include chewy muscle striations - if it is cut across the grain. it takes much more time and precision to slice with the grain and serve each cut without the striations - and some chefs charge for the effort. if the chef likes you, he may also then grill those striations separately (to cook the fat) and serve them with a splash of ponzu as a freebie. similarly, engawa can be served different ways - like regular halibut with the momiji-oroshi (chili radish), negi (scallion), ponzu (soy vineagrette). or seared (to cook a bit of the fat to change the flavor), then possibly scored diagonally and/or garnished with yuzu (citrus) and sea salt. if you’re really lucky, he might do each piece of a 2 piece order in different ways to provide more contrast.

and that’s a big part of what makes the entire meal satisfying - the overall contrast between various orders (as well as the sequence, if you get into that) but again, it’s a combination of skill as well as personal preference/palate. if you prefer chewy as a texture, you will probably like engawa and how the process of chewing reveals more of its flavor. and you’ll prefer toro sliced across the grain when there are muscle striations in the meat. if you gravitate to crispy, you may especially like a shrimp tempura roll or a deep fried soft shelled crab roll, or some avant garde roll covered with pork cracklings, which may not really indicate the skill of the chef if that’s all you order.

and as much as i hate to say it, great chefs may not show you their best if they don’t perceive that you have the palate to perceive it. there’s been plenty of times when i’ve asked for an order only to be told that i wouldn’t like it, but that same order was then served to someone next to me at the bar, or if i’ve commented that a particular order was somehow sub-par - like soggy/limp mirugai, the chef will not charge me for the order. they may not serve you brown pieces of yellowtail or anything like that, but you may get the last piece of a portion of a fish that’s been on display vs. the chef unwrapping a fresh piece from which he slices your order; i’ve accompanied friends to THEIR favorite places for the first time and within a few orders, they’ll notice that i get better cuts of fish even when we order the same thing, merely by observing the cultural niceties and asking some of those questions i mentioned in a previous comment.

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While otoro is highly coveted by many, I would argue that it actually has less flavor than akami and chutoro. Just ask your favorite high end sushi chef. I have yet to find one that prefers otoro over chutoro or akami.

I personally prefer chutoro because it is the perfect balance of fatty and lean. Then akami. Then kama toro. Then otoro.

Otoro, is often so fatty there isn’t much flavor.

Sasabune makes their money on fish that is “melt in your mouth” (hamachi, albacore, salmon, scallop, etc). It’s very simple and easy to like. So much so some people will confuse “melt in your mouth” as a criteria for good sushi.

The more advanced places will highlight the other more subtle textures and flavors of various tai and dai. That subtlety may be lost on the population that likes their fish “meltingly tender”.


some folks prefer brisket to wagyu beef. a chacun son gout.

All day every day.

and there’s nothing wrong with that. but to be fair i will go back and amend that post and substitute richest for tastiest.

And some people prefer Wagyu beef brisket.

but any method of slow cooking it leeches out most of the fat.

Otoro is very overrated. My favorite is akami. It has the most flavor. It taste rich and minerally to me (not fatty). I also love very fresh bonito for the same reason.

Reminds me of buttered-popcorn-tasting California chardonnay versus Chablis. I can’t stand most California wines, but some people love them. To each his own. But part of what happens is that “authorities” tell people that otoro is the best cut of fish and white wines are supposed to taste big and buttery, and people start to believe it.

We’d all have different lists of favorite things if it weren’t for outside influences.

I don’t know if anyone says white wines are supposed to be big and buttery (and oaky). But they do seem easier to like and more appealing to many.

Your analogy is perfect. Otoro is like a Cali Chardonnay. Akami would be akin to Chablis with its leaness and minerality. And for me chutoro is like a Meursault Perrieres. The perfect combination of richness, flavor, precision, and minerality.

Well, I’ll agree with you on the wine. On the fish, I’ll still go with the akami, but it’s close!

Engawa isn’t the fattiest part of a halibut. It’s a very sinewy strip of meat you can actually peel away from the fillet by hand. I spear about 15-20 halibut each year and I usually just discard the engawa. It’s really a pretty nasty piece of meat, at least on our local species of flounder (CA halibut.) I really don’t know how exactly the sushi chefs make it edible. It’s definitely not what you’d call the “toro” of a halibut. There’s nothing comparable to it on other species of fish.

i stand by my statement that the fin is the fattiest part of what is served as sushi or sashimi from a halibut/flounder.

and rather than get into an argument about it. i went ahead and cut and pasted the following from:

“Halibut has its famous engawa, which means an exterior hallway on the side of a traditional Japanese house. In the halibut’s case, it refers to the thin muscle of the dorsal fin which is located on the side of the Halibut. This part of the halibut is very developed compared to the rest of the body and unlike the regular flesh of the halibut, it has a higher fat content which makes it a delicacy. It is very soft and chewy and more concentrated in flavor.”