There is a phrase among sushi chefs, “Making rice for 3 years and sushi for 8,” which depicts the fact that it takes over 10 years of training to become a chef.
Here, we will verify that.
First of all, “training” refers to thoroughly learning techniques. In other words, this means to repeatedly learn how to make sushi from the head chef or senior chefs and acquire this skill. Just learning the knowledge and skills is not enough and unlike school, this learning method is to repeat the process until it becomes second nature. In school, not everyone reaches the same level, but as long as the pupil continues learning, they are expected to eventually reach a certain level.
Next, the environment has now changed from the era when they used to say, “Making rice for 3 years.” First of all, the quality of the rice is especially affected by the moisture content. Naturally, the amount of moisture required when rice is freshly harvested is different than a year later. It shouldn’t really change from day to day. However, back in those days, they were unable to get rice all at once and the rice quality would be inconsistent from day to day.
Therefore, chefs would need to compare their experience with appearance and texture, consider that day’s weather and then adjust the amount of water and cook time accordingly. This is exactly why there were rice-cooking experts.
Regarding the 8 years of making sushi, a long time ago potential chefs would start out washing dishes and cleaning the restaurant without many chances to actually make sushi. Apprentices were also not allowed to use valuable rice or sushi toppings for practice either. And the biggest reason of all, is that restaurants could not serve mediocre Nigiri sushi to customers.
But we once heard from a famous sushi restaurant that fast learners can achieve the same sushi-making skill as the restaurant owner in less than three months. He also said that most only need a year to gain the skills to serve customers. This is actually all that is needed to gain the skills needed to make Nigiri sushi.
So, is the “8-year” phrase mistaken?
We do not consider it to be a lie. However, to be more accurate, this training period does not only consist of learning sushi-making techniques but also techniques in preparing the fish. The state of fish and shellfish changes from day to day. This all depends on the thickness, hardness and size of the meat, the amount of fat and umami. If each cut of fish was prepared with exactly the same recipe, the sushi toppings served by the restaurant would be different each day. The methods must be adjusted to suit that day’s conditions. When an apprentice starts training, there are definitely massive failures that cannot be served to customers. There are also cases in which the flavor they create isn’t quite what the restaurant is known for. They start with toppings that are simpler to prepare. Once they master the simple preparations, they can move on to toppings that require a more delicate approach.
Since they are not attending a school, they cannot just keep failing over and over. They cannot be considered a capable chef if they are always waiting for instructions from the boss. Rei Masuda, of the Michelin Star Sushi Masuda, has stated clearly in a magazine interview that the preparations are more important than actually making the sushi. In other words, a certain amount of training time is necessary to reach a level that the chef can run their own restaurant.
To summarize, even Keita Aoyama, of Sushi Keita, who started his own restaurant and obtained a Michelin star in the minimum amount of time, spent 10 years training at famous restaurants like Susukino and Ginza, after graduating from a culinary school in Hokkaido. Jiro Ono also said in some interview once in his 70s that he still needed to improve his skills. Even a legend like Jiro, who did nothing but make sushi for over 50 years, believes this, so it seems reasonable to require 10 years to become a sushi chef. After that, the training certainly continues for as long as they can hold a kitchen knife.
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