The Training Of Itamae

The Training Of Itamae

Lisa Fowler
Vol. 5, No. 10, April 20, 1984

Raw quail eggs resting on flying fish roe and raw squid placed on a bed of rice probably wouldn’t appeal to the Western palate at first. However, after tasting sushi, all preconceived notions of fleshy, fishy, raw meat disappear. The taste of sushi alone is appealing, but aside from the taste, there is the preparation that goes into making sushi that should be considered.

When you are first introduced to sushi, perhaps it won’t occur to you that it took years of training for your chef to be able to prepare this raw dish for you. There is indeed a right way to make sushi and infinite wrong ways of making sushi. For the itamae, sushi chef, it takes years of practice before he becomes qualified to serve customers. But, “an itamae is always learning,” said Ben-chan of Ideta Restaurant. “The learning doesn’t end.”

In a tradition that goes back hundreds of years, it is hard to imagine much change in the industry. People’s tastes change, however, and so must sushi if it is to survive. The basic techniques may have very little variation, but ingredients or methods of preparation may change depending on where you are and what is most popular at the time. In reality, sushi really changes very little.

One aspect of sushi that is going through a drastic transition right now is the role of the itamae. Many see this role and the overall fate of the itamae as pivotal. In recent years, itamae have been training for only three to six months rather than the usual five to 10 years. For traditional itamae such as Sada-san of Restaurant Sada, Kado-san of Pagoda and Ben-chan of Ideta, this is dismaying news. Sada-san (who studied for seven years), Kado-san (who studied for 11 years) and Ben-chan (who trained for nine years) all see the shortcut in training sushi chefs as a step down for the entire profession and feel that the “itamae” coming out of these new schools don’t have the same pride in their work as the “old school.” “There may not be less talent,” said Ben-chan, “but it is certainly less refined talent.” Indeed this lack of experience will become evident in the itamae’s craft. The difficulty is not making the pads of rice and placing the neta, ingredients, on top. Rather, the skill in making sushi, the crucial part, is knowing how to care for the fish.

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