Latino Sushi Chefs Sweep Manhattan
By Claire Levenson
Jose Espinal didn’t know anything about Japanese food when he arrived in New York. In his hometown in Honduras, the only Asian restaurant was Chinese.
Now a sushi helper on Long Island, Espinal, 24, makes $8 an hour preparing 40 different kinds of rolls. For eight months, three Japanese chefs have been teaching him to handle knives, cut raw fish and mix rice with the right amount of vinegar.
“They gave me the opportunity to learn,” said Espinal, who plans to be a chef in a couple of months and make $15 an hour.
Like Espinal, many Central Americans and Mexicans in the New York area are training to become sushi chefs. With the growing popularity of sushi and the difficulties Japanese chefs face getting visas, it’s become easier to train workers in the United States than wait for Japan-trained cooks. As a result, Latino employees are sometimes learning in two years what could take up to eight years in Japan, where the apprenticeship is ruled by century-old traditions and not always open to foreigners.
“There is a trend towards more non-Japanese chefs,” said Toshi Sugiura, the president of the California Sushi Academy, a school where students from all over the world learn basic sushi techniques in three months.
In Japan, it can take years before the apprentice even touches fish, according to Satomi Furugaki, the director of the Academy. Trainees in Japan start at young ages. They wash dishes and vegetables for a year, then they learn to make rice and after up to three years, they finally start cutting fish and making sushi. In the United States, the approach is different, according to Sugiura “Life is short, you learn as quickly as you can.”
The incentive to hire non-Japanese chefs is reinforced by immigration restrictions. For Japanese citizens, outstanding skills are necessary to get several types of working visas. And these visas are more often granted to university professors than chefs, according to Tom Yoshikubo, who works for a consulting firm specialized in Japanese business and immigration. “It is hard to prove outstanding skills in the field of cooking,” he said. “Unless you have a TV show, a book or something…”
In this context, Japanese managers in New York have become more open about training local staff, often immigrants from China, Korea or Latin America.
In the last decade, a couple of Latino chefs have moved to jobs at some of New York’s best Japanese restaurants. At Japonica in the West Village, the sushi bar has a Mexican chef: Lusiano Ramirez. For years, Armando Martinez from Mexico worked at Hatsuhana, another renowned establishment on the Upper East Side. At Tomoe Sushi, downtown, one of the three chefs is Armando Lozano, a 25-year-old Mexican from Puebla who has cut fish for Tony Bennett and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Lozano said that making it as a Latino in the sushi business required hard work and cultural adaptation.
At the small restaurant where he started, Lozano kept asking chefs questions and advice. “I always wanted to learn everything,” he said. Making rolls was particularly difficult and it took him months to be efficient. After hours of hard work, he even managed to master Tamago, a Japanese omelet with sake that is rolled several times with chopsticks.
At Tomoe Sushi, his second job as a chef, the hardest part was to read the orders because waitresses only write in Japanese characters. At the beginning, another chef had to translate for him. But after several months, Lozano bought books and taught himself to read Hiragana and Katakana, two of the Japanese language’s three different alphabets.
His co-workers found him a Japanese name: “Suzuki,” and they keep telling him he should travel to Japan to perfect his culinary education. He said he was seriously thinking of going.
Most customers don’t mind an international sushi chef team, according to Furugaki from the California Sushi Academy. There has been a shift in management style over the last decade, she added. Sushi has become more trendy and open to innovations, such as Latin Asian fusion at restaurants like Sushi Samba.
Rarely, customers have problems with non-Japanese chefs. Terry Segawa from the National Sushi Society, who employs two chefs from Honduras and Mexico in his restaurant in Bethesda, Md., said he had seen older Japanese customers refuse to eat fish cut by foreigners. But most of the time, it is not an issue, he said.
In other parts of the United States, Latino sushi chefs have been part of the landscape for years. The number of Japanese restaurants – now more than 9,000 in the country – doubled in ten years, according to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture. Managers have therefore hired profusely both Japanese and non-Japanese workers.
In Chicago, there are so many Mexican sushi chefs that a new word was created to describe them: “sushero.” In Los Angeles last fall at the seventh annual Japanese food festival in Little Tokyo, a Salvadoran chef won the sushi competition. A Mexican came third.
Working in Japanese restaurants took Lozano on a cultural journey. Three years ago, he ate his first raw fish in New York and didn’t really like it. Now, he eats it almost every night at Tomoe Sushi. On his way to becoming a sushi expert, he developed a taste for sake, sea urchins and octopus. But although he is confident in his skills, Lozano knows that in the practice of this culinary art, the learning never stops.
Japanese Food In Mexico City
Mexico City’s first sushi restaurants opened in the late 1950s, but Japanese food really became popular and fashionable in the 1990’s, according to the Mexican newspaper Reforma.
There are now hundreds of sushi places in the country’s capital, where choices range from authentic sushi bars to chains of Latino-Japanese fusion. Rolls and raw fish are also sold on street carts and supermarkets around the city.
One of Mexico’s most successful restaurant chains is Sushi Itto, which opened in 1988. The chain offers a whole array of Mexican style rolls and serves creations that combine local ingredients with Japanese basics. Some of its dishes mix raw salmon with ginger, avocado, cream cheese, chili peppers, mango and lime.
There are 69 Sushi Ittos in Mexico and the franchise expanded to Central America, Spain and the United States. It has a few competitors, such as Teriyaki San, which also adapts sushi to Mexican taste and opened approximately 40 restaurants in the country.
But for aficionados, these chains are to sushi what Taco Bell is to Mexican food, according to Roberto Mesinas, a Mexico City resident who reviews restaurants online.
Connoisseurs stick to the capital’s more authentic and expensive offerings, such as Suntory, Taro and Samurai.—Claire Levenson
Photo: Hispanic sushi chef Armando Lozano at Tomoe Sushi. Amanda Rivkin