Yesterday, I found out that one of the most talented sushi chefs I’d ever known had died. He was still relatively young (in his 50s). He was at one time one of the itamae at the late, lamented Sushisay in New York.
The authorities are investigating the cause of his death. They have to do this, because his body was found in his bath, at least a month after he had died.
O-san, as I’ll call him, was a complicated man. His sushi making skills were impeccable, and he was as inventive as he was allowed to be within the confines of a traditional Edo-mae (Tokyo style) sushi restaurant. He was very popular with the customers. He arrived in New York not knowing a word of English, but quickly learned enough to have a great rapport over the counter. Because of his sushi skills and his great customer relations, he was promoted to chief itamae.
Behind the scene though things were a bit different. He had a very blunt way of speaking, which you may think is unusual for a Japanese person, but not that unusual in the restaurant world, that I’ve observed anyway. (Actually, away from customers and outsiders, workplace communications in a Japanese company can be very blunt and unforgiving.) He had a quick temper too, which didn’t endear him at all to his co-workers. And he was a heavy drinker.
Drinking, and doing drugs, are common ways of releasing stress in the restaurant world, as has been documented many times in books and articles, and it’s not limited to American restaurants by any means. If anything, those Japanese itamae-san had it worse than their American counterparts: living in a foreign land, away from family, the only socializing they could do initially was with their co-workers, so they couldn’t get totally away from work ever. That being said though, most of the itamae-san thrived in New York, taking full advantage of the opportunity and relatively more freedom compared to what they had back in Japan.
Mr. O unfortunately wasn’t as adaptable as some of his colleagues. He drank more and more, until one day he ended up in the hospital. He tried to escape to get a drink by stealing the clothes of the other patient in his room. His employers gave him an ultimatum: get treatment at a rehab center or go home to Japan and be fired. He went to the rehab center - the company paid for all his treatment.
Still, the other itamae-san couldn’t rely on him any more. The company recalled him to Japan. After working in other restaurants owned by the company for a while, he ‘quit’ (before his imminent firing) to open his own small sushi-ya, a one-man operation. (Such one-man sushi restaurants are not uncommon in Japan.)
I never had the chance to go to his restaurant, but if no one even thought to go looking for him until a month after he died, I’m guessing it wasn’t doing so well.
It’s such a sad way to go, for such a talented person. He brought so many moments of pure delight to so many people though his work. But at the end, he died alone and forgotten.
(I know this is not the usual kind of post you see on Just Hungry. Regular programming will return soon.)