Michelle Carpenter, the sushi chef, or itamae, at Zen Sushi in Dallas, Tex., dropped some serious knowledge on Wednesday in an Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) session, sharing insights from her 25 years of experience.
Carpenter isn't your traditional itamae -- she's half Japanese, half Cajun and a woman working in a male-dominated field -- but she's certainly carved out a place for herself.
Carpenter claims to be the inventor of the not-so-authentic caterpillar roll, an eel and cucumber-stuffed roll topped with avocado that's now ubiquitous in sushi restaurants across American and beyond. But, as Carpenter makes clear in her AMA, she has a great respect for tradition. Below, some of Carpenter's pearls of wisdom.
On how to tell good sushi bars from bad ones:
A lot of people tend to think that if a sushi bar is really busy, it's good. That's not always true. ... It boils down to one thing. Is the chef putting his/her name on the line? If a restaurant is promoting their rolls more than they are promoting their chef, you should be hesitant.
On untraditional sushi:
[I] have to pay the rent. I try to offer something for everyone, for varying levels and preferences. I personally don't like it, but [salmon and cream cheese] is a best-selling roll. There is place for the Philly Roll. I met the Master Itamae that invented this roll, and he is the much more traditional than I am. But he understood his audience and it took me a while to understand my audience.
On being a woman in a male-dominated field:
Everyone gets treated like crap, but some went out of their way to make my experience miserable. I never in my wildest dreams imagined what would happen last year: A chauvinist chef that I once with, who hit me twice, actually applied for a job at ZEN. My revenge fantasy from 20+ years ago came true, but I didn't feel good. I felt sorry for him.
On the myth that hand temperature affects the taste of the sushi:
Some studies have shown that women's hands are colder. Male-dominated Japanese society perpetuated that. It makes no difference.
On mean sushi chefs:
Itamaes are naturally ego-maniacs. In Japans, being an Itamae is the best chef you can possibly be. It has ranking and draws a lot of respect. It is because the training process is so rigorous and takes 8 years. That's 8 years of very bad treatment. Once you make it, you have a (false?) sense of superiority. So you get grumpy at stupid people, stupid questions or stupid requests.
Read the rest of Carpenter's AMA here.