I donned a black apron and headed to a work station behind that way-cool bar. Training lesson No. 1: The origin of sushi. It’s traced to ancient Japan, said Jason Sun, general manager and sushi chef at Li Asian Cuisine.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series by Jennifer Mastroianni called “Will Work for Food,” that will appear in Wednesday’s Food section in the Repository.
I got my first food job! Jason Sun hired me to work at his family’s restaurant, Li Asian Cuisine at Thursday’s Plaza in Jackson Township.
What a job it was. That’s because I did more than make California rolls. I helped shatter the sushi ceiling.
Mighty stuff, I know. Here’s how it happened.
If you’ve been to Li’s, you are familiar with the cosmopolitan dining room and sleek sushi bar. I donned a black apron and headed to a work station behind that way-cool bar. Training lesson No. 1: The origin of sushi. It’s traced to ancient Japan, said Jason, general manager and sushi chef. People rolled rice and fish together as a way to conveniently eat both items.
“It’s not unlike how Mexicans put ingredients in a taco,” he said. “It just makes it easier to eat.”
Over the centuries, sushi developed into an art form both prestigious and protected.
“Sushi chefs would train their own relatives,” he said. “In order to get in, you had to be willing to suffer through a lot of years of training.”
In addition, there were very strict rules about making sushi.
And here’s the real clincher: “They didn’t teach females,” Jason said.
Times have changed, but female sushi chefs remain uncommon.
Well, ladies, let me tell you, making sushi is fun and fascinating. I highly recommend learning how to do it, whether you watch an online video or take a class. The basics are intimidating, but not complicated. It all starts with a ball of rice.
Jason demonstrated how to collect sticky rice from the specialty rice maker, gingerly form it into a ball, then spread it on the blackish-green, paper-thin sheets of dried seaweed called nori. Once the rice evenly covered the sheet, we sprinkled the surface with black and white sesame seeds. Then we flipped the nori over so the rice and seeds would be on the outside of the roll when finished. Finally, we mounded avocado slices, cucumber cut into matchsticks, and strips of surimi, or imitation crab down the sheet’s center.
“Rolling is the most important thing,” Jason explained.
It’s a delicate maneuver of rolling and tucking, and administering the right amount of pressure without force. If rolled too tight, the rice and ingredients will be mashed.
If too loose, the cut rolls won’t stay intact when bitten into. We rolled the sushi by hand, then rolled it again in a bamboo mat to create the perfect firmness.
Page 2 of 2 - Next up, cutting the roll into six pieces.
“A sushi knife is one of the sharpest knives in the world, and it’s only used to cut sushi,” Jason said. “A single knife can cost anywhere from $200 to $1,200.”
I’ll admit, the samurai knife movement was tricky. Jason was a patient boss, and worked with me until I had it down.
And there they were, my California rolls, which I placed on a black plate, garnished with pickled ginger and a dollop of wasabi.
My job evaluation?
“I think you did good for the first time,” Jason said. “For real. I give you a B+. If you ever think about quitting your job you can come in here and work. You might be the first female sushi maker in Northeast Ohio.”
I have to admit, my sushi did look legit. And it tasted delicious. But was Jason blowing sunshine my way? Possibly.
“Want some of my sushi?” I asked him as I dug into my compensatory edibles, valued at $4.
“I already ate,” he said.
As part of my wages, I sampled several other items, such as the 16-piece spicy salmon “Caterpillar” sushi arranged on a narrow platter to look like a long caterpillar. In a word? Fabulous. Customer Elaine McCrimmon of Massillon also has high praise for Li’s sushi. She and a friend are regulars at the sushi bar, and happened to catch my training session. McCrimmon spent several years living in Hawaii where she ate her share of sushi.
“I know my sake and I know my sushi,” she said. “And this is the best.”
Li’s hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 9 p.m. on Sunday. For amazing deals on sushi, signature dishes and hibachi specialties, go during happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday. For instance, the 6-piece California roll is just $2.