Sitting at Chopsticks in Georgetown, something feels different. The casual sushi restaurant that’s a retreat for weary shoppers has a woman behind the sushi bar rolling maki. But this rare sighting is an anomaly. Justin Lee, one of the restaurant’s sushi chefs, confirms that the woman is one of the owners and only stepped behind the counter because they were slammed.
The staggering lack of women behind sushi counters is not limited to D.C., or the U.S. It started in the cuisine’s country of origin—Japan—where the issue got some buzz shortly after the debut of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (here and here). The second article mentions a quote from Jiro Ono’s son, Yoshikazu Ono,whosays women can’t be sushi chefs because they menstruate.
This backwards myth is just one of several misguided ideas about why women are not suitable to be sushi chefs. Another is that women’s hands are warmer than men’s, thus impacting the fragility of the rice and the temperature of the fish. Kaz Okochi of Kaz Sushi Bistro and Daisuke Utagawa of Sushiko, who both grew up in Japan and brought their native cuisine to D.C. decades ago, dismiss out of hand these bizarre claims, and others—like that women aren’t quick enough to cut it.
“There’s the image of men and women in Japan where women are more tender and slower and men are fast and macho,” Okochi says. “Women go to the table and serve slowly, nicely with a lot of care, but the sushi chef is fast-paced boom, boom, boom. Of course this is the old- fashioned way—that sushi has to be made by a man—but this is a stereotype and I don’t agree with any of these things.”
In fact, Okochi says he has employed three female sushi chefs throughout the years at his restaurant. He’d gladly hire more, but suspects there isn’t a long line of women waiting to get the gig. “If a female has a lot of passion, I don’t have a problem with that, but probably the reason [there are few women in the industry] is that females don’t want to do that kind of job.”
Utagawa agrees. “Women don’t prefer to work in Japanese kitchens—it’s really tough, especially the old-school Japanese kitchen,” he says, comparing the environment to French kitchens. “It’s not women-friendly, it’s not friendly, period.”
He explains that there’s very little teaching that goes on, making it hard to break in and move up the ranks. “Technique is not something you’re taught, it’s something you steal,” Utagawa says, sharing how up-and-coming sushi chefs in Japan will use the restaurant after hours to practice knife work on cheap vegetables.
Utagawa says another reason women choose not to enter the field is that cleaning fish is not glamorous. “I’m not saying women only want glamorous things, but there’s a whole bunch of men there,” Utagawa says. He likens it to other places that have a boy’s club atmosphere. “I suppose it’s similar to walking into a dive bar with a bunch of men—it’s not that you can’t come in, but do you want to be there? The Japanese kitchen was, and still is to a certain extent, a male chauvinistic sort of place.”
This isn’t to say there aren’t women in Japanese restaurants both home and abroad. Often, they’re running the show. Utagawa says at many of the ryōtei (formal Japanese restaurants often serving tasting menu kaiseki cuisine) are owned by females who determine which male chefs helm the kitchen. “Taste changes dramatically when chefs come and go, but the woman is the owner, the face of it.”
Utagawa says he does see some female sushi chefs, but they’re still “more of a novelty.” One such chef is Jennifer Nguyen, who was the executive chef at Zentan on Thomas Circle before Chef Yo Matsuzaki took over. Though she was often in the back tending to the robata grill, so not many guests saw her behind the restaurant’s small sushi counter. Nguyen, who is now a consulting chef in Austin, Texas, says it’s still a man’s world.
“It’s still a mentality of the patriarchal society in Japan,” Nguyen says, also mentioning the menstruation stigma. “It’s rubbish. It’s their way of keeping us at home and doing what they’re accustomed to in the old world of Japanese culture. Those are the challenges we face—the stigma of old world Japanese culture.”
She looks up to chefs like Niki Nakayama in Los Angeles. Nakayama has made a big culinary splash at her restaurant n/naka and pays it forward. “She only hires females who want to learn to make sushi, she’s giving women the opportunity to get into this industry without any stigma attached to it,” Nguyen says. “She herself talks about the challenges in the sushi industry she grew up in.”
One of Nguyen’s biggest gigs was as a chef at Morimoto in Philadelphia. Chef Masaharu Morimoto, she says, is “certainly leading the way here in the U.S.,” when it comes to hiring women, “but it’s still few and far between.” She adds that even after you’re hired you still have to contend with working with male sushi chef colleagues who Morimoto prefers to pluck from Japan.
“Even though he’s forward thinking, day in and day out, it’s still the old world tradition of Japanese culture. ‘You don’t touch the rice, you’re a woman, so you just be prepping and nothing else.’”