Generally when we go out to eat we are friendly enough with the waiter (waitress) but don’t think too much about anything other than our food and companions. This is not a bad thing, however I feel that when you are enjoying such an exquisite meal as sushi, there are great advantages to making a new friend. The itamae (the Japanese name for a sushi (or other) chef and pronounced ita-meh-ee), politely addressed as itamae-san. One thing that many westerners do not know is that there are many sushi items that are seasonal, and others that are not normally on the menu but can be requested. By virtue of that, they almost become off limits to most people. I’ve also, at times, been steered away from items that are no longer at their peak of freshness. How’s that for service?
For years I went to a particular sushi-ya and sat in almost the same seat every time at the sushi bar. Over time, I got to know the itamae, Sato-san, quite well, and he got to know me. By being interested in what he was doing, why he selected the fish he did, and even buying him a beer now and then, we actually became good friends. I was at first surprised at how accessible and friendly he was, even though he was often quite busy. But sushi was his job, and sushi was becoming my life, so we hit it off.
Over time he introduced me to things I would not normally have encountered, nor even tried. Fried shrimp heads (actually quite good). Ankimo (monkfish liver). And fresh wasabi (the green horseradish-like rhizome that accompanies your sushi meal). For years I had eaten the horseradish and food coloring blob on my plate actually thinking it was wasabi. One day, he took a brownish-green gnarled object and grated it on a device covered in sharkskin. Real wasabi, and what a difference it made. And what an interesting technique. I would also sit down at the bar and he would often, without my asking, place a nice appetizer down for me to try, or something I’d never seen before. On the house. It was great.
By my being inquisitive and respectful of his art we developed a great relationship, and he educated me in the history and sources of many foods in which I was quickly developing a keen interest. I’d never heard of Bonito flakes, but talk about an interesting historical methodology (but that’s something for another entry). He was full of informational tidbits. If you’re into free stuff, it never hurts to befriend the itamae, but it really is so much more than that. There isn’t all that much to talk about regarding the food at an Italian or French restaurant that most folks don’t already know. But I’d be willing to bet that you can always learn something new at a sushi-ya. The itamae is your friend. You just don’t know it yet.
The Sushi Guy