Yesterday ZEN Sushi chef/owner Michelle Carpenter participated in a Reddit AMA, which for the unitiated is basically an informal Q&A session open to anyone on the internet who's got a burning question they want answered. (According to ZEN's Facebook page, the AMA drove so much traffic to their website that it crashed.)
With 25-plus years of experience as one of the lone females in a heavily male-dominated profession, Carpenter had plenty of interesting insights to provide. For anyone not wishing to wade through the hundreds upon hundreds of comments, here are some highlights:
On starting out as a female in a male-dominated field: "When I started 25 years ago, there were no schools for sushi. The only way to become a sushi chef was to apply for an apprenticeship. Back then, Itamaes were all Japanese men. They were very against training non-Japanese and women. I was both. I'm not sure what offended them more, that I was not full-blooded Japanese or that I was a woman. It might have helped a tiny bit that I was half-Japanese."
On the subject of how to tell a good sushi joint from a bad sushi joint: "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. Of the less than 10 real sushi bars in Dallas, all of them are connected to a real Itamae [sushi chef], not just an assembly line of sushi makers."
When asked about her feelings on the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Carpenter digressed: "With all these sushi bars that are opening, I am afraid that the art of sushi is dying. There are so many rolls covered in sauce. True Itamaes don't do that. Of the 100+ sushi bars in Dallas, there are less than 10 true sushi bars. Everything advances and changes, at a natural pace, but this new fast-food, mass-produced sushi covered in 3 different sauces defeats the purpose of sushi."
Defining the cuisine at ZEN: "I'm not trying to offer the Japanese experience. I consider my food New American with strong Japanese influences. My personal creations reflect my style. I was born in on Tokyo. My mother is Japanese and my father is Cajun. I grew up in South and Southwest. I have a distinct flavor profile."
When asked if toro (fatty tuna belly) is worth the high price it commands: "I don't determine if its worth it. You decide. Honestly, I pay over $50 per pound at wholesale prices. To me, it is the best part of the best fish."
On food that comes with too many strict instructions on how to eat it: "Any chef, in any cuisine, needs to understand that they are making food for you. Food with instructions is like masturbation. Your purpose is to make food for someone else."
On inventing the sushi bar staple the Caterpillar Roll: "I got the inspiration for the roll in 1988 in San Diego. My co-worker had invented a '69 Roll,' where an entire eel filet covered the roll. I decided to invert it and cover the outside with eel and avocados, instead. I named it the Caterpillar. It was a massive hit and everyone asked for it. ... When I moved to Dallas 1989, there were a maximum of 5 sushi bars. ... I was hired at Mr. Sushi and I started making it as an off-the-menu special. ... The Caterpillar became viral."
On what other sushi restaurants she would recommend: "If you are going to go to my competitor, at least go to a place I would eat at: Tei An, Sushi Sake, and Yutaka (when [executive chef/owner Yutaka Yamato is] there)."
[Photo credit: ZEN Sushi/Facebook]