Sushi chefs in Toronto are losing their authenticity for the sake of business success
Sushi has become big business in Toronto – but is it authentic?
Of the 500 to 600 Japanese sushi restaurants in the GTA, “less than 40 restaurants are Japanese owned and operated” and only an additional 50 restaurants owned by non-Japanese chefs can be considered authentic, the Japanese Restaurant Association of Canada (JRAC) says.
Shigeo Kimura, an owner of Ginko Japanese Restaurant and president of JRAC, says due to lack of standards, sushi chefs in Canada might be trained for only a few month or a few years compared to those in Japan who spend a decade of apprenticeship. As a result, they are lacking sufficient knowledge and experience.
“Sushi is closely tied to Japanese traditional culture, history, and geography,” Kimura added.
“If the owner is only concerned about his business without having any chances of learning about our Japanese values the philosophy behind it, misunderstanding about Japanese cuisine might happen and he will lose his credibility in the end.”
Most sushi restaurants, in fact, tend to be influenced by westerners’ tastes. They mostly serve popular western-style roll sushi rather than authentic nigiri sushi made with raw fish (topping) laid with sushi rice.
“We have to serve various sorts of westernized sushi like California and Avocado rolls to accommodate the customer’s preference. Otherwise, our business doesn’t work well,” said Sung-Yong Kim, an owner of Samjung, a restaurant mixing Korean and Japanese cuisine.
“As long as customers are satisfied with what we serve and we can keep our business, it doesn’t matter if our sushi is western style or Japanese style. There is no regulation or restriction about it.”
Each year, the number of Japan tourists grows and more people come to enjoy the real experience. The public in general, however, is not familiar with this and tends to choose price and quantity over authenticity and quality.
Godfrey Alexander, a frequent customer of Mac Sushi once every week, says he is satisfied with the taste, price, and variety of foods at the store as well as its convenience and easy access.
“During the special sale at the end of the day, they sell sushi with a half price. So, I can get 12 pieces of roll sushi for $12. It’s pretty cheap,” Alexander said.
Meanwhile, most Japanese customers are unsatisfied with the less expensive but low-quality ingredients in the restaurants owned by non-Japanese chefs. Etsuko Kurata, who immigrated to Canada eight years ago, says those are fake sushi.
“Many people really don’t know how to eat sushi and what real sushi tastes like. I won’t eat anything from take-out store or sushi buffet restaurant. I would never buy frozen sushi either. They taste so bad,” Kurata said.
Kimura says educating the general public to properly appreciate Japanese cuisine cannot be achieved in a few short months.
“We have to cooperate with Japanese business corporations and cooking schools, and interact with customers in order to develop the Japanese cuisine for the future. Only one restaurant cannot do it on its own. It will take 10 to 20 years to achieve our goals,” he said.
Meanwhile, although Kurata prefers Japanese-owned sushi restaurants, she mentioned they are excessively fancy and expensive, charging more than $50 per person. As a result, she is not able to visit there often.
Sushi chef Masashige Endo, an owner of Aoyama Sushi, says it is inevitable to charge extra in order to retain its authenticity and serve delicious sushi.
Endo purchases 70 per cent of his ingredients including raw fish from suppliers in Japan who offer the best quality of products. Insisting on preserving its authenticity, he sometimes faces financial hardship.
In his philosophy, however, Endo says, “If you are a good business person, you cannot be a professional sushi chef and if you are a professional sushi chef, you cannot be a good business person.”
He says the vivid colour of the fish and the quality of rice represents the chef’s overall professionalism. Therefore, he wishes that sushi chefs at other restaurants could also serve the high quality and flavor of sushi without any compromise.
The request of serving authentic sushi in all sushi restaurants is not limited only in Toronto or even in Canada.
In November 2006, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan indicated that due to the lack of standards, a lot of restaurants overseas owned by non-Japanese chefs are contributing to the loss of real Japanese cuisine.
To check the quality of ingredients used in Japanese restaurants, the JRO (Japanese Restaurant Popularization and Promotion Organization) was established to send “authenticity screeners” and implement an accreditation system in major foreign cities.
“A number of restaurants are using low-quality ingredients or supplying non-traditional cuisine due to their lack of techniques, experience, and values of culture,” said Yasu Tagaya, a representative of the JRO.
“Through the program, we were supposed to demand that restaurants meet its standards in terms of sanitary management and high-quality ingredients including raw fish, sushi rice and spices and accredit the recommendation logo to those restaurants above standards,” Tagaya added.
However, facing with enormous opposition from both inside and outside the country, the JRO was forced to withdraw the recommendation program. Tagaya mentions that sushi restaurants in each city, therefore, should set their own standards and to define Japanese cuisine.
Kimura criticized the recommendation program proposed by the government as an ambitious strategy for the commercial benefits of Japanese industry, like the ranking system of Guide Michelin.
“To keep a high reputation with customers, our local sushi restaurants in Toronto owned by Japanese have to step up and take an initiative in the industry,” Kimura said. “That action should not only increase public consciousness for sound cuisine but upgrade the level of sushi restaurants owned by non-Japanese chef.
The Authentic Japanese Restaurant Qualification Program was proposed and agreed upon in June 2006 by the JRAC. Evaluation of the restaurants proceeds through an anonymous judge with knowledge about the cuisine and random feedback from customers.
The idea behind this system is feedback: sushi chefs and restaurants could modify their shortcomings and serve the ones with better quality by raising the reliability to their potential customers.
Kimura says while there are challenges existing in this system – as all restaurants are different in terms of price, location, working people, taste, and service – he hopes that the organization and accreditation system even applies to the Japanese sushi restaurants owned by Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese.