In Japan, sushi is a man’s world. Male chefs use all manner of excuses to defend their sushi bars against women who want to work there. Women can’t be sushi chefs, they say, because makeup, body lotion, and perfume destroy the flavor of the fish and rice. Some male chefs claim that the area behind the sushi bar is sacred space, and would be defiled by the presence of a woman. Others say women don’t have the reflexes necessary for the knife work.
The most common argument against female sushi chefs is that a woman’s hands are warmer than a man’s—the insinuation being that this warmth can somehow “cook” a piece of raw fish. In fact, a study published in The Lancet in 1998 demonstrated that women are likely to have colder hands than men, as I report in The Story of Sushi.
Last night, the diners in my Monday-night Sushi Concierge class were treated to a gorgeous spread of traditional sushi prepared by one of my new favorite chefs, Ms. Sho at Jewel Bako in New York. Everyone agreed the sushi was exquisite. The only disappointing part of the meal was the thought lurking in the back of my head that Ms. Sho would have had a much harder time in Tokyo getting a job at such a top-notch sushi restaurant than in New York. Well, Japan’s loss, our gain.
The reasons given for why women shouldn’t be sushi chefs are ridiculous, of course. It’s just old-fashioned patriarchal prejudice. Check out my webpage on pioneering women in the world of American sushi, and scroll down for interviews with female sushi chefs in Japan.
And here’s a narrated slideshow I put together for the Atlantic featuring an interesting African American female sushi chef in Memphis.
The real-life main character I follow in The Story of Sushi is a woman named Kate Murray. She has a hard time mastering the art of sushi, but it’s not because her hands are too hot!
Photo: Angela Kim, a sushi chef in Los Angeles, was featured in Inland Living magazine. Photo by William Vasta.