It’s a culinary art that requires years of intense training: preparing sushi in the classic Japanese style. But sushi standards across the United States, and in your neighborhood, are slowly shifting away from the traditional roots of the cuisine. American sushi is affected by everything from the availability of certain types of fish to the visa rules potential Japanese immigrants face. We explore the history and future of sushi.


  • Tim Carman Food Writer, The Washington Post
  • Kaz Okochi Chef, Co-Owner, Kaz Sushi Bistro (Washington, D.C.)
  • Marisa Baggett Sushi consultant, sushi event chef, sushi instructor, freelance writer

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  • 13:06:47

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world, it's Food Wednesday. Sushi often presents itself as a simple delight, a delicious combination of raw fish and rice but even the most simple sushi dishes carry complicated stories with them about where they came from and how they're made, particularly here in the United States.

  • 13:07:20

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIConsider the trade craft alone. It can take years of training to become skilled enough to make traditional Japanese sushi. You can't master the necessary life skills or the necessary knife skills for different kinds of fish or acquire the feel for the perfect texture of rice without intense study and commitment that is, if you aspire, for the perfection of traditional Japanese sushi.

  • 13:07:44

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut the influence of the Japanese culture that brought sushi to the rest of the world could be waning in the United States where complex economic factors are thinning the pool of trained Japanese immigrants coming to work in American restaurants and the sustainability of fish stocks that feed our hunger for traditional dishes, all of which prompted Washington Post food writer Tim Carman to explore whether American eaters should expect more tater tots at sushi houses in the future and less of the flavors that have been the soul of Japan's treasured cuisine.

  • 13:08:18

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe aforementioned Tim Carmen joins us in studio. He writes about food for The Washington Post. Tim, good to see you again.

  • 13:08:23

    MR. TIM CARMANGood to see you, Kojo.

  • 13:08:25

    NNAMDIAnd joining us in studio also is Kaz Okochi, chef and co-owner of Kaz Sushi Bistro in Washington, D.C. Kaz Okochi, welcome, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:35

    MR. KAZ OKOCHIThank you for having me.

  • 13:08:36

    NNAMDIIf you would come a little closer to the microphone, I would appreciate it.

  • 13:08:38


  • 13:08:38

    NNAMDIYou can join the conversation yourself by calling 800-433-8850. How much of a premium do you put on authenticity when you eat something like sushi? Do you care if the food or service accurately reflects on the Japanese culture at the roots of the cuisine? 800-433-8850, you can send email to or send us a tweet at kojoshow.

  • 13:09:02

    NNAMDITim, we're sitting in a room right now with one of the Washington region's most celebrated sushi chefs, someone who brought his craft here to the U.S. from Japan decades ago and built a business around serving diners the kind of sushi that provides a window into the country where he grew up. Yet a few weeks ago, you had the nerve, the unmitigated gall to take Kaz Okochi to a rather Americanized sushi house here in Washington where you snacked on tater tots dipped in spicy sauce. Why did you take him there? What were you looking for when you did?

  • 13:09:36

    CARMANWell, I should say, to preface my answer, both Kaz and I really liked the tater tots and I think we devoured them. It was based on some conversations that Kaz and I had both over the phone and via email where he was expressing a concern to me about the state of genuine Japanese sushi. And he was worried about it for a variety of reasons, including sustainability of fish, price of fish, sort of where consumers are going these days in more casual, downscale kind of restaurants where the preferred sort of sushi is kind of the Americanized roll, the maki roll where, you know, it's not the emphasis on fish.

  • 13:10:28

    CARMANAnd this got me to thinking about, well, I would love to take him to a restaurant and Kaz agreed. And I took him to a Sushi Rice, which is a small chain of restaurants. And they do have more of a nigiri style sushi, but their emphasis is on kind of a combination of American and Japanese influences and they're hugely popular.

  • 13:10:52

    CARMANI mean, you can wait on the weekends for over an hour for a seat there so I thought of all the places that do kind of a combination of Japanese and American influences, this would be the perfect spot.

  • 13:11:04

    NNAMDIAnd he kindly agreed to go with you. Before we learn more about the history and culture behind what Kaz does, I'd like to ask you about something you wrote at the beginning of your piece. When reflecting on the future of sushi, you referred to the bastardization of other cuisines in the United States like Chinese and Mexican. What were you getting at?

  • 13:11:26

    CARMANWell, that's a strong word and I think, you know, I think any time food travels from one country to another, it gets Americanized to a certain degree because palates are different, people are different, ingredients can sometimes be hard to acquire, as Chef Okochi can probably attest to. So there are reasons for both from a business point of view and from a pure dining experience that things change.

  • 13:12:00

    CARMANBut something is also lost in the translation. And I think, you know, people who enjoy the authentic flavors of a particular cuisine miss those, I think. Mexican cuisine, in particular, has been often bastardized, sometimes for better or for worse. I mean, Tex Mex has grown out of Mexican cuisine where the Texas influences, the beef, Americanized, the dairy industry, lots of cheese, lots of processed cheese used in it, was used in that cuisine to make something that was uniquely of that particular region.

  • 13:12:37

    CARMANNow, many people dislike Tex Mex. I happen to have a very soft spot for it. So I just think things change when they come to the United States.

  • 13:12:47

    NNAMDIBut to your mind, has sushi guarded its traditions and its authenticity any more effectively thus far than other cuisines?

  • 13:12:51

    CARMANWell, I think I'd like to hear the Chef's response to that, but my perspective on it would be that I think you're seeing fewer and fewer places that are putting an emphasis on genuine nigiri sushi, which is the sushi that has different shapes of seasoned rice and topped with a small piece of fish and usually with a little dab of wasabi on it.

  • 13:13:20

    CARMANIt's an art form and it's precise and it's beautiful and it's simple and the flavors are perfect when you do it right. And I think you're seeing less and less of that kind of skill and more and more of the creative, hyper, flavorful maki rolls, you know, where you're being stuffed with all sorts of things, which de-emphasizes the fish.

  • 13:13:45

    NNAMDITim Carmen writes about food for The Washington Post. He joins us on this Food Wednesday to talk about sushi and its future. You, too, can join the conversation at 800-433-8850. What do you look for when you pick a place to eat sushi and where does the authenticity of the cuisine rank among those factors? 800-433-8850. Joining us also in studio is Kaz Okochi, chef and co-owner of Kaz Sushi Bistro in Washington, D.C. Chef Kaz, it's my understanding that you learned your craft in Japan before you came to the United States in the 1980s. What can you tell us about that education and the ways most Japanese sushi chefs learn their trade?

  • 13:14:27

    OKOCHIWell, the Japanese cuisine, as you know, it's a very simple cuisine so therefore everything has to be precise so that's why people asking me questions. How long does it take to learn sushi? How long does it take to learn how to cook rice? And some people say it takes five years and ten years just because you really have to learn everything perfectly and that's just the typical Japanese culture. As you know, you know, the watches, cars and cameras and everything is really made precisely and that's why we Japanese created such a great product and sushi is the same way.

  • 13:15:05

    OKOCHISo that's -- basically, it's very simple and people think it's easy to do, but a lot of times simple is the most difficult things to achieve.

  • 13:15:14

    NNAMDIBy example, it's my understanding that it took you about five years to receive your own formal training in sushi and Fugu or blowfish. And in that traditional training, you learned that there are precise ways of doing everything from shaping rice to how you plate the dishes you serve the customers. Let's talk about how that training affects the food that you serve. Where does one see it and taste it in the nigiri you make?

  • 13:15:39

    OKOCHIWell, first of all, it's kind of -- I'm in a unique situation a little bit because I don't want people to think I'm just really doing the cooking authentic and traditional thing, you know. I came here in 1988 and ever since I've been trying, doing new things so that's something I just want to mention to begin with, but -- what was the question again?

  • 13:16:05

    NNAMDIThe question was, all of the training you received over all of those years...

  • 13:16:10


  • 13:16:10 does that reflect what we see and what we taste in your nigiri?

  • 13:16:12

    OKOCHIWell, I mean, as I said, in the beginning, I want everything, like I want fish to taste like fish, even though I'm adding truffle du fois gras to puree over mangoes and to the fish, which is, to some people, is not really sushi. Oh, it's not really traditional sushi, which is fine, you know. The food is always changing and improves so that's what I've been trying to do. I'm not trying to hide the flavor with some spicy sauce and everything, you know, using a low-grade seafood, hidden with cream cheese to spicy sauce and everything like that. I still have a basic idea of Japanese cuisine, which is pure, simple, just adding a little bit of American accent, that's what I'm trying to do.

  • 13:17:12

    NNAMDIFor those of us who are not schooled in sushi, what are the dishes that make up the traditional Japanese sushi menu because when you go into American sushi houses, sometimes the menus are dozens of pages and include literally hundreds of rolls. What makes up the traditional, if you will, Japanese sushi menu?

  • 13:17:30

    OKOCHIWell, first of all, in Japan, the rolls are not as popular. If you go to the restaurants, sushi restaurants in Japan, most of the sushi is a nigiri type, which is the slice of fish, simply sliced on top of the rice bowl and the rolls. When we say rolls, most of the time it's just a simple like a tuna or eel (word?) or something with maybe some cucumber or something. But it's not like, you know, 10, 20 different ingredients in there. Except, there is, the food, the rolls called Futomaki which means big roll and where I got the idea.

  • 13:18:11

    OKOCHII opened a place called, Oh Fish! bar, last year, less than a year ago and let the people choose what they want in there. So you can pick tuna, avocado, cucumber, jalapeno, whatever you want and we make the rolls and cut it and serve it to you. So that's the new concept of the sushi, which as you can see is Americanized. I just try to do, give the people, give the food that they want.

  • 13:18:41

    NNAMDIOn to the phones, here is David in Washington, D.C. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:18:46

    DAVIDHey, Kojo, good show. Yeah, I'm the chef at a restaurant in D.C. and I guess there were a couple of points that I'm curious about. First, I try not to cook food that I really don't know a whole lot about or I'm not really comfortable with. I love eating sushi, but I don't make it. My challenge is, as a chef, has to do with this whole sustainability issue, whether it's around meat and chicken and outsourcing, but particularly around fish. And that's a huge, huge issue that I'm constantly talking to my purveyors about.

  • 13:19:26

    DAVIDI'm just sort of curious about how, you know, how the Japanese chefs are dealing with that right now. The other thing that I've noticed, I come from a very high-end background. I've worked in three and four-star restaurants in New York City and I've worked as a private chef here in D.C. Now I'm a chef at a place that I would sort of classify as very democratic, you know, it's fairly affordable. We...

  • 13:19:49

    CARMANYou can mention the name of it.

  • 13:19:51

    DAVIDAh, Meridian Pint, we do American craft beer and we sell a lot of burgers and a lot of really nice entrees as well.

  • 13:19:59


  • 13:19:59

    DAVIDBut our price point is, you know, our burgers start at like $12 and our entrees on the menu max out at, you know, $21 so we don't do high-end stuff. And considering what the economy is doing, it's been a real paradigm shift for me. We are very, very popular. We do a lot of business and it's very, very exciting. And it's a very different place for me from being in the high end place where, you know, when I was in...

  • 13:20:31

    NNAMDIAnd your question -- and your question for Kaz is...

  • 13:20:34

    DAVIDWell, I'm curious about two things. One is just the sustainability issues and the other is, you know, what is the economy -- I mean, you touched on the Japanese, you know, the Japanese chefs, you know, not having work now. I've just noticed that across the board it's not, of course, any particular cuisine. It's, you know, sort of the high end stuff. People aren't really eating that way right now.

  • 13:20:59

    NNAMDIAnd how is the economy affecting what Kaz does in terms of sustainability also? Kaz.

  • 13:21:04

    OKOCHIWell, the sustainability, that's something I wanted to avoid to talk about. Well, actually, I mean, I do totally understand. I do agree the concept and idea. I wish I could follow. But not only the chef, but also as a business owner, if I really tried to follow that sustainability idea, in my sushi case, I'm going to lose probably, I don't know, 70 percent of the fish 'cause they're not really considered as a sustainable.

  • 13:21:34

    OKOCHIAnd so the question is if people want to come to my sushi bar, we follow the sustainability, but only have a few choices of a fish, which is not really a good idea. So even though I do agree and I -- the idea, but unfortunately, I cannot follow. For instance, I just put on my Facebook a few days ago about eel. I'm sure there's a lot of people listening to this show love eel, which is one of the popular items. I'm talking about fresh water eel, but they are farm raised. But when they catch the wild baby eel, they'll farm raise it.

  • 13:22:12

    OKOCHIAnd 50 years ago, they were catching 230 tons of baby eel. Now, last few years, they catching only nine tons to ten tons. And they're thinking they can catch only four or five pound of baby eel. So the price is going to go up so high. So, you know, one thing is, yes, the sustainability, I think we should stop serving. Are the people going to be happy about it? That's a question. Yeah, I mean, of course the rate -- I mean, the price...

  • 13:22:44

    NNAMDIKeeps going up.

  • 13:22:45

    OKOCHI...going up for sure.

  • 13:22:47

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. David, thank you very much for your call. When we come back, we'll continue this Food Wednesday conversation on sushi and the future of sushi with Tim Carmen and Kaz Okochi, and take your calls at 800-433-8850. Are you a fan of designer maki sushi rolls where chefs combine ingredients that run the gamut from avocado to cream cheese? Or are you more of a traditionalist with what you order? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:25:02

    NNAMDIIt's a Food Wednesday conversation about sushi with Kaz Okochi, chef and owner of Kaz Sushi Bistro in Washington, D.C. and Tim Carmen. He writes about food for The Washington Post. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Let's go to John in Fairfax, Va. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:25:22

    JOHNHi, great show. I loved eating sushi for 20 years and my kids grew up and they started liking sushi, but we really couldn't afford to take everyone out. They got me the complete book of sushi about five years ago and we started making it at home. And, you know, I was dubious about whether we could because I thought it'd be so hard. But the reviews are great. We make it at home about six times a year and it's actually pretty easy to buy the ingredients here.

  • 13:25:51

    JOHNBut I love learning new things so I'm wondering is there a place where I could get more training in techniques on how to make the rice properly every time and more consistently.

  • 13:26:04

    NNAMDIMemphis, Tenn. we'll be talking with someone later in the broadcast who can tell you more about training. But I don't know what you can find in this area. Kaz Okochi, can you advise John about what he might be able to find in the Washington region?

  • 13:26:16

    OKOCHIWell, I'm just about starting to do some classes. So just give us a call and we can just put you on a mailing list or something. But, as you said, making the rice is the most important part and it's probably the hardest part. And once you've mastered this, it's probably going to be much easier. Even though the sushi itself is -- for a long time, it's never been really the home style cuisine. It's been always the restaurant food. So even in Japan, not very many the house -- well, I mean, household, we make sushi at home. That's what I'm trying to say.

  • 13:26:56

    OKOCHIBut there's recently whole, you know, family -- I mean, the home party kinda things, the one thing I've seen done is the hand rolls. You know, Tamaki we call, which is the -- you don't have to make a bamboo mat to make the rolls. You just have a sheet of (word?) seaweed and put the rice and put in whatever the ingredients and roll up by yourself with your hands. So that's easy things to do, even at home. So that's something, you know, everybody can enjoy. But, again, you have to learn how to cook the rice first, which is the most important part.

  • 13:27:31

    NNAMDIAnd, John, good luck to you. Thank you for your call. Tim, we mentioned earlier that part of what you explored was the thinning talent pool of traditional Japanese sushi chefs working in the United States, something you say is a complicated product of economic factors and immigration rules. What'd you find out when you started poking around this?

  • 13:27:50

    CARMANWell, I found that part of the reason why we're not getting as many Japanese chefs into the United States is -- well, it's a number of reasons. And one is that the visa issue has become far more complicated. It used to be, I think when Chef Okochi came in in the '80s, a lot easier for them to enter the United States. Now, it's much harder and you have to get particular types of visas, which are not easy to secure.

  • 13:28:21

    CARMANAnd then, there's also apparently been a cultural shift, which the chef and I talked about extensively and I talked to other people about it, that Japanese chefs -- the draw of the United States isn't what it once was for various reasons. So I think those two factors plus a third one, which has been talked about and didn't get into much in the story, which is that China has been attracting some of the Japanese chefs. Because their economy obviously is booming and they have developed a taste for the Japanese sushi and they have the money and apparently the draw to attract some of those chefs over there.

  • 13:29:04

    NNAMDITo what extent, how do you compare the immigration trends in Japanese cuisine to other kinds of cuisines you've studied or written about? Are there chefs from other countries also more reluctant now to come to the United States, thinking of going to other places?

  • 13:29:17

    CARMANIt's a good question. I don't have an answer to that. You know, I suspect it probably has to do with a lot of individual cultures and a lot of different factors. I mean, one thing that I think the chef and I talked about a while ago is that, you know, moving from Japan to the United States is a long ways away. And moving from Japan to China is much closer. And, you know, if you want to go back and visit your relatives, it's not difficult. You know, going back and visiting your relatives and family back in Japan from the United States, that's more than an ocean.

  • 13:29:48

    CARMANSo I think, you know, that is a large factor in what cultures and what chefs come to the United States, is the accessibility to their native country.

  • 13:29:59

    NNAMDIKaz, has it been your experience talking to other chefs in Japan that the immigration difficulties of coming to this country tend to be a deterrent?

  • 13:30:07

    OKOCHII mean, definitely. I mean, I've been dealing with immigration law and everything the past 20 years trying to help the chefs to come to U.S. And I did bring several chefs myself -- more than several. But the immigration law is getting harder and harder. And it's always the hardest the things we have to deal with.

  • 13:30:26

    OKOCHIBut again, on the top of that, there's a lot of different issues he mentioned. Japanese young people's mentality changed a lot and they really don't want to go outside of Japan, for whatever the reason. And a lot of the reasons, but it's very difficult to finding and getting good chefs from Japan.

  • 13:30:49

    OKOCHIBut also I must say, you know, I don't want to just say that the Japanese getting very difficult to -- I mean, bringing the Japanese chef from Japan is a really big -- the fact. But we also can train the chefs here. I mean, for instance, in my restaurant, I have a Chinese, Korean and there's a different, you know, people from different countries and we try to train them. And I must say, they're doing really good. Sometimes they can do better than Japanese chefs.

  • 13:31:21

    OKOCHISo that's something we can do. But, you know, the people -- well, the problem is the people who learn the sushi from not really trained -- Japanese trained, the chef. That is, I think, the problem that starts 'cause they never really had a chance to learn the real sushi.

  • 13:31:46

    NNAMDISpeaking of training sushi chefs, I'd like to bring Marisa Baggett into the conversation. She's a chef, caterer and instructor based in Memphis, Tenn. where she teaches sushi classes. She's also a freelance writer. Marisa Baggett joins us from studios in Memphis, Tenn. Marisa, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:32:08

    MS. MARISA BAGGETTHi, Kojo. Thank you for having me.

  • 13:32:10

    NNAMDIWell, you're a black woman from the deep American South and it's my understanding that you say your early experiences with sushi were influenced by, well, Michael Jackson, of all people. How and when did you start learning to make sushi and what on earth does Michael Jackson have to do with any of this?

  • 13:32:29

    BAGGETTWell, Kojo, I'll tell you. I was 22 years old before I even had my first sushi experience. And in the small town that I grew up in in Mississippi, there was no sushi bar. And the first sushi that I actually tried was some that I made for a catering customer in my own restaurant. So not only did I, you know, try sushi for the first time as a 22-year-old, but I had the audacity to make it myself...

  • 13:32:55


  • 13:32:56

    BAGGETT...and to serve it to other people. How Michael Jackson ties into that is, you know, as I got a little bit more bold and experimenting with creations and, you know, thinking that becoming a sushi chef was something that was feasible for me, my dad kind of, you know, he kind of gave me some wisdom based on a little Michael Jackson from here and there.

  • 13:33:24

    NNAMDINo, you got to explain that.

  • 13:33:26

    BAGGETTOh, okay. Well, I got to a point where I had several of my chefs that worked for me -- I kind of spearheaded the sushi program at the restaurant at the time. And I started to step away from it and my dad told me in a very candid father-daughter conversation that, you know, Marisa, even Michael Jackson still has to dance. And that was his way of telling me in terms...

  • 13:33:52

    NNAMDIYou got to make a living at it.

  • 13:33:53

    BAGGETTYeah, exactly, and that I had to be, you know, an active part of that.

  • 13:33:59

    NNAMDIYou eventually attended the California Sushi Academy. What did you find to be the most challenging part of that kind of training and what did you learn there?

  • 13:34:08

    BAGGETTThe most challenging part of that was putting your ego aside because we were taught in, what I was told, a very traditional Japanese style. Lots of times the classes weren't even taught in English. We had Japanese instructors and one very, very capable Australian instructor that, you know, they were very tough with us. And they insisted on perfection.

  • 13:34:37

    BAGGETTAnd they insisted that we know the history of sushi and the culture of, you know, what's expected of us from a sushi bar. And they really just drilled into us, you know, that this is something that we could aspire to. Even after we left that, we weren't necessarily sushi chefs, but that this would be something that we could continue to work on based on the principles that they gave us and hone our skills over time.

  • 13:35:03

    NNAMDINow that you're in the business of teaching people how to make sushi, what kind of responsibility do you feel when you're teaching, that you're sort of an ambassador of Japanese culture? Do you feel conscious or self conscious about that at all?

  • 13:35:16

    BAGGETTWell, how could I not? I mean, I'm a black woman from Mississippi, you know. And I think that a lot of times my classes are driven purely by curiosity of people, you know, really wanting to know, do I know what I'm talking about? And in the end, I think that what I do is not necessarily being an ambassador of Japanese cuisine, but being an ambassador of what I'd like to call a new style American sushi cuisine.

  • 13:35:47

    NNAMDIOh, good. Then we're going to talk both about that and about cost. I want to circle back to the issue of cost for a second because it was raised by one of our earlier callers in the conversation we were having. Availability of fish, particularly the fish that there is high demand for now in China and how that's affecting the sushi American eaters are enjoying. Tim Carmen, I'll start with you. What concerns do you have in the long run about the cost of sushi here? Are you worried that traditional places will become inaccessible and further push customers to cheaper restaurants that serve nontraditional cuisine?

  • 13:36:21

    CARMANWell, I think we've already seen that. I think it's without a doubt. I mean, the economy affects people's, you know, disposable cash, how much they can go out and spend at restaurants. And restaurants are responding. I mean, I don't think -- I think you've seen the D.C. market. There's not a whole lot of high end restaurants opening up in the last couple of years.

  • 13:36:44

    CARMANSo I think we already see that. As far as how it will affect fish availability, I mean, I'm sure the chef can talk about the prices of fish. But from my anecdotal and reporting with people, it's gone up fairly considerably. And, I mean, at a certain point, there is a limit, I would imagine, to what you can pass along to the customer and what they're willing to pay.

  • 13:37:09

    CARMANSo I think, you know, how that's -- obviously, that's tied to the availability of fish, both from a sustainable point of view and from a business point of view, of Japan or China are both outbidding American sushi houses for some of the prize fish. You are either going to have to find some other fish or pay a higher price and pass that along. So it's a tough market.

  • 13:37:36

    NNAMDIKaz Okochi, how does that affect your business model, because we got this Tweet from (word?) . It says, "Kaz, I love your sushi bar. Do you have any plans to open additional restaurants, Montgomery County, maybe Las Vegas?" Talk about how the economy is affecting this.

  • 13:37:51

    OKOCHIWell, that's a good question but the thing is -- I mean, recently a very good friend of mine wants to open a Japanese restaurant. And the first thing I just told was just not to do it. Well, because there's a lot of reasons. It's very difficult and one of the biggest issues is the price of the seafood. And there's -- I'm involved in some other project, but always right now biggest issue is the price. For instance, the tuna. Tuna's very popular here. Spicy tuna, you know, it's just most popular.

  • 13:38:28

    OKOCHILike, for instance, I have Masa 14 with my partner, Richard Sandoval. And we do serve hand rolls there, Tamaki, I was just talking about. Spicy tuna is the number one item among all of the menu items so spicy tuna is really selling a lot. But even though the tuna is very popular, the price of tuna is just sky high. And not only the fresh one, but also the frozen tuna, which I don't normally use. But a lot of places they use, not only the sushi places, but also American restaurants. If you go there, you may see tuna tartar, seared tuna, those type of things, which a lot of time, they're using frozen tuna.

  • 13:39:14

    OKOCHIFrozen tuna price went double in less than a year. And they used to be like 7, $8 which is -- I didn't even want to touch it 'cause it's not my level of quality. But now the frozen tuna even costs $15 so I don't know which restaurant really can afford to use that kind of expensive products. So your profit margin level is really, really thin.

  • 13:39:40

    NNAMDIWell, Marisa Baggett, in addition to being an instructor, you're a chef and a caterer. How is that affecting you?

  • 13:39:46

    BAGGETTWell, you know, it affects me a little bit differently because one of my focuses is definitely the use of sustainable seafood species only. And I think for me, that allows a lot of creativity. And I think that creativity is one of the things that will continue, you know, the cuisine of sushi in America as well as help keep costs down. I mean, if you can't, you know, Kaz-san spoke earlier about the price of freshwater eel which is, as he said, is not really necessarily a sustainable option, and for my clients I just don't use freshwater eel.

  • 13:40:28

    BAGGETTI find what I consider to be, you know, suitable substitutes. For instance, I use a broiled catfish, you know, catfish right here in Memphis is, you know, we're so close to Mississippi, and there are a lot of wonderful catfish farms around, and so I'm able to get a great price on catfish and have a, you know, wonderful substitute for something that people really enjoy.

  • 13:40:52

    OKOCHISend me the recipe.

  • 13:40:53

    NNAMDIThe catfish recipe, he'll take it. And then there is this. Here's Kelly in Georgetown in Washington. Kelly, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:41:03

    KELLYHi Kojo. My question is --well, first of all, I'm a vegetarian. And I love sushi, but I always find that I'm so limited when I go to Japanese restaurants because really the only roll they generally have are avocado eggroll or avocado rolls and then a vegetable roll. So I started actually making sushi at home with my husband and my friends, and, I mean, we make so many different kinds of rolls that I think would be a really good idea if Japanese restaurants incorporated, and I was just wondering if there was any movement towards that.

  • 13:41:39

    OKOCHIWell, obviously, you haven't been to my restaurant. I mean, we do have quite, you know, good selection of vegetarian rolls, and I think definitely that's very interesting, not only for vegetarians for, you know, people all. Even though for the people who love seafood, it just -- we cannot substitute. I mean, having a vegetarian rolls, that's a great thing, but it cannot substitute bell pepper to tuna, even though the color is similar, but it just, you know, totally tastes different so...

  • 13:42:11

    NNAMDIHow do you handle this issue, Marisa, because you really mix it up? You make anything from balsamic strawberry tuna, maki sushi to California rolls. How much of your approach to these kinds of recipes comes from your own creative desire, how much of it comes from your desire to retain sustainability, and how much of it comes from your desire to please the customer who just might be vegetarian?

  • 13:42:34

    BAGGETTWell, Kojo, I would say that for me, the last person on the rung is my creativity. First I start with making sure that I'm taking care of the customer because, you know, for me, the act of, you know, producing sushi is such a wonderful experience, as far as seeing the customer enjoy it. So if I have a customer that is, say, vegan, which a lot of my clients are, or for instance, if my customers are kosher, which quite a few of my clients are, then I really want to make sure that not only am I giving them something that I feel good about making, but also something that they will really enjoy.

  • 13:43:16

    BAGGETTI mean, I can understand Kelly's point, you know, you go to sushi bars sometimes and, you for, for the veggie roll options you have a cucumber roll, or an avocado roll and, you know, those may be your only couple of options, and, you know, sometimes a well executed cucumber roll is the best thing in the world, but if you're a vegan, you know, how many cucumber rolls can you eat?

  • 13:43:39


  • 13:43:39

    BAGGETTAnd so I think that there are, you know, several vegetarian options that can be created, some that even those that really enjoy seafood will love as well. And I really focus on that.

  • 13:43:50

    NNAMDIWell, Marisa has entire portions of her website dedicated to vegan sushi and kosher sushi. We're going to take short break. When we come back, I'm going to ask Kaz about what he has in the works have to do with kosher sushi, because I understand he does have something in the works. You can still call us 800-433-8850. We're talking with Kaz Okochi, Marisa Baggett and Tim Carman. 800-433-8850 with your comments or questions. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:46:02

    NNAMDIIt's Food Wednesday. We're talking the future of sushi with Kaz Okochi, chef and owner of Kaz Sushi Bistro in Washington D.C. Marisa Baggett is a chef, caterer, and instructor based in Memphis, Tennessee where she teaches sushi classes. She's also a freelance writer, and Tim Carman writes about food for the Washington Post. And you can call us at 800-433-8850 I said, Kaz, I was going to ask you about your kosher plans. It's my understanding that you have plans.

  • 13:46:35

    OKOCHINo. It's just not planned, it just happened to be asked, and this weekend the hotel -- the Park Hyatt Hotel having some bar mitzvah party and they -- we've done it several times, more than several times before, so it's not a totally new, but this is something very challenging just because of ingredients. I mean, they're gonna provide every ingredient, but we cannot bring anything, the knives and rice cookers and all the things they have to provide, which is the -- not exactly the same what we use in my restaurant, so we have to do a lot of adjustment.

  • 13:47:10

    OKOCHINot only that, there's a time issue. The party starts on Saturday at 7:30, and we cannot start prepping or cooking until sundown on Saturday which is 6:30, which gives us only one hour to prepare the sushi for 250 people, which is impossible.

  • 13:47:28


  • 13:47:29

    CARMANIs soy considered kosher?

  • 13:47:31

    OKOCHIYes. I mean there is soy -- most of the soy, I think it's kosher.

  • 13:47:37

    NNAMDIBack to fish, Tim Carman. How much do you think American audiences really care about the quality of the fish they get at sushi restaurants? I do remember a few years back when students in New York DNA tested the sushi at restaurants there, and found that some of them weren't even serving the fish they claimed to be serving on the menu.

  • 13:47:55

    CARMANYeah. That's a problem, and I think it's a problem more in, you know, mid-grade, lower-grade restaurants. Do Americans care about the quality of fish? I would, you know, if I could speak for the American people, I would say that I think people do care, because I think, you know, once you have the taste of high quality fish that's well cut, that's fresh, and that's just allowed to be what it is like it is in a sushi house, you understand why nigiri sushi is so popular in Japan, because the fish is fresh and it taste like tuna, or tastes like salmon, or it tastes like, you know, eel or whatever it is that's on top of that rice.

  • 13:48:43

    CARMANAnd once you have a fresh flavorful piece of fish on rice, you understand what the attraction is, and I don't know. You know, do people then shy away from maki rolls, should they shy away from maki rolls? I don't think so. I mean, that's a completely different style of sushi and you're looking for different things out of that, and I don't think that necessarily means that you're looking for a lesser fish. I just think it means you're looking for different flavors and textures and a different style of sushi.

  • 13:49:16

    NNAMDIWhat's been your experience with this. Marisa?

  • 13:49:19

    BAGGETTI think that people definitely care about the quality and particularly the origins of their seafood. You know, I was really surprised when I began, you know, focusing only on sustainable species at how business grew for me, because that really was something that was important to people, and so I think definitely yes, Americans for sure care about what type of seafood they're having, the quality of it, and where it comes from.

  • 13:49:52

    NNAMDISame experience you've had, Kaz?

  • 13:49:56

    OKOCHIWell, talking about -- well, but the history of eating sushi in the U.S. is very short compared to what we've been eating in Japan, and the expectation is different, because the experience an American can have is very limited. It's not like, you know, Japan. So do they really care? Well, certain people do care. It's really up to who you're talking to.

  • 13:50:22

    OKOCHISome people they like -- a lot of people like to eat sushi just because they like the flavor of soy sauce and wasabi. And, you know, for those cases, I'm sure everybody's seen that a lot of American people use too much soy sauce and so much wasabi and how can you taste really fish? So for those people, is the freshness or taste of the fish is really number quality, I mean, priority, maybe not.

  • 13:50:51

    NNAMDIOnto Steven on DuPont Circle in D.C. Steven, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:50:57

    STEVENHi. Thank you taking me, Kojo. When was in Washington before, I didn't eat a lot of sushi. When I moved to Hawaii, I fell in love with it, and it was everywhere and it was very affordable. And when I moved back here, I was really disparaged because it's not very affordable here for good sushi. I mean, there we had places like Aloha Sushi where you could go for lunch and have an affordable sushi lunch, whereas the same lunch here would cost three times the amount. Is there a reason for this price disparity?

  • 13:51:30

    NNAMDITim Carman?

  • 13:51:32

    CARMANWell, I think we've touched upon it a little bit. The market drives prices. You have a much larger market of people looking for good quality fish, China, Japan, United States, and you also just have a sustainability issue. We've had a lot of fish docks that have been overfished, plain and simple, and that, you know, the less fish you have, the higher the price. Pretty basic economic model.

  • 13:52:03

    NNAMDIThank you for your call, Steven. In staying with that issue for a second, let's talk with Safi in Washington, D.C. Safi (sp?) , you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:52:11

    SAFIYes. How are you, Kojo?

  • 13:52:13

    NNAMDII'm well.

  • 13:52:14

    SAFIHello, can you hear me?

  • 13:52:15

    NNAMDIYes. I hear you very clearly.

  • 13:52:17

    SAFIWonderful, thank you. Actually, it's a very good subject. It's very interesting, and I have a few restaurants in Washington D.C., and I was planning to open a Japanese restaurant, which is for the same reason, seafood prices, actually we change our mind, and we're going back into Mexican and actually bring Mexican cuisine.

  • 13:52:46

    SAFIAnd we see, like, you know, there is a new trend is Washington D.C. There's a lot of new Mexican restaurants opening, but the people need to be coming more creative, and it's more fun place to go. And definitely, there is a lot of people who like sushi, but the way I see probably in the next year or maybe next decade, I don't know how many more sushi places is going to be opened in this city and other cities.

  • 13:53:13

    SAFIAnd that was my concern too, like, you know, the raising of the price of seafood is it's very, very hard, you know, to make a profit when it comes to food costs for anybody in the restaurant business, and that's my comment. And I think everybody's feeling the pain when it comes to price of fish and seafood, especially Japanese cuisine.

  • 13:53:37

    NNAMDIThat's clear, Safi. Thank you very much for your call, but it offers me the opportunity to ask Kaz, because Tim noted that even you have gradually started to take more freedom as we mentioned earlier with your nigiri, which you used to consider kind of sacrosanct, untouchable. You serve the fish with things like mango puree garnish. At what point did you begin to experiment and how far are you likely to be willing to go?

  • 13:54:02

    OKOCHIThat's always my question, past 20 years, try to, you know, draw the line where, because I like to do the new things. I try to do experimental things. One thing is, you know, getting older, I think you just -- my palate's getting more conservative and back to the way I used to eat when I was in Japan. So I'm not as adventurous as I used to be when I was younger, but, you know, my approach is that sushi is really simple form. But as I said earlier, I just want a little bit of accent so without destroying the whole concept or simplicity and a pure -- the flavor.

  • 13:54:44

    NNAMDIMarisa Baggett, what's the limits on your adventurism and creativity?

  • 13:54:50

    BAGGETTWell, I think something the Kaz-san said earlier about, you know, the deceptive simplicity of sushi itself, really applies here. You know, it seems such a simple thing, and I think as an American chef or restaurants in America, we tend to want to do something to make it not quite as simple. And so for me, my daily challenge is to just kind of balance that simplicity with ingenuity. And so for me, I think that I'm pretty sure I'm willing to go a lot more farther than most just because I'm not Japanese, and I don't feel the ties to the traditional Japanese aspect of it.

  • 13:55:36

    BAGGETTBut at the same time, I think that what we could do is, we have an interesting opportunity now to use sustainable fish crisis and to use American ingenuity to really hone and create a new style of American sushi that's not looked down upon, but, you know, well executed.

  • 13:55:57

    NNAMDIWhat do you think about that Tim Carman?

  • 13:55:59

    CARMANWell, I'm sorry I was lost in my thoughts for a minute over was Kaz was just saying. And there was something he said about his palate becoming more conservative.

  • 13:56:10

    NNAMDII was lost in that thought for a second myself.

  • 13:56:12

    CARMANAnd I wanted to, if I can just for a second...

  • 13:56:16


  • 13:56:17

    CARMAN...just expand on that. I've experienced what could be described as, you know, as I get older, a more conservative palate, but I think a more charitable way to think about that is that it becomes a little bit more refined or discriminating in that you -- the things attractive about a maki roll's the fattiness, the gloppiness, I mean, who doesn't like a lot of fat? Fat equals flavor, and you get the fat from, you know, it could be avocados or mayo, and those things make a maki roll delicious.

  • 13:56:48

    CARMANBut what makes a nigiri sushi so beautiful is the austerity of the flavors, and I think as opposed to labeling that conservative, it may actually be more of a sense of your understand that the more subtler refinements of that kind of eating can be pleasurable and not just the big fatty flavors.

  • 13:57:10

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Safi. We go finally to Chris in Washington D.C. Chris, we're running out of time. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:57:20

    CHRISHi Kojo. This is just a shout out to Kaz. Kaz, I don't know if you remember many years ago a friend I believe of yours named Dale introduced us, and if I recall the story correctly, had worked with you at a pizza restaurant in Oklahoma when you were in college. I just wanted to know if you had any comments about that particular experience.

  • 13:57:45

    NNAMDIDo you remember the experience, Kaz?

  • 13:57:46

    OKOCHIYes, of course I do.

  • 13:57:47

    NNAMDIOf course he remembers Dale. I like to give people a memory of their past before they leave us on Food Wednesday. Kaz Okochi is chef and owner of Kaz Sushi Bistro in Washington D.C. Kaz, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you.

  • 13:58:00

    OKOCHIThank you very much.

  • 13:58:01

    NNAMDIMarisa Baggett is a chef, caterer, and instructor based in Memphis, Tennessee where she teaches sushi classes. Marisa, thank you for joining us. Good luck to you.

  • 13:58:09

    BAGGETTThank you.

  • 13:58:10

    NNAMDIAnd Tim Carman writes about food for the Washington Post. He's a James Beard Award winner. Tim Carman, good to see you again.

  • 13:58:17

    CARMANGood to see you, Kojo.

  • 13:58:18

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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