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July 14, 2013 12:49 PM   Subscribe

I just started working as a waitress at a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles. I am overwhelmed by the menu and the cultural differences with the rest of the staff. What are some good place to look for information on Japanese food, specifically sushi? And what are some strategies to help me fit in and go with the flow as the only non-Japanese speaking person in the front of the house?

I have a fair amount of restaurant experience, but I've never worked at a Japanese place before and I don't speak Japanese. I'm the lone white girl and I would like to feel less clueless about what I'm serving and what my coworkers are saying to me. Understanding the sushi chefs is hard, man. Unlike a lot of kitchen situations I've been in which everyone is speaking Spanish, I'm not hopeful that I'll be able to pick up enough of the language to communicate with people in their native language effectively. But maybe there are some helpful phrases or things to listen for?

And I think once I know the menu and types of fish like the back of my hand, I will feel like less of an idiot. Sushi experts of Mefi - where do I learn about this stuff?
posted by ablazingsaddle to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm the lone white girl and I would like to feel less clueless about ... what my coworkers are saying to me. Understanding the sushi chefs is hard, man.

I'm assuming they're speaking to you in English and understanding them is hard because of their accents? If so, I definitely think you will get used to that with just time, BUT if you want to speed up the process, I would recommend listening to a lot of Japanese media (maybe movies or videos with subtitles?). If you just spend a lot of time listening to people speak a language, or speak with a certain accent, it becomes way way easier to accurately parse the sounds that they are making, even if you don't understand what it means. I have a lot of Russian friends, but even though I don't speak Russian at all, when they talk I can parrot their words to a degree of accuracy that surprises them, just because I am so used to hearing those Russian sounds.
posted by cairdeas at 12:59 PM on July 14, 2013

The blog Just Hungry by Makiko Ito is a fantastic source of in-depth knowledge of Japanese food and cooking (sorry, too drunk to post link right now).
posted by Grunyon at 1:00 PM on July 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

I remember being at a sushi place that had an illustrated guide to sushi culture, and while it was meant as something to throw on the stack of books for kids to read while waiting in a restaurant, I read it one day and it was amazing and contained stuff I learned many years later that was all in that one book.

I can't find it on Amazon right now, but it was like a comic book, all illustrated by hand, no photos of any kind.
posted by mathowie at 1:22 PM on July 14, 2013

For a look at the culture behind the making of sushi, you could watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the fantastic documentary about Jiro Ono, arguably the world's finest sushi chef.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:35 PM on July 14, 2013 [9 favorites]

Its not clear if this is an issue, but if you need any help pronouncing things on the menu / etc, learning to correctly pronounce Romanized (written with English letters) Japanese is pretty easy. The language is based on phonemes and so once you learn how each one sounds (there are groups of consonant + vowel) they pretty much always sound the same regardless of position/word, unlike English with all of its silent letters / exceptions / etc. I would guess that you could find a YouTube video or something with someone walking through hiragana (phonetic Japanese writing system) pronunciation.

This can help understanding them too I think, as one of the big reasons Japanese people often have a strong accent speaking English is that many sounds do not exist in their language (v, l, qu, etc) so they have difficulty with them, but as someone learning Japanese, knowing this means I can more easily reverse-engineer this when speaking in English with someone who has not spent a lot of time getting our pronunciation right.

Actually learning any of the language is trickier, the Foreign Service Institute ranks Japanese as the most difficult language for native English speakers so you're right that its not like Spanish which is much easier to pick up from context (aside from a few useful phrases and such).
posted by wildcrdj at 1:37 PM on July 14, 2013

If one of the reasons you are having trouble is that you aren't very familiar with the menu yet, could you take home a menu to read really thoroughly & carefully, when not under time pressure? You could google any dishes / ingredients you aren't familiar with too.

And I second Just Hungry as a fabulous blog, but it's mostly (as I recall) Japanese home-cooking related, and doesn't have a ton of sushi-related information.
posted by insectosaurus at 1:37 PM on July 14, 2013

Check out the sushi, rice, etc. volumes of Oishinbo. Yes, it's a manga, but it's for adults and has footnotes and so on.

You could also try Japanese TV shows, fiction or non-fiction, since this would also let you hear some of the language. I haven't seen Sushi Oji (Sushi Prince) but it looks relevant. There's also Shota no Sushi and, for other aspects of Japanese food, Osen--I've seen a few episodes and thought it was pretty good. More food-related shows here; non-fiction TV shows here and here.
posted by wintersweet at 1:49 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

In addition to studying your restaurant's menu to learn it better, could you also eat at the restaurant, or make a point to go to another nearby Japanese restaurant and work your way through items on the menu you're not familiar with? It's a lot easier to understand an unfamiliar cuisine when it's not unfamiliar anymore.

You mention you're in Los Angeles. What about a visit, or a few visits, to Little Tokyo? There are piles of restaurants specializing in every type of Japanese food, as well as Japanese groceries (feel free to wander the aisles and read labels and poke things to your heart's content). I would be absolutely shocked to discover that Kinokuniya Books doesn't have a cooking section or stock an English-language guide to Japanese cuisine.
posted by Sara C. at 1:55 PM on July 14, 2013

wintersweet's mention of TV reminded me of something else. See if you can dig up the original Japanese Iron Chef series online somewhere (or maybe Food Network still shows reruns at odd hours?).

The themed ingredients will mostly be Japanese staples. The dishes tend to be pretty crazy, but they are going to be typically Japanese in approach. They also did themed episodes like "sushi" etc. that highlight a specific Japanese cooking style.

Since everyone is (mostly) Japanese and it was made for Japanese TV, everyone is speaking Japanese, which you can hear under the (somewhat Japanese-accented) English dubbing. Because it was dubbed into English for non-Japanese audiences, the commentary often describes Japanese ingredients and cooking techniques in detail. You'll also hear the English dub use a lot of Japanese proper names and terms, which they pronounce correctly as they should be in Japanese.
posted by Sara C. at 2:02 PM on July 14, 2013

I would recommend reading The Story of Sushi by Trevor Corson. I feel like I learned a lot of the basics from it.
posted by brilliantine at 2:24 PM on July 14, 2013

This was me in high school, the lone 17 year old westerner waiter in a suburban NJ sushi joint in 1994 ( Kotobuki Rules!). Looking back it was one hell of a cultural education, but at the end of the day my cow-orkers were working stiffs just like me who wanted to do their job, get paid and go home. I got some light ribbing for being the outsider, but it was all in good fun.

I learned the japanese names for all the fish, sure, and called all the cooks Surname-San as a show of respect. We had dinner family style and we never touched our food before the boss did. There were some peculiar quirks about who's sake cup to fill first and who's order to take first when it was a group of japanese, but if I screwed up and poured the boss last (bad idea) it wasn't a big thing.

I used a little bit of conversational japanese, "konbawa, o genki desuka?" (hi, good evening) to all the guests, regardless of ethnicity, said 'hai' instead of yes...but they were all fluent in English, it was mostly for show.

Enjoy it, I had a blast, I still talk about that time fondly.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 2:47 PM on July 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Now that I'm firmly going down memory lane, I'm remembering a couple more quirks that made the experience different from the other 'western' places I've waitered:

- learn the menu inside out (good advice for any waitering job). Ask the cooks to let you sample things so you can help guide those unfamiliar with the menu.

- Our Udon was bland and tasted like dishwater, on purpose, I was told to warn customers it's a very bland dish

- Try ALL the sushi. They'll let you, just try it all. Ikura (big fat fish eggs) and Uni (sea urchin) are absolutely nasty, most westerners order it on a dare. If not a dare, they will hate it and blame you. Give a heads up.

- If you do Oshibori (hot wet towels before the meal) as part of your prep work, make sure you keep an eye on the stock, it runs out FAST and is a pain to heat up

- Your average person can not tell the difference between good and bad sake. Serve it luke warm, not hot

- Learn the ticket shorthand (these were the days before MICROS), I learned my japanese characters for numbers 1-10 and the names for them, it helped IMMENSELY.

- Oshinko (pickle appetizer) is super mega cheap for the restaurant and if you can, give it out free, it looks super fancy but is really nothing and will help your tips.

- We westerners go absolutely nutbags crazy for the salad dressing. Always give a little side ramekin of it on the side

- Do NOT stick a finger in the rice cooker to see if the rice is cooked. Do not fall for this initiation kitchen practice. I can still feel the pain.

Have fun!
posted by BlerpityBloop at 3:04 PM on July 14, 2013 [6 favorites]

Ikura (big fat fish eggs) and Uni (sea urchin) are absolutely nasty, most westerners order it on a dare. If not a dare, they will hate it and blame you.
Perhaps this was true in your New Jersey sushi joint in '94, but it is almost certainly not true in LA sushi shops today. Uni is quite possibly my absolute favorite and it will also be so for a huge number of people. Bad uni is disgusting, good uni is heavenly. Similarly, many of us absolutely love salmon roe.

I'd second the just hungry blog and you might also learn a lot from Trevor Corson's The Story of Sushi
posted by Lame_username at 3:49 PM on July 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

Longtime Japanese speaker and former resident here. I eating sushi off the boat in Tsukiji about two weeks ago, so good sushi is still on my mind.

Your priority is the restaurant where you work, so what you need to become familiar with is your menu. I do not know your restaurant's menu, but in general, American sushi restaurants have rather different menus than those in Japan. No one in Japan has heard of a Dynamite Roll or a Bagel Roll. To that extent, I think Iron Chef and Jiro Dreams of Sushi may be of limited application (although I recommend both for their own sake). The place to "learn about this stuff" is where you are working. Focus on the menu; my family owns a few restaurants and we have all of our employees sample the entire menu during training so they can advise customers. Know the food that you are serving and then maybe you can learn about yudoufu and other such things on Iron Chef. Taste it all.

Regarding language, I have to imagine that your coworkers have at least some degree of English, and their English is going to be better than your Japanese will become while working there. To the extent you are going to learn any, I recommend that as with the menu, tailor your efforts to the restaurant. The vocabulary is largely going to be the items of the menu, I imagine, or maybe chunks like "table of four" or "two pieces of mackerel". I think this will also largely be passive vocabulary for your rather than active. I would be very surprised if you are expected to speak Japanese to the customers since the restaurant hired you knowing that you can't. (fwiw, "o genki desu ka" is odd/inappropriate from a restaurant server). I recommend that you become friendly with one of the more proficient English speakers and ask them for guidance when you come across new phrases - "hey, that chef just said 'atsukan ippon'. what's that?" If the issue is their accents, you will come more accustomed to them in time.

Ikura (big fat fish eggs) and Uni (sea urchin) are absolutely nasty

Those are actually two of the best things on the menu. I was saddened when the sushi restaurant closest to my office stopped serving uni because no one was ordering it. OP, I don't recommend that you dissuade customers from their orders - "are you sure you want that? it's gross." If the restaurant is as Japanese as you describe, the clientele is probably sophisticated enough to know what they are ordering. And as a restaurant owner, any staff who dissuaded customers from ordering some of the most expensive items on the menu would not be staff very long.
posted by Tanizaki at 4:03 PM on July 14, 2013 [6 favorites]

Yeah, Angelenos will mostly be insulted if you try to steer them away from uni and ikura. Don't do that.
posted by town of cats at 4:26 PM on July 14, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'd bone up on the etiquette a bit. Sticking chopsticks in a bowl of food is rude, and so on.
posted by sebastienbailard at 5:23 PM on July 14, 2013

How thorough of a guide are you looking for? There are some (very, very basic) guides to a small variety of Japanese dishes and sushi types at FoodJapan also seems to have a section (with pictures!) where the writer describes regional Japanese dishes they've eaten in Japan.

Japanese is supposed to be one of the hardest languages for English-speakers to learn, but it's easy to pick up really basic, low-level stuff due to the phoneme thing mentioned above (I'm terrible at languages, but managed to get through three semesters of college-level Japanese before my brain went WHOA NO). has a series of lessons on restaurant-themed phrases and vocabulary (including a basic guide to counting up people v. objects) with sound files. It's more focused on a situation where the foreigner is the customer, but it might help a little.
posted by topoisomerase at 7:03 PM on July 14, 2013

> Ikura (big fat fish eggs) and Uni (sea urchin) are absolutely nasty, most westerners order it on a dare. If not a dare, they will hate it and blame you. Give a heads up.

I would suggest cultivating an understanding of whether westerners are ordering cluelessly vs on a dare vs curiously vs familiarly and adjust the relevance of "warning" appropriately. "Am I sure" from the server might elicit in me a politely gracious nod, a patient but tight smile, or a barely-concealed eyeroll, depending on delivery/circumstance.
posted by desuetude at 10:21 PM on July 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm a regular at a place with a lone white employee, the hostess. The customers (mostly white) seem to often joke with her about the place, as if they share some special connection with her as the white folks in an Asian establishment. They don't expect her to know her stuff, just to flirtatiously reassure skittish white folks that the food is safe to eat. I think this is a kind of ugly attitude but she probably gets huge tips.
posted by miyabo at 11:58 PM on July 14, 2013

I remember being at a sushi place that had an illustrated guide to sushi culture [...] I read it one day and it was amazing and contained stuff I learned many years later that was all in that one book.

I can't find it on Amazon right now, but it was like a comic book, all illustrated by hand, no photos of any kind.

That would be the charming and informative Squeamish About Sushi: Food Adventures In Japan. Recommended!
posted by brushtailedphascogale at 8:21 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

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