How skilled are supermarket sushi chefs and are they lonely?
March 4, 2008 8:35 AM   Subscribe

How skilled are supermarket sushi chefs and are they lonely?

The economics of supermarket sushi has always intrigued me. Is it possible they are loss leaders? I've seen fairly elaborate sushi/sashimi in supermarkets and the question I have is how much do the (often Japanese) sushi chefs make and what is their level of skill (generally). Are they supermarket chefs in the day and restaurant chefs at night? Also, there seem to be several factors which point to isolation: they often work solo, there may be cultural differences between them and the rest of the staff, they don't have the traditional interaction with customers that you would find in the average sushi bar. Any insight appreciated.
posted by jeremias to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It depends on the supermarket, but there's a company whose name escapes me right now that makes a lot of it. The people you see making that sushi often don't work at/for the supermarket or Target -- they're employees of the sushi company.

Trevor Corson's book The Zen of Fish should answer these and just about all other sushi questions you might have. If you're into sushi it's a great read.
posted by Atom12 at 8:43 AM on March 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think Atom12 is thinking of AFC/Tsunami sushi. And they're everywhere.
posted by zsazsa at 8:46 AM on March 4, 2008

Best answer: We recently took a course on making sushi from one of the local supermarket ladies. As one might expect, the skill level required was about that of a good home cook. Roughly calculating from the cost of the course, and assuming that she makes a small multiple of minimum wage at her day job, the cooking courses she runs probably make up a significant fraction of her income.

She did not improvise or work much beyond a set recipe list of about six varieties of maki and nigiri. There was little discussion of variations or alternatives, just what was sold in the stores. She works as line cooks do, making the same things exactly the same way time after time. She seemed to like to prepare food, but I can't imagine that it was much more than just a job for her.

She seemed quite a happy person and well adjusted. She was an adult immigrant from China and spoke cheerfully fractured English. Her teenage daughter, accentless to my Ontario ears, was there to do the registration and be her helper. In other words, they seemed like an utterly normal first-generation Canadian family.
posted by bonehead at 9:37 AM on March 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've worked in two pretty different grocery stores in proximity to the sushi people.

At both the stores I worked at, the sushi department wasn't really part of the store proper -- I'm not sure what the relationship was.

At Store 1, the sushi department was first run by an older married couple, who were pretty skilled, especially given the subpar ingredients they had to work with. They retired, and a younger married couple took over. They were less skilled with the crap ingredients, but very pleasant. Both of these couples were proficient in English, and had other employees in their department. Loneliness and isolation didn't appear to be issues.

At Store 2, another married couple runs the sushi, and employs a couple of other people, who seem to trade off spending a few months at different stores. Only one person is in the department at a time. The couple used to take turns running everything, but now, it's mostly their employees. The couple shows up to review them occasionally, as do other people who appear to be representative from the larger sushi company of which they are a part. The English of most of the employees is not very good, and as a result, they are rather alienated from the rest of the store environment, although nobody appears to purposefully ostracize them. Actually, I take that back -- the customers are often horrible to them, and can be openly racist. These dudes can understand English a lot better than they can speak it, so they are not missing much of the bitching hurled their way.

The sushi is also pretty blah there, and for the same reasons as Store 1.

In both stores, the sushi employees all worked every single day the store was open. Some of them may have had other jobs, but many were already working much more than full-time as t was. Also, in both stores, the sushi tends to mostly sell out, despite its mediocre quality.
posted by Coatlicue at 10:47 AM on March 4, 2008

Best answer: I worked at a grocery store that had a sushi chef. He was not an employee of our store, but of a company that employs such store sushi chefs. It was a totally separate business. They supplied all their own product and packaging (i.e. it was not ordered or paid for by my store), although they did buy their produce (avocado mostly) from us.

The chef himself was a quiet guy, he did not speak English very well but he was friendly and polite. He always said "good morning" or "hello" to everyone. I always thought he might be lonely. He worked 7 days a week, maybe 6-7 hours a day. I never saw this guy take a day off. He was meticulously clean and neat with the food prep and work area. His sushi was good, though he always made the same items the same way every time.
posted by FuzzyVerde at 11:25 AM on March 4, 2008

She was an adult immigrant from China and spoke cheerfully fractured English.

Just as a datapoint, a lot of sushi in the US is made by Chinese immigrants. Probably more than is made by Japanese immigrants. The explanation I've heard is that the market is saturated with Chinese restaurants of various types, so this is a genre of cuisine that is still fairly open (and since most Americans won't notice whether the staff are Chinese or Japanese anyway, the environment isn't perceived as being any less authentic).

My dad's gotten a fair amount of free miso soup by practicing his Mandarin at sushi restaurants in our area.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 11:25 AM on March 4, 2008

ZsaZsa is right. That's who I was thinking of.

Corson follows a group of sushi chefs through school, interspersing it with sushi history and trivia (for example, the term "mack" for a flashy guy derives from mackerel, which has shiny scales).

He mentions the growing market for trained sushi chefs far from the west coast, which is loaded with sushi places -- Iowa, South Dakota, etc -- and says that many end up in places like Indianapolis, Vegas or working for AFC.
posted by Atom12 at 12:12 PM on March 4, 2008

Best answer: I was a supermarket sushi chef for a while. Worked within the supermarket but not for the supermarket. I made minimum wage, which was probably about $3.50 an hour at the time. There were no Japanese people in sight, let alone sushi chefs. None of us were at all skilled. We mostly goofed around, made messes, etc. None of us had any experience, although a few of us had worked in fast food before.

Yes, we were often isolated; we shared a back area with the supermarket deli but they looked down on us. We had very little interaction with the customers, and usually for a reason, that being that they liked to try and out-do us with their sushi knowledge and pronunciation. We didn't know a damn thing about sushi, nor did we care; we were trying to pay our damn rents on $3.50 an hour. When customers came near the counter, we hid in the back or went out for "smoke break".

At the end of the day we always got to pitch hundreds of unsold boxes of sushi etc. in the dumpster as well, but were forbidden to take them home.

I think a lot of people who have had the luxury of choosing what job they want to do in life think that's the case for all people, and, for example, we were there because we "loved sushi"- and we must have looked so knowledgeable in the blue-and-white coats called "Happy Coats" we were made to wear. In reality, it was an assembly-line fast-food process like anywhere else.
posted by baklavabaklava at 12:21 PM on March 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

When I worked at Whole Foods, this company had a small prep space next to our seafood department, and they made the sushi. It was not the best sushi I've ever had, but was far from the worst, and the ingredients were good quality We didn't really socialize with the sushi chefs, but everyone was friendly. And at closing, whatever sushi was left in the case was free for the taking.
posted by rtha at 12:28 PM on March 4, 2008

"Corson follows a group of sushi chefs through school, interspersing it with sushi history and trivia (for example, the term "mack" for a flashy guy derives from mackerel, which has shiny scales)."

So… it's got folk etymology of dubious veracity?
posted by klangklangston at 12:52 PM on March 4, 2008

There is also the possibility that they have plenty of other Unification Church members to keep them company. More here.
posted by TedW at 1:18 PM on March 4, 2008

So… it's got folk etymology of dubious veracity?

I guess so. Regardless, I liked the book.
posted by Atom12 at 1:39 PM on March 4, 2008

The sushi chefs at my store tend to be Thai, and are very friendly and polite. One former chef there, though, I was told never washed his hands when he took a piss. I didn't buy any of his sushi after that.

As for loneliness, it's anyone's guess. No more or less lonely than anyone else, I'd assume.
posted by seancake at 2:01 PM on March 4, 2008

Are they supermarket chefs in the day and restaurant chefs at night?

my entire kitchen-knowledge can be summed up in what I've learned from "ramsay's kitchen nightmares" and warming up pre-cooked supermarket chicken in the oven but I highly doubt this is possible. I mean, when would they do the preparation? when would they purchase the food?
posted by krautland at 4:24 PM on March 4, 2008

This may be deleted, but I'd just like to note that this is a very interesting question, and quite specific. Is there a screenplay or novel in the works? Great idea.
posted by nevercalm at 5:35 PM on March 4, 2008

Response by poster: Heh. There should be a screenplay or novel, but it likely won't be from me. (A documentary would be cool too.) The supermarket sushi chef just strikes me as this interesting case of cultural isolation, a little island of foreign culture set down in the middle of the traditional American foodstuffs: BBQ buffalo wings, deli meats, chicken pot pies, etc.

It just leads me to wonder who buys it, obviously varies from market to market.

A colleague also pointed out that most supermarkets don't actually offer sushi-grade fish for home preparation, which further emphasizes that the supermarket may be using sub-par fish or outsourcing the entire operation as noted above.
posted by jeremias at 5:31 AM on March 5, 2008

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