Takatoshi Toshi, the famed executive sushi chef at Michelin-starred Sushi Ran in Sausalito, California, competed in the Global Sushi Grand Final this past November.
Toshi, a native of Japan who’s lived in the U.S. since 1989, was the only competitor in the top five to hail from this half of the globe. That was fitting, the 44-year-old chef believes, not from a personal standpoint, but because sushi, the Japanese cuisine with folklore roots that trace back as far as the fourth century, has broken through topographical borders.
“In recent years I’ve noticed the concept of sushi being incorporated into the food of many diverse cultures. It is pure, simple food,” Chef Toshi says. “I think any culture can appreciate the pure essence of all the flavorful fish that are available in their part of the world. Sushi is an easy and natural vehicle to receive the traditional flavors associated with many cuisines.”
The event, hosted by the Norwegian Seafood Council and World Sushi Skills Institute, pitted 14 chefs, each representing a country, in a two-round final in Tokyo on November 25. Toshi placed third, bested only by Japan’s Jun Jibiki and Singapore’s Damien Tan King Meng. Han Dae-Won, from Korea, and Taiwan’s Liu Yu-Chen rounded out the top five.
Given his heritage and professional background (more than a decade at Sushi Ran), Toshi’s place among the best sushi chefs in the world won’t raise many eyebrows. His goal for the competition was to highlight sustainable fish that are available globally, such as North American and Norwegian salmon. He stretched that ethos to the max, using every part of the fish and making “salmon sushi 20 different ways.” Overall, Toshi says the experience brought him perspective. “It was challenging but fun,” he says. “I am always looking for ways to grow and challenge myself. And of course, watching the best chefs in the world do their work was very inspiring. I was proud and honored to represent the U.S. and to be in the company of so much talent. I have great respect for the other chefs. They are all winners.”
Toshi reached the final by topping seven other chefs at the U.S. preliminary competition held May 17 in Chicago. The format remained constant throughout the competition.
The first round was a 10-minute Edomae challenge, where judges took notice of skill and overall knowledge. Points were awarded for technical skills, appearances, sushi execution, and time. Chefs had to prepare two plates, each with edamame, one roll, and six pieces of nigiri. The name Edomae relates to an ancient technique that many diners equate with a slice of raw fish on a piece of rice. The actual style is more complex. It hails from the Edo Period (1603-1868), and in a broad sense refers to nigiri-zushi—balls of vinegar rice with toppings originally harvested in Tokyo Bay. The style has evolved over the years, originally in response to a lack of refrigeration capabilities, to include curing, marinating, grilling, boiling, and other methods meant to capitalize on seasonality.
The second round lasted 60 minutes, and chefs had to present an original creative sushi plate. Two plates had to be prepared with 20 pieces on each. Salmon needed to be featured, but chefs had a choice to incorporate a different fish for the others. As Toshi mentioned before, he stuck to the main fish, showcasing everything from the head to the bones.
The simple and ceiling-proof parameters are what make the cuisine special, Toshi explains. “Sushi is one of the most creative and adaptable forms of food preparation. Subtle shifts make a huge impact. For instance, we sometimes lightly tea smoke certain types of fish or cure them gently with special flavors that heighten the already special flavor of a particular fish,” he says. “And we like to highlight ingredients during their peak of the season, like cherry leaves or matsutake mushrooms. So, with the seasonal variables, creative handling of the fish, and the pairing of other condiments, the possibilities are endless.”
Also, when it comes down to it, sushi might be one of the most transparent cuisines on the market, an increasingly important factor for an audience that stresses origin of product as much as cooking technique. “The quality of the ingredients is always the most important. Excellent fish, high quality, perfectly prepared rice, and, of course, the absolute freshness of all ingredients. And the sensitive skill of the chef to enhance and brighten the natural flavor and beauty of the fish, without masking or overwhelming the delicate flavors. Great sushi, for me, always must have good balance—rice, fish, wasabi, soy sauce. Perfectly balanced, it becomes one piece.”
Jibiki, the competition’s winner who admitted after the victory that he felt added pressure representing Japan, had the choice between a three-day “Sushi Tour” in his home country, or a trip to Norway, the home of Norwegian salmon.