But there are definitive experts out there and Trevor Corson is at the top of that esteemed list. Corson is the author of a Zagat best-food-book-of-the-year pick “The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice,” an occasional judge on Iron Chef America, and the only “Sushi Concierge” in the U.S., based primarily in New York City.
Luckily for all the sushiheads in DC reading this, Trevor is also teaching a class at CulinAerie called “All Things Sushi.” The first class is this Saturday, Oct. 17. The lucky participants – the class maxes out at 32 students – will sip sake and receive hands-on instruction on how to make sushi at home. But DC is a town of show-offs and ‘splainers, so Trevor’s class will also discuss the history and culture of sushi while teaching participants how to order sushi and eat it in the proper Japanese style, making you the hottest star at the sushi bar.
We caught up with Corson recently and he was kind enough to share his insights on the state of sushi in America and the little differences that can help you win over a sushi chef.
You’ve established yourself as one of the foremost authorities on sushi here in America – what was it that inspired you to focus on sushi after your initial success with lobsters?
My two biggest obsessions in life are nature and East Asia. I fell in love with nature, and the ocean in particular, during my boyhood summers on the Maine coast. By the time I attended high school at Sidwell Friends in Washington, I was determined to become a marine biologist. But on a whim, I signed up for Sidwell’s unusual Chinese language program. Through Sidwell, I was then fortunate enough to receive scholarships to study in both Japan and China. I went on to live in East Asia for five years. I never became a marine biologist, but eventually I did move back to Maine to work on fishing boats and write my first book, “The Secret Life of Lobsters.” My second book, “The Story of Sushi,” was my way of returning to my interest in East Asia, and of reconciling my two passions. My interests in marine science and Asian culture finally came together — through food.
It seems like more and more Americans are developing a familiarity and even a comfort with sushi, but reading your work it becomes clear pretty quickly that most of us aren’t getting a particularly authentic experience. What would you say are the pros and the cons to the Americanized sushi experience?
The degree to which sushi has taken root here is nothing short of astonishing, and in “The Story of Sushi” I describe how that happened, which in itself is a fascinating tale. As sushi became not only a Japanese meal but really an American one as well, it’s evolved into a very different beast. The fact is, most of what we eat at sushi restaurants in America today — as well as how we eat it — was invented right here in the U.S.A., and bears little resemblance to the culinary tradition of sushi in Japan. There are a lot of cons to this, and the biggest one is taste. We’ve imposed an American palate heavy on fat, spiciness, sugar, and salt onto sushi, and as a result we’re missing out on the subtler flavors and textures that tend to be highlighted in the traditional sushi experience. That said, the history of sushi in Japan is itself one of constant change. So I think sushi can evolve in appealing new directions in the West, as long as we make the effort to learn about and honor the unique culinary qualities of the tradition at the same time.
More Q&A with Trevor after the jump!
You’d be amazed at what small things can make a difference. When I host an educational sushi dinner or teach a class, I always tell the story of how I once won over a very stubborn and standoffish sushi chef in Los Angeles with one simple comment. Seated at the sushi bar, I told him that instead of eating with chopsticks, I planned to eat with my fingers. Experienced connoisseurs of sushi often eat with their fingers, and there are interesting reasons for this. You should have seen the scowl disappear from his face — he’d written me off as a stupid American, but with that comment his whole demeanor changed to one of friendly delight. Without my ordering anything, he served me one of the most wonderful sushi meals I’ve ever eaten, including all sorts of items that weren’t even on the menu. I teach people a variety of tricks to win over the chef like this. Overall, getting to know a sushi chef personally is the best method to bring authenticity to your meals. But this usually requires time and effort.
You’re holding a class at CulinAerie this Saturday – how did you connect with them?
Through another DC-area school — the Potomac School in McLean. Some time ago I gave a talk to the students there about my career as a writer. Well, really, the talk was an excuse for me to regale the teenagers with risqué stories about my other favorite topic, lobster sex. Hopefully it inspired some of them to become marine biologists, if not writers. One of the operators of CulinAerie had connections to Potomac and heard my talk. We’ve stayed in touch, and when CulinAerie opened I was impressed with the contribution they were making to food culture in DC and I wanted to get involved. Sushi is a food that most Americans regard with intense curiosity and a sense that there’s much more to know. So I’m trying to help fill that gap.
What would you say is the single most prevalent misconception about sushi among those who’ve taken your class before?
Where to begin? Perhaps the idea that sushi is all about fresh raw fish; in fact, the sushi tradition originally had nothing to do with fresh raw fish. Or that rolls are the predominant form of Japanese sushi; in Japan, rolls are an afterthought. Or that toro — tuna belly — is the pinnacle of sushi; sushi chefs used to consider toro garbage and feed to their cats.
Is there something that you’ve seen so often in American sushi restaurants – either on the part of the customers or the restaurant itself – that you find yourself biting your tongue to keep from addressing it?
I moonlight as a restaurant consultant, and if I had my way, I would gut every sushi restaurant in America and completely remodel it, replacing most of the tables with seats at a long sushi bar. Or at least, I would divide the restaurant in two — hot food at the tables, sushi at the sushi bar. In Japan, good sushi is mostly served at the sushi bar, not at tables. For a whole variety of reasons that I could go into, the interaction with the chef and the ability to eat morsels straight out of his hands are crucial to the joys of the authentic sushi experience. It’s more expensive to eat that way, true. But it’s a treat well worth it. Save your money and skip the average sushi — find a good chef, sit at the bar, eat better sushi, do it less often, and in my opinion, your culinary happiness is likely to compound. Another thing: if you insist on using chopsticks, don’t rub them together before you eat, it’s insulting to the restaurant. I have been eating all sorts of food with chopsticks for three decades and I’ve never gotten a splinter.
In addition to your writing, you’ve launched a “sushi concierge” service. What does that entail? Here in Washington, are there specific restaurants you prefer to visit with concierge clients (or, conversely, ones that you prefer not to)?
After I wrote “The Story of Sushi,” so many people were asking me to go eat sushi with them, and introduce them to a good chef, that I started offering the service in a formal capacity. One of things I do is host educational dinner events for institutions, companies, and private groups. I’ve done it at the National Press Club, for the National Geographic Society, for the Japanese Consulates, as well as for corporate groups that are out for a client-appreciation or team-building evening, and even families and groups of friends, or couples, who want to do something special for a birthday or anniversary. If I have just a few people I can often do it at the sushi bar, which is an extra special experience. In addition, I host a regular weekly dinner class series in New York City at one of the best sushi restaurants in town. Here in Washington I work with a few different chefs depending on the situation. In all cases I cooperate closely with the chef to plan a very old-fashioned, authentic, traditional sushi menu, quite unlike what many American sushi lovers are accustomed to, and then I walk my guests through the meal step-by-step, touching on all sorts of fascinating points of etiquette, technique, history, and culture along the way. It’s a great way to learn — fun, delicious, and memorable.
Beverage pairings with sushi – thoughts?
Funnily enough, sake was actually not paired with sushi, traditionally. Since both were made of rice, their flavors were considered to clash rather than provide the refreshing contrast you’d want between food and beverage. So in the old days, the sushi chef would first prepare a few appetizers that didn’t contain rice, so you could sit and sip your sake. Then when he started serving the sushi, you’d switch to beer or green tea, both of which have a bitterness that contrasts pleasingly with the slight sweetness of the sushi rice, and refreshes the palate. Nowadays, it’s commonplace to drink sake with sushi, and we’re fortunate that very good sakes are becoming increasingly available in the U.S. When I host dinners I often have my guests sample one of the better artisanal sakes, which often they’ve never tried before. I encourage people to stay away from the hot sake. Hot sake is certainly fun for a quick winter warm-up to accompany cheap pub fare, but it’s the lowest-quality sake there is, and definitely shouldn’t be paired with sushi. Good sake is always chilled.
Beyond sushi, are there other cuisines you’re particularly fond of?
There is a whole universe of other types of Japanese food that most Americans have never heard of, and that has yet to make its way to the States, with the exception of a few major cities. I hope that Americans learn to appreciate not only more authentic sushi, but eventually some of the lesser known forms of Japanese food as well. The vegetarian Buddhist temple cuisine of Kyoto is one of my favorites.
Favorite fish to be enjoyed nigiri-style?
My Sushi Concierge dinners that I host almost never contain “the usual suspects” of American sushi fish — believe it or not, there’s no tuna, no Atlantic salmon, no hamachi, no freshwater eel. People always say, “But those are my favorites!” But none of them is a traditional sushi topping, and when I get people eating really good traditional sushi prepared by an expert chef, it opens their eyes to the other possibilities, and how delicious they are. One nigiri fish that many Americans tend not to like is mackerel, but that’s partly because it has a bad reputation in the U.S. and often isn’t prepared properly. Personally, I will take a high-quality, expertly-cured mackerel nigiri over many other kinds of fish — so flavorful. Historically, it’s also the most authentic sushi fish there is.
Any guilty pleasures among the American roll-style sushi?
I actually happen to think the California Roll is a brilliant invention. It’s often my first choice for a quick finger snack at the supermarket! Don’t tell.
What do you look for in a good miso soup?
Most miso soup we encounter is sadly mediocre. I have taken to making my own miso soup from scratch at home because it’s so much more interesting. It’s not difficult. You simmer a few thick slabs of kelp, then drop in a few handfuls of fermented dried fish flakes made from skipjack tuna — both available from a Japanese grocer. This is the essential broth that underlies all miso soups and many Japanese sauces. Then you add the miso. I use several varieties from South River, an artisanal outfit in Massachusetts where they hand-make the miso using the most old-school traditional Japanese techniques. One of my favorites they make is a brown rice miso that is aged for three years and is intensely flavorful. A fun fact — most people don’t know that soy sauce originated as a byproduct of miso manufacturing. It was the liquid runoff that they used to throw away.
What’s your take on sushi chefs’ innovative/creative/weird rolls and concoctions versus the kind of creativity that results in visually stunning art-like presentations?
Less is more!
Trevor Corson Presents All Things Sushi is taking place this Saturday, from 6:30 to 9:30 PM at CulinAerie. The class costs $145 per person and reservations are required. To sign up, visit CulinAerie’s website or call 888-789-COOK (2665).