4 Feb 2016

Does NZ need Tokyo's sushi police?

5:54 am on 4 February 2016

Heard of the Michelin stars for restaurants - one, two and the coveted three stars? Japan is poised to bring in the gold, silver and bronze awards for sushi.

But should New Zealand makers buy in if Tokyo were to go ahead with its new scheme to shore up standards?


Sushi has caused history-making moments - and on-screen sparring between a Japanese ambassador and a UK celebrity chef. Photo: 123RF

One of Wellington's most experienced sushi-makers, Hitoshi Nagata, has seen enough in 20 years living here to think so.

Hitoshi Nagata rolls sushi at St Pierre's in Johnsonville.

Hitoshi Nagata rolls sushi at St Pierre's in Johnsonville. Photo: RNZ / Phil Pennington

The 47-year-old, who runs St Pierre's in Johnsonville, one of the chain's 46 stores nationwide, said some shops don't use authentic Japense ingredients and others are "just behind the kitchen using a machine."

"This is not real sushi chef," he said.

Sushi has been the stuff of history: When Barack Obama ate at Tokyo's Sukiyabashi Jiro, the most famous sushi restaurant on the planet, last year, it was said to have marked the first time ever a US president had something prepared for him and ate it immediately, with no checks.

Sushi has also been the stuff of controversy: Japan's ambassador to the UK told Rick Stein that the TV chef knew "nothing about sushi" after he'd watched him try to make some.

Tokyo's quality-raising scheme would bring foreign chefs to Japan for training in both the food and service, before they'd be issued with gold, silver or bronze status.

Veteran Wellington sushi-maker John Birkett liked the sound of it but doubted it could ever be policed, or succeed in reversing local trends.

"I think it's too late to turn back... The expectation now is that all sushi should be half-price at a certain time of the day and if it's not half-price, well, we're not going to buy it," Mr Birkett said.

"The places that do half-price sushi, I think they've cheapened it so much that the general public just can't take it seriously any longer, which is saddening to me as a sushi-maker."

If he had the chance, though, he'd sign up to the scheme with his California Sushi restaurant in Cuba Mall's Left Bank - anything to preserve what he called the "spiritual" side of sushi-making.

"I don't find angry people, from my experience, they do not make good sushi. They just put too much bad energy into it, squeeze the rice too hard."

John Birkett in his Cuba Mall sushi restaurant in Wellington.

Mr Birkett in his restaurant in Cuba Mall. Photo: RNZ / Phil Pennington

Another no-no for Mr Birkett was a profiteering attitude or conveyor-belt approach - though he himself knew how to make sushi en masse, having fed The Hobbit's film crew 1000 pieces every Monday morning when they were filming in Wellington.

Davis Cheung is also well-versed in sushi on a grand scale, with the 30-year-old's East Tamaki company Eastern Dragon selling 15,000 boxes a week in Countdown supermarkets.

He really doubted Tokyo's food police would have any interest in any of that.

"Well, it definitely won't apply to supermarkets because this is really targeted at the restaurants who are going for the authentic Japanese experience.

"What Japanese call sushi is very, very authentic and there isn't actually much of that around in New Zealand. It is actually a lot of fusion and the Western taste, they prefer a little bit more taste whereas the Japanese traditional authentic is very basic and they enjoy the taste of really fresh fish."

Mr Cheung argued New Zealand's take on the Japanese classic, developed over the last 25 years, was a fusion that was legitimate in itself.

There was steady business late on a Wednesday afternoon at the "$3 a box" table outside a Lambton Quay sushi shop. Stephanie, 28, who works in a hospital operating theatre, was there - she was ambivalent on the cut-price, slippery slope argument, but was keen on a gold awards scheme.

"Yeah, I think it would definitely make me consider where I buy my sushi from, because I would want it to be somewhere that has quality, five-star - and I would pay good money for a good quality sample," she said.

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