Why All the Chefs at This Tokyo Sushi Restaurant are Women

By Adam Campbell-Schmitt |

© David Pereiras Villagrá / Getty Images

Other than watching Morgan Spurlock stuff himself to near McOblivion, probably the most notable food documentary of the new millennium has been Jiro Dreams of Sushi. For food lovers it's practically porn, watching with bated breath as world's best sushi is prepared, nay, practiced before our very eyes. We're so busy drooling over the urchin and unagi that I'm sure most of us didn't even bother to notice one detail about Jiro's now-mythical eatery: none of the chefs or apprentices in his restaurant were women. In a stark contrast, 29-year-old Yuki Chizui of Nadeshiko Sushi in Tokyo's Akibahara district made the intentional and bold move of staffing her restaurant exclusively with female chefs.

Before angry commenters start spouting men's rights activism talking points at me, let's take a look at the numbers. Actually, let’s not. Because we can’t. The All Japan Sushi Association doesn't keep stats on the gender of sushi chefs, which is either super-progressive or, more likely, another symptom of systematic oversight of women in the industry. According to The Guardian, there are over 35,000 sushi chefs in Japan and scant few are women. Why? For one thing, the allure of freshly cut toro can distract anyone from deeply ingrained discrimination in the person whose hands are brandishing those expertly honed knives. In this case that person is Jiro's son and heir apparent Yoshikazu Ono who minced no words about why women can't make sushi, telling The Wall Street Journal:

"The reason is because women menstruate. To be a professional means to have a steady taste in your food, but because of the menstrual cycle women have an imbalance in their taste, and that’s why women can’t be sushi chefs."

And while that might be the most ridiculous reason anyone has articulated for the sushi gender disparity, it’s not the only ridiculous reason: Others blame women's higher internal body temperature for affecting the fish or the interference of cosmetics in women's senses. (You’re telling me no male sushi chef has ever accidentally farted behind the counter? Ever? For my money, passing gas ought to cause at least as many issues for these time-honored food traditions as the presence of mascara and foundation). And of course, some simply dismiss the lack of female sushi chefs with good old fashioned "it's too hard for them" logic.

Chizui takes these expressions of ignorance in stride. “We don’t wear perfume or nail varnish, and apply just enough makeup to let diners know that we’re making an effort to be presentable. Not to do so would be rude.” Going further, she and her staff are known to don bright, colorful kimonos as a further slap in the face to the stark white chef coats the male establishment deems appropriate. No surprise, there are haters. What may be surprising is that those haters actually drop in to critique Chizui's skills. “They show up from time to time, but I just regard them as fools.”

Despite the great esteem with which the Japanese hold those who make their sushi, these days fewer young men are taking on the life of apprentice to a grouchy (and possibly mysogynist) sushi master. It seems the outlook of women in Japan's sushi industry could be looking up, with more women entering the field. Good, because if there's one gender-contingent factor that could actually ruin a meal for me, it's sexism.

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