Itamae: The Traditional Japanese Sushi Chef

Certain sushi chefs train for 10 years — only then can they be considered true “itamae.” An itamae is the head of the Japanese kitchen — the title means “in front of the board.” They are responsible for preparing sushi and have a huge role in presentation/entertaining the guests. Aspiring itamaes start as a cleaner, then a rice maker — then they eventually work their way up to “wakita” status. In this role, which translates to, “near the cutting board” they learn directly from the head sushi chef.

Itamaes need to know how to cut fish the right way, find the right balance of fish, rice and vinegar, as well as know what ingredients work well together. True passion for the cultural tradition is also a requirement. According to Kobe Jones, rice is a very important part of a sushi dish, and each itamae has their own secret rice recipe.

The sushi we know today was invented in the 1820s. The cuisine’s popularity grew, and so did the method in which it was made. Food represents happiness and togetherness in Japan, so it is taken very seriously. This is why itamae training is so intense — it takes years to master such respected traditions.