At Sunday’s SushiMasters competition for the city’s top sushi chef, taiko drums herald the arrival of bigwigs: the president of Mutual Trading Company, who brought the first edamame to America. The owner of Koda Farms, who developed the first medium-grain rice. The consul general of Japan. The inventor of the California roll. The man who opened Los Angeles’ second sushi restaurant. The CEO of the California Rice Commission, which sponsored the event. And California state senator Gilbert Cedillo, whose connection to the sushi world I can’t imagine but who was watching the Lakers playoff game with MC Tamlyn Tomita backstage just moments before. Then clapping. Then donning robes for the ceremonial smashing open of the sake barrels — wooden mallets smack resoundingly on casks. Then more clapping.
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It’s a classier affair than TV’s Iron Chef. The judges are restaurateurs and culinary academy chefs. The MC is indeed a pretty lady but also a serious, seemingly smart actress who projects the appropriate blend of fun, gravitas and cultural street cred.
“Wow! Those are big unagi,” Tomita exclaims, “I thought they were chicken wings!”
Sushi is an old game in Los Angeles, its major players — chefs, diners, food critics — well-versed in the rules, so we expect nothing less than awesome. A hunt for the region’s best, master sushi chef? That dude’s ebi had better be fresh enough to dance the Charleston. His tekkamaki so revolutionary we forget every single dried-up spicy-tuna roll we ever pulled out of a Vons refrigerator.
Accordingly, Chef Kenny Yamada of Takami Sushi & Robata Restaurant assembles a flower garden of sashimi. He is swirling halibut into delicate pink peonies. Red tuna into the petals of a rose, tiny beads of smelt roe its pollen. He squishes tuna cut-rolls into triangles, then arranges them into a round, like a chrysanthemum in an ancient Japanese family crest.
Chef Aung Soe of Geisha House sculpts slivers of salmon into a kimono shape. His dish is called the Red Samurai. He rolls a ball of white rice to form the samurai’s head. A tiny strip of green-black toasted nori wrapped around the ball makes for a headband. Two specks of nori become eyes. It’s looking great, but how will it taste?
Several tables over, Takuya Matsuda’s sous chef wears his hair in a single braid, which protrudes like a long, brown shrimp tail. It bobs up and down as he passes his boss the ingredients. Needle fish, shrimp, squid. A garnish of quail eggs and oboro, a shredded meat and tofu mix. Young, prickly ash leaves find their way onto the chef’s morikomi, or traditional-style combination-sushi plate, one of two dishes each competitor has been asked to make — as does some salted pickled plum, yuzu, okra, brown sugar, jalapeño and kelp. A squirt of squid ink turns the Calrose rice gray like granite. The plate is glorious to behold.
There is whispering in the audience as Matsuda prepares his signature dish, the Bounty Hunter, a tostada-esque concoction involving scallops, snow crab, shrimp and squid. Matsuda’s using Parmesan cheese and pineapple? What a rebel! Could he be the next Morimoto? The next Nobu? Still, Matsuda’s are not the most unusual ingredients of all time. Flakes of real gold have appeared on the menu in past competitions. His hand quivers as he dribbles concentric rings of his miso, peanut butter, sour cream and whipped cream sauce.
“Why did you call it the Bounty Hunter?” asks one of the strolling TV hosts.
“I don’t remember,” he says, with supplication.
Just minutes remaining, the auditorium is one big, grumbling tummy. The scent of mushrooms sautéing in garlic butter wafting over from Table 2 is overwhelming.
“How many of you make sushi at home?” Tomita asks. “Or would you rather go out to have sushi?”
Yes! And, yes!
“Would you rather sit at a bar or at a table?”
“Would you rather go alone or with company?”
Actor George Takei, who is in the audience, rises in his seat. Perhaps it’s to take that gracious bow, or perhaps to get a better view of Chef Song Kim’s Godfather roll. The Godfather, which you can order at Kim’s restaurant, GuGu Sushi & Roll in Hermosa Beach, has albacore, bluefin tuna, shrimp, minced crab, mayonnaise, black tobiko fish roe and the aforementioned buttery, garlicky mushrooms.
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Not long after worshippers have filed past the completed dishes, snapped several thousand photos with their cell phones, documented each microscopic grain of rice and drooled over each vein of fat in the fatty toro, the winners are announced. Chef Kim of GuGu Sushi takes bronze. Chef Soe of Geisha House, takes silver. The gold goes to Chef Matsuda, who runs Sushi Bar Nippon in San Diego. His Bounty Hunter and inventive morikomi passed muster.
Asked how he feels, Matsuda furrows his brow. “Great. Great,” he says, somberly.
“Are you sure?” queries the announcer. What the champion is thinking is anyone’s guess. Aspiring sushi masters, I’m certain, are plotting his overthrow as we speak. Chef Matsuda, along with second-place winner Soe, will represent Southern California at the upcoming SushiMaster finals in June. He raises his trophy in the air. Will there be blood? Will there be tears? There will be tuna.