Vancouver’s Bistro Sakana aims for an all-female sushi bar

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      Hours before opening on a Saturday, Etsuko Needham is standing behind the sushi bar at Bistro Sakana (1123 Mainland Street) armed with a blowtorch and a large chunk of charcoal. At the seven-year-old Japanese restaurant that she co-owns with her husband, the executive chef is putting the finishing touches on an order of shiro miso toro aburi, a melt-in-your-mouth rectangular block of miso- and sake-marinated tuna belly layered with rice, flame-seared, and topped with chili flakes and thinly sliced key limes. To Needham’s right, Mika Tokita—a 30-year-old woman who moved from Tokyo to Vancouver less than a year ago—looks on. Tokita is one of two women being trained by Needham with the goal of having a sushi bar run only by women.

      “I had a really hard time…but I really wanted to become a sushi chef, so I believe a lot of women want to be…like me,” Needham tells the Georgia Straight while seated at a table later on. “I really want to make a female sushi bar with all females working at the sushi bar. That’s my dream now.”

      If you haven’t noticed while dining out in Vancouver, female sushi chefs are a rarity. Needham is one of only a handful of traditionally trained women across Canada working behind a sushi bar. Japanese traditions and superstitions have made it nearly impossible for women both in Japan and abroad to receive training and work as a sushi chef.

      “They say that women’s hands are warmer than guys’, so the fish is going to go bad, or the rice is going to stick to your hands,” Needham says with a laugh. “In really traditional high-end restaurants in Japan, you can’t get behind the sushi bar or in that area because women have periods, and they believe it’s unclean. They still say it because it’s really convenient for guys.”

      Although Needham worked in Japan’s restaurant industry for 20 years, she didn’t learn to make sushi until she arrived in Vancouver in 2004. Growing up in Kobe, she became interested in cooking at an early age, watching her grandmother and parents prepare traditional Japanese dishes at a small food shop.

      “Naturally, I kind of got that idea when I was young, so when I was 18 years old, I kind of decided ‘Okay, I want to have my own restaurant,’ ” Needham says. “I went to many, many places to learn many skills—cutting fish, making yakitori…kushikatsu.…So, I did that for a long time, and when I was 29 years old, finally I had a restaurant. At that time, I was not serving sushi, just sashimi and other stuff of course.”

      It wasn’t until Bistro Sakana opened in 2005 that Needham was finally able to learn how to make sushi. She hired trained sushi chefs—all of them male—to teach her how to properly make rice, sauces, and broths, and how to cut frozen fish. “I knew already how to cut sashimi, so it didn’t take that much time,” she says of her training.

      However, even in Vancouver, not all of Needham’s teachers were happy to pass on their knowledge to a woman. At the restaurant, her husband, Peter Needham, recalls, “One actually pulled me aside and said, ‘You know, shouldn’t she be like working in the kitchen or in the hall or something? Sushi is really difficult.’ We got rid of him because he really resented the fact that her sushi probably looked better than his.”

      For Tokita, the path to becoming a sushi chef hasn’t been as hostile. “I started working here as a server, and I saw her [Needham] making sushi.…It’s kind of rare to see a female making sushi,” says Tokita, who has been training for six months. “I thought that was cool, and I also saw that they had a lady [Saori Tanaka, the other sushi chef trainee at Bistro Sakana] making rolls, and I thought, ‘I can do it. If they can do it, I can do it.’ ”

      While there is now at least one culinary school in Japan that trains women to make sushi, Needham says the majority of female sushi chefs are forced to relocate to North America in order to find jobs. Tokito doesn’t plan on moving back to Japan and instead hopes to open her own sushi restaurant in Vancouver one day—but not before she’s finished learning all she can from her mentor.

      “The thing about being a good sushi chef is there is no goal,” Needham says. “If you think, ‘Okay, I’m done,’ if you don’t put your effort or passion in, you will lose something every day, so to have this kind of motivation makes you to keep going as a sushi chef.”


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      Gentleman Jack

      May 23, 2012 at 9:54pm

      "Tokita is one of two women being trained by Needham with the goal of having a sushi bar run only by women."

      Disgusting discrimination against males.
      Where is the outrage and disgust?
      Oh right, discrimination is OK if it is leveled at men by women!
      I cannot imagine the straight would print a man saying "I want to open a business, staffed only by men!"
      When did this odious double-standard develop?


      May 24, 2012 at 7:16am

      put 'em in bikinis and i'm there.


      May 24, 2012 at 4:45pm

      In Japan, sushi-chef is a male-dominated industry, and one of the reasons why is because it take decades of very strict training to become a fully trained chef (for traditional sushi restaurants). "Training" may involve anything from doing anything other than cooking (ie. washing dishes, cleaning up, etc.) for the first few years, and going to the fish market at 4am every single day. Fish is most often auctioned, a tuna goes for tens of thousands of dollars. Then they have to understand all fish they work with from scratch, make sure none of that expensive fish is wasted. It would take years before you are even allowed to make sushi.
      Although I won't deny there may be discrimination against women, in general, a male is more likely able to commit time into something like that.
      Of course, in Vancouver the standards are completely different, so hopefully these women have bright careers in this field :)


      May 24, 2012 at 7:44pm

      Jiro, There are many occupations that women partake in that are equally, or even more demanding, in terms of responsibilities, long, early hours, and hard physical labour. Take nursing for instance. I think that the point this article is making is that woman in Japan are not given a chance to prove themselves capable or not. It is certainly not a question of ability, and the reasons that are given by Japanese Sushi chefs make no reference to this. Instead they are scrambling to explain something that has no logic to it whatsoever. Thus, we hear things such as warm hands, the wearing of perfumes and cosmetics, etc., which are utterly ridiculous excuses that simply cover up blatant discrimination. Standards have nothing to with it. Here in Canada, for the most part, women are free to pursue whatever career they wish to. And 99.9% of the time they have shown that they are just as, or better capable, than men. Traditions die hard in a place like Japan, where men are very reluctant to lose ground to woman, especially in traditional areas like the making of sushi.


      May 24, 2012 at 9:02pm

      Jiro, That makes about as much sense as the warm hands theory.


      Jun 5, 2012 at 5:27pm

      Around the time of ovulation, the body temp does rise but as to whether that affects handling of raw fish, it needs to be studied.

      Taxpayers R Us

      Jun 9, 2012 at 3:19am

      Jeez, if I had my eye on some easy money via a human rights complaint, this is a perfect target. Shameless, thoughless, and sexist.

      I'm buying a beer for the first guy with the credentials to hold one of these positions that goes in there, gets the cold shoulder, sues via BCHRT and wins.

      The round is on them, boys!