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.”