Oat Chandy didn't start out at Umi Sushi in Downtown Fresno, but he's been there for almost three years. He's been preparing fish like he does now for over 10 years. Photo by Edward Smith.
Fresno has a sushi problem in the eyes of some restaurant owners. Not in terms of the quality of the food or consumer tastes, but in staffing.
With more than two dozen restaurants in the Fresno-Clovis area alone, and more on the way, finding chefs to roll seaweed, cut fish and wash rice often takes poaching workers from other businesses to fill the need for skilled labor.
“Somebody’s going to lose some staff soon,” said Edward Yung, co-owner of Tamari Robatayaki & Whisky Bar, referring to the new Sakura Tokyo sushi and teppanyaki restaurant slated to open in Clovis later this year.
Opening under the same family as Edo-ya, Japanese Kitchen and Sakura Chaya, Sakura Tokyo will employ about 60 people, much like Sakura Chaya at First and Nees avenues.
Eight of those will be sushi chefs and 15 will be teppanyaki chefs. A lot of those people will come from the restaurants’ other locations so they will be experienced, but that means leaving a lot of holes, according to Nick Baty, manager at Sakura Chaya.
For Baty, he has seen a lot of poaching for his teppanyaki chefs, as the number of hibachi grills in the city has boomed. He said 10-12 have opened in the past 10 years and he’s heard rumors about three more besides Sakura Tokyo.
Headhunting in the sushi industry is not unique to any one restaurant, but rather something that comes with the game. Being able to compete with the numerous other restaurants means having the quality and skill to make rolls that stand out to customers and bring them in.
That begins with finding people who know what they’re doing, and the market is still not ready to start importing traditional sushi chefs who ask for a lot of money, says Yung. That means for owners, starting their chefs from the bottom up.
“Even for myself, I started learning how to put rice on the seaweed making some simple rolls like a California roll, the one that doesn’t require myself to cut the fish,” Yung said.
It could often be a year before a chef-in-training even handles a knife that will be cutting fish that easily goes for $30 a pound.
Even washing the rice takes a lot of experience and that’s where most sushi chefs begin. The quality or age of the rice determines how much salt or water you need to get it just right.
“You have to use your eye, you have to use your hand to feel it,” Yung said.
In addition to cooking, unlike other kinds of restaurants, part of the job for sushi chefs and especially teppanyaki chefs is being personable. Customers sit right at the sushi bar and oftentimes, chefs have to be able to keep up a conversation or be funny. For the 10-or-so customers gathered around the hibachi, they expect a show out of their chefs. Customers put in requests for certain chefs who can perform the volcano or who have wicked sense of humor.
That means a lot of multitasking — another requirement when looking for good chefs.
“During an interview I can get a vibe on if they are talkative, if they socialize,” Yung said.
Good conversation or poorly prepared rice might be the difference in whether the customer comes back or goes to the restaurant just a few blocks down. Restaurant owners need someone who knows these things, and there are very limited ways of getting people who can make a good roll.
“There’s only so many chefs available,” Yung said. “And when people keep opening, they have to find people somewhere.”
If restaurant owners choose to promote from within, that means shuffling around staff, and considering the amount of time it takes to train a good sushi chef, owners might be stuck with two people doing the job of one for a year. And then when you train a chef they can often catch the eyes of other owners.
“Everyone always refers to us as a training restaurant,” Phu Yoshino, owner of Yoshino Japanese Restaurant said. “Everyone gets trained here and then leaves.”
“They stand outside River Park and try to talk to my chefs,” said Yoshino, speaking about her two locations in North Fresno. “I assume they came here too and got one of my really good chefs.”
Yoshino stopped training chefs and now part of the interview process is having them cook for her.
“Sometimes you train them for eight months and after they learn it they leave you,” Yoshino said.