Last night’s screening of Jiro Dreams of Sushi at Manhattan’s Japan Society was well attended by both foodies and chefs alike. David Geld’s film tells the story of Jiro, one of the oldest and most famous sushi chefs in Tokyo as he still strives to perfect his craft despite his 75 years of experience. The film touches themes of family, succession and discipline through the lens of a tiny yet mighty sushi restaurant. We caught up with a few of New York’s favorite chefs and food critics as they enjoyed sake and sushi prepared by Chef Masato Nishihara of Kajitsu to see what their first experience with raw fish was like.
“I think I was probably a teenager. I was probably a bit freaked out, maybe,” April Bloomfield, co-owner and chef at the West Village’s Spotted Pig said. “I remember the first time I had amazing sushi and that really set the bar . . . It wasn’t just about the fish. It was about the rice. The rice was amazing and it was the first time I’d noticed the rice even. So that was a pretty amazing experience and I think when you eat you always try to look for those experiences.”
For David Bouley, the man behind Brushstroke in Tribeca, there was no adjustment period. Mr. Bouley said growing up in Jamestown on the Rhode Island coast made uncooked seafood an early staple.
“We ate raw fish all the time. Oysters and clams and many kinds of fish. My parents used to just put lemon on it and eat it European style.”
But as far as sushi is concerned, Mr. Bouley said his first time was right here in the city in the early 1980s after work.
“There used to be a lot of sushi restaurants open later. They seem to be very attractive to people that work late . . . It’s very energetic food and easy to digest. Very clean. You could go to sleep shortly after and not feel like you’d have nightmares all night.”
Although he technically didn’t introduce him to it, Mr. Bouley is also credited with giving Chef Eric Ripert his first “real” sushi experience.
“My first experience with Sushi was in Paris in 1983 . . . I thought the wasabi was something sweet,” Mr. Ripert said—yikes! “But my real, real experience was in 1990 in New York. David Bouley took me to a sushi place on the West Side and I really loved it but I did not know much about it. David really taught me a lot.” Like many who developed their palate in the west, Mr. Ripert, the head chef at La Bernardin who also has restuarants in D.C. and Philadelphia, said it was an acquired taste. “The first time, raw fish for me was difficult. I have to say, I had to force myself. But today I’m craving sushi. Actually as soon as I’m done with you I’m going to go have sushi!” We won’t keep you any longer!
“Not to be pretentious or anything, but I’ll have to admit that the first time I had it was with Diane von Fürstenberg,” said legendary Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten. Mr. Steingarten said Ms. von Fürstenberg was dating a friend of his and invited him along for lunch. ”I thought I was going to be squeamish about it but Diane ordered very conservatively. That was actually before I was a food writer,” Mr. Steingarten said. When I actually got down to eating there was nothing dfficult.”
Mr. Steingarten believes the Japanese palate is more attuned to the subtleties of flavor and that it takes a western tongue time to adjust before one can fully appreciate sushi.
“If you’re used to a lot of . . . highly flavored Western food, you have to kind of slow down or tone down your palate in order to taste most Japanese food,” Mr Steingarten explained. “The first time that I want to Japan—actually later I read that M.F.K. Fisher had exactly the same experience. Couldn’t taste anything for the first week, maybe five days, but then there was a click, just as long as you don’t go to a hamburger place in Tokyo, your senses want so much to have something to taste that you finally are able to taste the difference between two tunas.”
Like Mr. Bouley, director, Mr. Geld also lacked an aversion to raw fish. As a child Mr. Geld said his family took him to Japan several times. They allowed him to eat cucumber rolls but not the raw fish. And what does a child want more than anything else? Something they can’t have. When a younger Mr. Geld was finally able to indulge, he said it opened up an entire new world.
“It would be like discovering a new color. You think you know every color but if you were to see a new color or hear a new sound you had never heard before it would just be—sushi with a piece of tuna with really delicious rice and soy sauce—it just opened up a whole new part of my palate and I’ve been addicted for life.”