Lesson From a Master Sushi Chef: Masayoshi Kazato from Chiba, Japan

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is the type of documentary that makes you want to get up close and personal with its subject. For me, the subject I wanted to get to know at the end of the film was not Jiro himself, but the art, skill and trade of sushi in Japan.

So when I heard that master sushi chef Masayoshi Kazato from Chiba, Japan, was coming to Houston for a special visit in conjunction with the Sushi Club of Houston, I made sure that I'd be there to witness the magic.

Would it be as fascinating in real life as it was in the movies, I wondered?

Kazato has already been to 15 countries this year. He makes regular trips around the world as a sushi ambassador from Japan. He gives sushi seminars, makes sushi, attends diplomatic meetings and gives presentations. "I've been to Washington, D.C. 11 times," Kazato told me via translator. "I just gave a seminar at the Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C. the day before I arrived in Houston."

In Houston, his itinerary included visits to the Consul General of Japan, two special dinners with the Sushi Club of Houston and a visit with Hiro Sushi, among others.

"I would be extremely happy if we can strengthen the good relation of Houston and Chiba [sister cities] from the food aspect," said Kazato.

Saturday night was the first of the two Sushi Club of Houston events, held at Zushi Houston. Zushi's executive chef Chris Nemoto -- who is fluent in Japanese -- worked with chef Kazato in the preparation of the evening's event.

"Kazato-san's balance of flavor, perfect rice and nigiri style took me back to Japan," said Nemoto.

Sushi Club members got to taste those flavors firsthand. After Kazato gave a very informative presentation about sushi -- everything from its origins in Thailand to how to prevent bacterial growth when handling raw fish -- he made every single nigiri that was served to the Sushi Club with his own hands.

It was fascinating to watch, like watching art in motion. Kazato had a rhythm that made it look like he was bopping to music, and he executed each motion with maximum efficiency and precision. First he would swipe a bit of vinegar on his hand to sterilize it, then he would smack his hand in a quick clap before grabbing a small mound of rice. As he formed the rice in one hand, he would grab the fish with the other -- and then with three flicks of the hand, the nigiri sushi was done.

"I can make as many as 600 in an hour," he said, "and when I work in the restaurant, I may work for six hours nonstop."

"What was lost in translation," added Nemoto, "was that he said, 'Turn on some music. I'll dance like Michael Jackson.'"

Each of the nigiri he made was delicious and distinct. The first was a white fish called konbujime hirame: flounder cured in konbu and salt with a crispy flounder skin garnish. Next came a beautiful sake zuke, or salmon served with a "zuke" sauce of soy, mirin and sake, which took on this plump, almost slick texture due to the curing. A maguro zuke, or tuna served with zuke sauce, came next, with a healthy dose of wasabi to make it a bit spicier.

Then came my favorite and what I think was the most special of the nigiri selection he made: a masu aburi nigiri, or salt-cured ocean trout, seared, then topped with taberu rayu (a tasty chile oil/garlic/onion condiment). Kazato made the taberu rayu himself, and it tasted something like a spicy caramelized shallot topping.

The last of the nigiri was a special unagi, or delicately braised freshwater eel. It was slightly sweet but also had a hint of smokiness to it, as if it had been barbecued.

Zushi provided the other courses, including ginger-soy edamame, white miso soup, wakame (seaweed) salad, Zushi specialty rolls and a panko-crusted fried banana dessert with green tea ice cream. Attendees also went home with a beautiful handwritten menu, stamped and signed by Kazato himself.

In the end, was it as fascinating in real life as in the movies? Unequivocally, yes.

I asked Kazato if there was anything he wanted the people of Houston to know, and this was his reply: "Sushi is very simple. Within the simpleness, there is also a delicious taste. So for those cooks that care of fish very delicately, they can probably make very good sushi as well. I wish everyone can try sushi made by someone like that."

This event was made possible by the JETRO Houston and Chiba Foodstuff Exports Association in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Chiba and Houston as Sister Cities, a diplomatic association that began in 1973 in an effort to promote people-to-people diplomacy and encourage citizens to develop mutual trust and understanding through commercial, cultural, educational and humanitarian exchanges between the two cities.

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