Sunday afternoon at the New York Culinary Experience passed in a flurry of fish. Masaharu Morimoto may have attended his sushi class with his arm in a cast, but he was flanked by his trusted crew from his eponymous restaurant in New York—namely, his chef de cuisine Jamison Blankenship and his head sushi chef Robby Cook. Aided by two stern-looking, soft-spoken Japanese chefs and FCI chef/instructor Mark Twersky, team Morimoto led the class through an intensive tutorial on the fundamentals of sushi preparation.
Guided by the questions of Arlene Sailhac (former owner of DeGustibus cooking school and wife of FCI Dean Alain Sailhac), the class began with the basics of Japanese cuisine. Fundamentals like the preparation of dashi and the delicate balance of flavors in sushi rice were discussed and demonstrated. For instance, following its cooking in a giant Zojirushi rice cooker, the rice was turned onto a traditional wooden tub (hangiri) and mixed thoroughly by Cook and another helping chef. The chefs also gave demonstrations in fashioning the classic Japanese omelet—tamagoyaki—as well as freshly made tofu. Most impressively, Cook gave an extensive demonstration on the fabrication of various types of fish used for sushi.
The excitement surrounding the presence of the iconic Iron Chef was undeniable. Throughout the class, a bevy of media and onlooking chefs (including other instructors and the deans of the French Culinary Institute) stood at the back of the class to observe. In his narration, Morimoto focused on the principles of Japanese cuisine that have made him so widely respected: an emphasis on impeccably careful preparation, a devotion to traditional conceptions of sushi, and the use of traditional, lesser-know types of fish from Japan.
The members of the class, the press, and fellow chefs watched intently as Robby Cook filleted and prepared several different kinds fish (horse mackerel, yellowtail, tuna, spotted shad, and pike mackerel) as well as a whole geoduck, shrimp and a few giant clams. While the majority of sushi we eat is broken down by the chefs prior to service, Morimoto's team demonstrated the fabrication of fish from a much earlier stage. With great precision and seeming ease, Cook filleted the fish and mollusks with clean, steady movements, dispensing with each specimen in a matter of seconds. After demonstrating the technique in shaping sushi rolls once, Cook was asked to do so a second time for those who may have missed his initial, rapid performance.
Towards the end of the class, the members were directed to move to their cooking stations in order to make their own dashi, miso soup, and rolls. (Having donned his Iron Chef America jacket for the occasion, Morimoto yelled "Allez cuisine!" to commence with the cooking.)
As I stood making my sushi rolls, Alain Sailhac (Dean at FCI), strolled to the table and complimented me on my handiwork.
"You have done this before, no?" he asked with a smile.
"Not really," I replied, "though I did fold quite a bit of origami as a child!"
Ever the charming and legendary figure, Sailhac called over his equally legendary friend and fellow dean, Andre Soltner, who also complimented me on my not-so-impressive rolls. The both of them watched as I fashioned my third and last roll, nodding encouragingly at my novice hand. (Alas, if only I had brought a tape recorder to the class so that I could replay that moment in times of low self-esteem!)
Towards the end of the class, platters of intensely buttery yellowtail nigiri and fresh tuna nigiri were passed around. The appreciative class members feasted and talked easily with the chefs and circulating guests, all of whom were treated to the excellent fish and soup.