Boning Up On Sushi Bars
By Laura Doty, Contributing Editor
Whether traditional or high-tech, the preparation of increasingly popular sushi items usually includes some very specialized equipment and supplies, although little traditional cooking is involved.
The craze for sushi in American restaurants and foodservices appears to be booming. Over the last decade, there has been a 40% increase in U.S. sushi consumption and a 400% increase in the number of sushi bars in the United States, according to information from Aramark. In short, this Japanese import has proved to be a natural for U.S. markets. While low in fat, calories and cholesterol, sushi provides an exotic and easy-to-eat meal for health-conscious and vegetarian consumers. Dining at a traditional sushi bar offers an added aesthetic experience for patrons, as they can watch skillful sushi chefs slice, chop and assemble small, jewel-like plates of raw seafoods and special rice for service in entertaining performances that enhance their dining experiences.
"Geta" are special service trays that are arranged for customers along the sushi bar at Neo. The custom-built refrigerated display case here keeps raw sushi being held for preparation at 40°F. and products are kept on ceramic dishes that impart no undesirable added flavors.
Neo, a small, upscale Japanese restaurant and sushi bar located on Manhattan's Upper West Side, is just such a place. For the sushi chefs at Neo, the day begins by using an array of knives to bone, de-scale and slice the fish, eel or octopus that will be used to make sushi that day. "This is really the hardest work that we do," said Neo's Chef Terou-san. "Later, making sushi for customers is fun. Our knives are very important, and we use different ones for different steps in creating sushi - from large cleaver-type knives for dealing with whole fish to small, very sharp blades for shaving delicate vegetables for sushi garnishes. These knives from Japan are manufactured differently than other knives," he continued. "Some have one edge of the blade flat and the other slightly raised to slice fish easily. These tools are very expensive, and we want to keep them very sharp, which we do by hand, using different whet stones, selecting finer or rougher finishes depending on a knife's surface."
Other supplies necessary for the chefs' sushi creation at Neo include plastic squeeze bottles for special sushi sauces along with other sauce containers and brushes, sharp metal chopsticks for detailed product assembly and fine bone removal, makisu bamboo mats with which chefs make sushi rolls, sushi rice paddles that aid staff in forming rice balls, metal boxes containing sheets of seaweed for sushi rolls, and "geta," the special imported plates, trays and dishes used for sushi service. Rice for sushi production is prepared in automatic rice cookers in Neo's back kitchen and stored behind the sushi bar in insulated containers that keep pre-cooked rice at the correct, warm temperature.
"Some sushi restaurants use automatic rice mixers that properly season sushi rice with vinegar, but we do that by hand with a high-quality red vinegar," said Manager Josh Shu.
"The heart of our sushi bar is the custom-built, refrigerated sushi display cases where products are stored for sushi chefs- preparation. The FDA provides guidelines on handling raw fish and, here in New York, the key guideline from the Health Department requires us - and our cases are built for this - to hold raw fish on display at 40°F. or less," explained Shu. Raw seafood on display in Neo-s sushi bar case are held on ceramic plates, which impart no flavor to the delicate flesh, and have small holes in the bottom to facilitate drainage.
Behind the sushi bar at Neo are chefs, wooden chopping boards and a special insulated container that holds rice at its proper serving temperature.
"Another important piece of equipment for operations at Neo is our high-end 'super-freezer,-" said Shu. "We serve the freshest and highest-quality sushi, and some kinds of fish that are locally procured are delivered fresh to us every day. Some more exotic varieties of seafood are flash-frozen when caught and shipped to us. We keep them in the super-freezer, which is designed to keep the cellular structure of the product intact."
Sushi Chef Terousan-s most important tools for preparing sushi are his collection of knives and the whetstones he uses to keep them razor-sharp.
Aramark, the giant foodservice contract management company headquartered in Philadelphia, has partnered with Advanced Fresh Concepts (AFC), based in Rancho Dominguez, Calif., to provide ready-made sushi for customers at ARA accounts. AFC began providing sushi in ready-to-go lunch boxes for upscale grocery stores in 1986, and this company-s sushi bars are now found in over 1,700 supermarkets nationwide.
"When we work with Aramark, we first visit a site to determine the exact equipment needs at that location," explained Kevin Barton, director of sales and marketing for AFC. "Typically, we provide a 49 to 89, two- or three-deck, low-profile, refrigerated air-screen case to hold our products. Running along the back side of the case is a white polyboard cutting and prep shelf that contains refrigerated wells, similar to a sandwich prep unit. An electric rice cooker on a stainless worktable provides the account-s chef with convenient, freshly cooked rice for sushi production. Within the footprint of the sushi bar station, we also install a low, sliding-door refrigerator where chefs store the product they will be working with that day. This is critical because sushi materials are raw and can be volatile if not handled correctly. As per our HACCP plan, we keep our sashimi-grade product wrapped in plastic for added safety while stored, and refrigerated as much as possible during preparation, and we require the site to provide us with freezer storage space for products that we ship frozen from our main warehouse to their facilities.
"Our chefs go through an exhaustive, three-week training program," continued Barton, "and, of course, the proper knives, imported from Japan, are their most important working tools. We also provide the makisu and black-bottomed plastic serving containers with snap on lids, lined with paper 'grass,- also imported, for packaging the finished sushi product for sale."
AFC provides a trained sushi chef, a refrigerated air-screen display case, promotional materials and food packaging when its sushi concept is installed at Aramark accounts.
AFC sushi bars have so far been installed at 22 Aramark campus locations, six B&I accounts and even two Aramark-contracted arena locations - Staples Center and Dodger Stadium in the Los Angeles area, according to Danielle Marta, concept development manager for the Culinary Solutions division at Aramark. "AFC offered a turn-key sushi bar solution for our operations," explained Marta. "The company also provides a trained and ServSafe-certified sushi chef and a retail HACCP plan - that-s important to us."
On the flip-side of the traditional sushi bar requiring the highly specialized and trained sushi chef, are fast-food-style sushi establishments that utilize high-tech, assembly line-style service and production equipment, which serve to cut labor costs and allow sale of lower-priced products. Sushi restaurants where pre-prepared sushi dishes pass by on little boats or on a conveyor belt are called Kaiten sushi in Japan (kaiten means "circulate"). Kaiten sushi bars are widespread throughout Japan, and have become commonplace here and in other countries, as well. To guarantee freshness, these circulating sushi service systems may contain specially coded plates so that after 55 minutes, any sushi still rotating is removed. Some establishments may include slots where plates are deposited after eating, offering customers an automatic way to calculate their tabs based on plate counts.
- Japanese fish knives
- Paring knives
- Plastic squeeze bottles
- Wooden chopsticks
- Metal chopsticks
- Makisu - bamboo mats
- Sushi rice paddles
- Metal boxes
- Geta - serving dishes
- Rice cookers Rice mixers
- Insulated rice holding containers
- Refrigerated raw-product display case
- Ceramic holding dishes
- Undercounter refrigerators
- Reach-in refrigerators
- Walk-in refrigerators
- Walk-in freezers
- Blast freezers
- Refrigerated air-screen display case
- Refrigerated wells
- Polyboard cutting board
- Wood cutting board
- Plastic wrap
- Black-bottom plastic containers
- Snap-on lids
- Paper grass
- Conveyor systems
- Plate counting systems
- Sushi robots
Perhaps the most non-traditional equipment now available for the preparation of sushi is the "sushi robot." While the sushi craze is still on the rise, the availability of trained sushi chefs is diminishing, so some operators are shifting to automatic preparation of sushi. Introduced in the late '90s, a sushi robot automatically combines ingredients for sushi rolls or provides the properly pressed and seasoned rice ball for sushi prep with staff then adding fish by hand. Sushi robots are now available to operators in many sizes and capacities for use in small operations, as well as in high-volume sushi prep facilities such as the New York Rice Center in Queens, N.Y. There, large combo rice cookers and mixers prepare rice for the 5,000 sushi lunchboxes produced assembly line-style every day. Rice is loaded into the factory-s four sushi robots and, as the robot-formed bite-size rice cakes move along conveyor belts, workers wearing gloves and smocks cover the concoctions with slices of raw tuna, salmon or individual shrimp - all imported to Queens in a flash-frozen state.
After being wrapped, labeled and trayed, the sushi boxes are ready to be distributed to 15 fast-food sushi outlets located around Manhattan and at Newark Airport in New Jersey. This type of sushi production supports a mass marketing approach for operators who wish to provide Japanese food to American customers utilizing U.S. fast-food chain distribution techniques.