How to Charm Your Sushi Chef

Dear Helena,
I am on a quest to find great sushi, but I have found dining at a sushi bar to be frustrating. I am bothered by this nagging sense that the chef is giving me his second-best work because he thinks I'm just another ignoramus, and is secretly judging me for my unwitting faux pas. I would like to know the "correct" way to behave at a sushi bar, so I can win the chef over and sample his masterpieces.
—Sushi Paranoiac

Dear Sushi Paranoiac,

Here's how to make the sushi chef into your new best friend:

Build a relationship.
The best way to learn about sushi is to find a great sushi chef and be loyal to him, says Trevor Corson, author of The Story of Sushi. "Your" sushi chef should also be someone who is willing to engage with customers. People are sometimes afraid to talk to sushi chefs, says Corson, because of "the stereotype of the mean sushi chef, like the recently retired 'Sushi Nazi' of LA. We misinterpret that meanness as authenticity." Some chefs are indeed curmudgeons, so keep looking until you find one who enjoys talking to customers. Unless you enjoy being abused, that is.

Dine at off hours.
The chef will be more willing to chat if he's not slammed. "I always tell people that the best time to eat at a sushi bar is 6:30 on a Tuesday night," says Corson. Ask the chef to guide you through the menu or, better yet, make what he thinks is best.

Don't fiddle with your chopsticks.
Rubbing your chopsticks together in order to remove splinters is like saying, "Your chopsticks suck," says Hajime Sato, owner of Mashiko in Seattle. Needless to say, this behavior is rude. In fact, when there are splinters, it's often the Western diner who is causing the problem, not cheap chopsticks. Corson explains: "We [Westerners] stick the chopsticks in our mouths and suck the food off, which is a great way to get splinters. Watch the Japanese eating with chopsticks, and you'll see the chopsticks never even touch their lips." Sato's pet peeve is "people who use their chopsticks to drum on the bar."

Be sparing with condiments.
Don't slather your sushi with soy sauce or wasabi. Fine sushi is designed to showcase the delicate flavors of fresh fish, but you won't be able to appreciate this if you have too heavy a hand with the condiments. Furthermore, the chef will treat you accordingly. "Chefs have told me as soon as they see customers dumping wasabi in their soy sauce they'll stop serving that customer their really good, freshest fish," says Corson. Putting pickled ginger on top of sushi also makes the chef's skin crawl. "It's supposed to be a palate cleanser," says Sato. He says the problem is that Westerners are used to thinking of sushi as akin to a burrito or a sandwich.

Don't get your chef drunk.
There's no need to buy your chef a beer. According to Sato, a serious sushi chef doesn't drink on the job. Not only does drinking compromise the fine motor skills you need to construct great sushi, it also messes up your palate. He says, "You can't taste the salt after a couple of drinks." As for tipping, it's fine to tip as you would in any other type of restaurant: when you pay your check. It's unlikely that the chef is going to take offense if you leave $20 on the bar, but it's not expected. "In Japan we don't tip anybody," says Sato.

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