Across countries and continents, the fascination with sushi and sushi restaurants – where seafood, rice and Japanese culture combine into art form – has been growing steadily over the last few decades. In Tokyo, however, it has only been 10 years since the first woman was allowed to make sushi and run her own sushi bar. Now, she’s on a mission to reclaim the profession for all female chefs in Japan. Meet Yuki Chidui, the iconoclast who is rewriting tradition, one nigiri at a time
When Yuki Chidui saw a job advertisement for Nadeshico Sushi, Japan’s first all-female sushi restaurant, her first reaction was shock. It was 2010 and finding a woman behind a sushi counter in Tokyo was unprecedented. Driven by her passion, the young cook didn’t think about the challenges that tackling deeply held stereotypes in the kitchen would entail and immediately applied. “I was longing to build a new world from scratch,” she says of this pivotal moment that would go on to define her future.
“I was so busy thinking about this dream that I didn’t consider male dominance or discrimination at all. I come from an all-girl school and my family has always been involved in women's society through Japanese dance, so the idea of women’s social and emotional independence was something I took for granted. I never imagined that I would have such a hard time expressing myself through sushi.”
33-year-old sushi chef Chidui at her restaurant
A lover of the emblematic Japanese dish since she was a child, Chidui had already accrued six years of experience working at a sushi restaurant prior to joining Nadeshico Sushi. However, she had never been allowed to touch the rice or seafood – the restaurant strictly limited her tasks to serving tea and drinks, taking payments and handling logistics. She saw first-hand how stereotypes and myths surrounding women were preventing half of Japanese society from entering a career as sushi chef.
In Japan, the worlds of food and gender politics collide most explosively inside sushi restaurants, from which women have traditionally been excluded. Many cooks mention the fact that women’s body temperature is, according to some studies, slightly higher than men’s, making their warmer hands not suitable for handling fresh fish. Others say that menstruation and hormonal changes can affect their sense of smell and taste. Chidui sees it from a different perspective.
“A sushi chef was never made to seem an attractive profession for women,” she says. “It requires physical strength and patience, and it is perceived to be more rigorous than glamorous. Also, because the world has been a male-dominated society for so long, there are rules that inevitably favour men. But I don't think you have to follow these rules. Changing this is about women working together to create environments that are easier and more enjoyable for female chefs to work in.”
At Nadeshico Sushi, the popular dish is treated as an art form
Soon after joining Nadeshico Sushi in 2010, Chidui became the manager of the restaurant and started imparting her own vision. At Nadeshico – located in Tokyo’s Akihabara neighbourhood – all jobs are performed by women, from sourcing the fish to making the fresh rolls in front of customers. Dressed in kimonos, the cooks cut and prepare colourful sets of nigiri and sushi accompanied by tempura or fried oysters, while warmly chatting with customers at the counter. But while the restaurant is now an integral part of the dining scene and has inspired other female-run venues in the capital, there were times when Chidui felt hopeless.
“I battled with criticism every day. We were in an unprecedented genre of sushi restaurant and there was no right answer,” says the Japanese cook. “I was criticised on social media for being unreasonable. I was even the victim of a serious stalker. But I overcame it. I did it because I believe that I am a unique example for women who are fighting in society. If I gave up, people would say: ‘I knew it wasn't right for a woman to be a sushi chef.’ I don't want to betray the support of women all over the world.”
As well as sushi, as a teenager Chidui loved art and studied graphic design in college, where she learnt the importance of minimalism and colour palettes. As she developed her own style as a sushi chef, she went back to these artistic concepts. “Graphic design is about distilling different thoughts and themes into a simple structure, and it’s the same with sushi. There's a lot of preparation and passion behind that simple, colourful roll of fish and rice. It's a rare and precious profession, and I think that's what makes sushi a great art form,” she says.
Sushi set at Chidui's restaurant and a lesson at Nadeshico Sushi School
After training countless female chefs at her restaurant, Chidui realised that if she truly wanted to start a revolution, she had to empower women to open their own businesses too. In 2019, she opened Nadeshico Sushi School, where she equips her students not only with knife and cooking skills, but also with customer service and business management know-how, and teaches them how to deal with gender issues in the workplace. With the arrival of the pandemic, the classes had to switch to a virtual format – but throughout, Chidui didn’t stop pursuing her mission.
Indeed, the coronavirus crisis gave Chidui a chance to focus on a new project. For a while, the Japanese chef had been working on recipes for medicinal sushi. “The pandemic forced people around the world to face their own health, and it's all in the food we eat,” she says. “As a sushi chef and restaurant operator, I felt that making sushi wasn’t enough. So I decided to create my own, healthier fish.”
For her new venture, called Next Generation Sushi Association, Chidui got in touch with an aquaculturist and tasked him with growing a healthier type of fish, called Yakuzen salmon, that is given a special diet of medicinal and health-conscious ingredients. At Nadeshico Sushi, the chef and her team use the salmon to prepare Yakuzen sushi, which uses ingredients such as cinnamon, pine nuts and Goka powder to enhance the nutritional value of each bite of sushi.
Chidui posing with her sushi chef students
Despite celebrating her 10-year anniversary at Nadeshico Sushi this year and starting a new venture to make sushi healthier as well as more equitable, Chidui feels she still has a lot to give to empower women around the world to fight sexism and stereotypes. “If you are dreaming of having your own restaurant, first try to imagine what your ideal place would look like,” she says to women everywhere in the world. “Picture the location, menu, interior and what servers will wear, and design a plan to create it. Be a self-starter and never forget to dream of your ideal world.”
‘50/50 is the new 50’ is a content series created by 50 Best and supported by S.Pellegrino with the shared aim of promoting equality, inclusivity and balance in the hospitality sector and beyond.
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