Make way for a female 'itamae'

In Japan, women don't make sushi.

There are reasons for this, of course. "Women have warmer hands than men," declares Katsuji Konakai, principal of Tokyo's Sushi University. Since chefs use their hands to shape the rice and fish, he says cooler hands make men "better suited to making sushi. Besides," he finishes, "it's just a man's world."

Someone forgot to tell Kazue Suzuki. Last year, the cooking-school graduate began training at one of Tokyo's oldest sushi restaurants.

Ask about her hands and she'll tell you they're cool enough. As far as she knows, she is the only woman training to be a sushi chef. But Ms. Suzuki isn't out to be a pioneer. Instead, she wants to be more of a diplomat.

"I genuinely like talking to people from other countries and telling them about my country and its food," she says, "and the sushi is the most Japanese of foods."

Most women in cooking schools here specialize in European cuisine or baking, but Suzuki enjoyed introducing American friends to Japanese food, and knew that's what she wanted to study. "My parents were surprised [at my decision], and I guess some people are shocked," she says, then finishes her sentence with a smile and a small "who cares?" shrug. Though women are making inroads in professional kitchens around Japan, it's still considered a male field.

Suzuki found her job when Mamoru Sugiyama, the fourth-generation owner of Sushiko, a 115-year-old restaurant in the tony Ginza area, came to speak at her school.

He told her class that he thought having women work in restaurants is a good thing. "I thought, 'That's it! I've found my restaurant,' " Suzuki says, clapping her hands at the memory.

"I think there's something special a woman can provide," says Mr. Sugiyama. "We have many more women customers now, and some even come in alone. So it's a plus to have her."

When Suzuki arrived, she says the male kitchen staff "were somewhat lost in the beginning as to whether they could treat me like a man." She set about showing them. "Everything the men do, I do," she says. "That means carrying heavy garbage from the first floor to the second floor, even if it's raining! Now, they know."

Suzuki is just beginning the classic sushi apprenticeship. After one year at Sushiko, all she is allowed to do is serve tea and watch and learn the nuances of customer service.

This spring, she'll graduate to cutting vegetables that garnish plates of raw fish. The long, slow haul will be worth it, she says.

"If I want to become a craftsman, it's important I work someplace like this," she says. "You have to start at the very beginning, and learn the smallest details - like serving tea, and handling the serviettes [napkins]. All those things make you a real professional when you finally go behind the counter."

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