Shihomi Homma & Ayumi Aalto
Itamae/Sushi cooking instructors
(*Continued from the featured article)
The sushi class that we introduced to you in the previous page is very rare because there are just a few female itamae (板前, cook in a Japanese kitchen), even in Japan. We covered “Nadeshico Sushi”, a sushi restaurant in Akihabara, which only has female itamae, that opened around a decade ago, but we have never met women who work as itamae or chefs since then.
But, recently we heard about a sushi class called “Japan Cross Bridge”, which is organized by professional female itamae. What we are attracted most strongly to is the uniqueness of their activities. Moreover, they are twin sisters and they teach not only in Japanese but also in English (They might be planning to teach in French as well in the future). These things stimulated our curiosity.
After finishing the class, Shihomi Homma and Ayumi Aalto, the instructors of Japan Cross Bridge, told us the story of how they launched a very unique sushi class in the world.
*Interview＠Japan Cross Bridge (Meguro-ku)
*Photos by Masanori Tsuchibuchi
A compilation of our life
Shihomi: We started the class in the beginning of this year (2018). Before opening the class, we accumulated 10 years of experience as itamae at Japanese restaurants in Geneva, Switzerland, and Tokyo. We worked together at a restaurant in Tokyo until Ayumi became pregnant in 2016.
Ayumi: Yes, I quit the job and she left the restaurant soon after me.
Shihomi: I found it impossible to think that I would work alone because we were always together. Also, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to change my life. Then, I studied both English and computers until we opened the class. Of course, I could speak English but I wanted to be an English teacher. And I learned website creation for our future business. We had not decided what we would do next at that time. Actually, we planned to own our own restaurant, but it would be highly risk since Tokyo is so competitive.
Finally, we launched our business last year (2017). We came up with an idea of having a sushi class for foreigners because we thought it would be possible to use all of our skills, knowledge and experience.
Twins move different ways
Ayumi: You may think that working in Switzerland as an itamae is really unique. Actually, I didn’t expect that at all. Before moving to Switzerland, I was working at a city office in Niigata Prefecture. I worked as a public servant for over 10 years and I was eager to change both of my career and life. I didn’t want to finish my life only staying in hometown, so I left the office and moved to Australia. I gained confidence in English communication with foreigners after staying there for a year.
Then, I visited a friend of mine who was living in Geneva, Switzerland, and I loved the language. Geneva is the French-speaking area and there were not so many English speakers, so I decided to learn French there. French was totally new to me, so I felt I was like a baby. It was very fun for me to learn new words.
I started to work at a Japanese restaurant in Geneva as a hall staff while studying language. I really loved cooking since I was a little girl. I sometimes cooked kaiseki (懐石, a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner) style dishes and served them to my friends when I grew up, but I had never thought of entering the culinary field. However, I found that it was very fun to work at a restaurant. I needed to get active a lot more compared to the office work, but I liked that. The interactions with customers – most of them were local Swiss people – were also fun.
Shihomi: I started my career as a 5-year temp staff at the Niigata Prefectural Office and made a career move to an English school. I couldn’t speak English even though I had majored in the language. I lacked confidence with my English ability. I decided to improve my language skills by surrounding myself with English. I worked at several schools in Niigata and Tokyo. Living in Tokyo was one of my dreams.
I sometimes visited Geneva to see her while working at schools. I loved the city and wanted to live there.
Reunion in Switzerland
Ayumi: One day I was asked if I knew a person who would be able to work as a sushi chef because our itamae was leaving there. I couldn’t be the replacement for him because I was a chief of hall staff so I asked Shihomi if she was interested in the job. Because one of my dreams was to live overseas with her. I already knew that there was a sushi school in Tokyo so I suggested she learn how to make sushi in its intensive class because the restaurant owner was urgently in need of an itamae. It was a small restaurant, but it was so busy because there were just a few good Japanese restaurants in town.
Shihomi: I said YES when she asked me to help her Japanese restaurant because I loved cooking very much as well as Ayumi. I liked to cook French and Italian cuisine – not Japanese ones though – and sometimes served the course meals to my friends. So I was interested in serving dishes to my own customers at home. Also, I already knew the atmosphere of the Swiss city. Those are the reasons why I accepted her proposal.
I took a one-month intensive course at a sushi school in Tokyo. I learned the basics of cooking every day in a very short time.
After joining the restaurant in Geneva, I learned a lot more about how to make sushi, sashimi, tamagoyaki omelets and other Japanese dishes. As she said, it was a really busy restaurant during both lunch time and dinner time. But, I was not able to make dishes fast enough to serve all the customers. I had to work hard from early morning to late night every day. So I had a very tough time as an itamae. Sometimes, I was too physically tired to stay on my feet. Sometimes, I cried from mental stress. But the owner encouraged me with “You can be an itamae!” Actually I became the only itamae about a year and a half after joining the restaurant. I got used to the business and could take care of everything well. But I have only two hands so I still had to work hard until I left there.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve never blamed Ayumi on it like “I wouldn’t have had such a tough time if you didn’t called me over to Geneva!” I really enjoyed my work and life there with her. We always worked together; that’s why I could overcome difficulties.
Bittersweet Tokyo days
Shihomi: Three years after I came to Geneva, we decided to return to Japan. It is because it was really hard for us, being in a foreign country, to find an apartment in Geneva.
Ayumi: In addition, the owner of the restaurant retired and someone else took over the operation. The change of restaurant’s management style was expected along with the ownership change. That is another reason why we decided to go back home.
Shihomi: After returning to Japan, we started working at a Tohoku-based Japanese restaurant in Tokyo as itamae. It featured fresh fish cuisine. We were assigned to sashiba (刺し場, a sashimi kitchen) and killed live fish, made sashimi and made sushi. It was a big restaurant which had 240 seats, but there were only two of us who were taking care of its main menu such as sashimi, sushi and live fish dishes.
Ayumi: 90% of our customers were males who were working for companies and public offices nearby. We have fought against “prejudice” that many Japanese men have for a long time while working at a restaurant in Tokyo.
In Japan, itamae are supposed to be men. Many customers – most of them were men – asked us, “When will you become itamae?” when we were killing fish and making sushi/sashimi. We felt disappointed every time they told us so.
Even when a younger man worked with us as an assistant who couldn’t make sushi, customers would think that he was an itamae and we were learning from him.
Shihomi: That kind of thing sometimes happened, but we had a very full life there. We cooked live fish and served the dishes to the customers, so we climbed to the top of a live-box, scooped up fish with a net and killed them quickly. I got really nervous every time I did it because I was afraid the deba bocho (出刃包丁, Japanese style kitchen carvers primarily used to cut fish, though also used when cutting meat) might slip from my grip with the smacking of my hands by the fish.
Ayumi: We only dealt with a few types of fish in the restaurant in Geneva , but we were assigned to purchase stocks of abundant variety of fish. At the same time we were asked to develop its menu, so we chose fish and developed menu while calculating the cost. We’d never experienced those things when we were working at the restaurant in Geneva.
Shihomi: We were able to work at a restaurant in Tokyo because we had working experience in Geneva. Also we can have a sushi making classroom together right now thanks to our various working experiences at the restaurant in Tokyo.
Ayumi: Both of us are married to foreigners, so we talk to our husbands in English every day. But we still want to use the language moreand we want to share the Japanese culture – not only sushi but also calligraphy, Japanese instruments, kimono etc – with people from abroad. We grew up in a Japanese cultural environment. Both of us learned Japanese calligraphy for 10 years because our grandparents were calligraphy instructors. Also our mother was teaching koto and shamisen.
Also, I’ve loved other Japanese cuisine like “Chikuzen-ni (筑前煮, a dish made of braised chicken and vegetables)” and “Kimpira Gobo (きんぴらごぼう, Spicy burdock boot and stir-fried carrot)” since I was a child. And Shihomi always talks about yakitori (焼き鳥, a Japanese type of skewered chicken). We want to share these kinds of Japanese food with foreigners, too.
What is sushi to you?
Shihomi: It represents Japan. It not only represents Japanese culture, but Japan itself.
I didn’t know much about sushi before even though I worked at Japanese restaurants. I’m learning about sushi here a lot more, such as the history of sushi, types of sushi, the relationships between sushi and other food items and so on to teach our guests. I started to think about the origin of sushi or why sushi is called sushi after launching the class.
Then I started to focus on Japan. I used to look always outside my country, but now I look at Japan through sushi. So I can see the beauty of Japan now.
To me, sushi is not just food. Sushi is a window to Japan.
Ayumi: Food that I’m addicted to.
Even before I worked as a sushi chef, I always wanted to have sushi every day. But afterbecoming a chef, I always wanted to FEEL sushi all the time. I sometime felt like I didn’t even want to eat sushi after making it. I really wanted to TOUCH and FEEL sushi every single day, so I thought like, “I need sushi!” on the shop holidays lol It’s like a “sushi addict” lol
I’m a sushi-holic!
With Mari, Ayumi’s beloved daughter.
Japan Cross Bridge website: japancrossbridge.com
YouTube: Japan Cross Bridge