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If you have been to a sushi restaurant, you have probably noticed how the chef greets each guest as they enter the establishment. I am impressed every time when I see how dedicatedly the Japanese chefs uphold their culture and traditions even if the sushi restaurant is located in the U.S.
Today I will tell you ‘what do the sushi chefs say when you enter?’ They greet the guests by saying ‘irasshaimase’ which means ‘welcome to the restaurant’. It’s a humble way of showing respect to the customer and telling him that the chef is ready to serve food.
It is pronounced as ee-ra-shy-ma-say, however, when you hear this from a chef, it may not sound the same. Some chefs may just say ‘irasshai’ and to the customer, it sounds only ‘rasshai’ as most people do not hear the ‘I’ at the beginning.
Irasshai means the same thing, it’s just the contracted form of the word spoken in Edo-style. The greeting is not limited to just the sushi restaurants but you may hear it at any store or shop in Japan.
If you have ever been to a traditional Japanese market with numerous street-side shops, you will find people shouting ‘irasshaimase’ at the top of their voices to attract customers.
Reply The Chef With A Smile
When a sushi chef greets you in a traditional way by saying ‘irasshaimase, you can reply back by saying ‘Ojama shimasu’. This means ‘sorry to interrupt you at work’. If you don’t remember this, don’t worry, just smile and say ‘hello’ to the chef.
At a sushi restaurant, the chef who stands behind the counter is the man who will take care of you and present you with a wonderful meal. Greeting and smiling as you meet is a good way to start a conversation and get to know the chef.
If you are a regular customer at a particular sushi restaurant and the chef knows you, he may greet you by saying ‘maido’. This is again a Japanese term that means ‘every time’. Elaborately, it means ‘every time you visit us, we are glad to see you’.
I have created an article for beginners to help them get familiar with a few things they need to know about eating sushi. Check it out.
Decoding Japanese Words Often Used By Chefs
In a sushi restaurant, you will often find the staff uses certain Japanese words for communication. While there is no harm in being oblivion to them, knowing the meaning of these words can make you more familiar with your favorite sushi.
Some chefs may appreciate your knowledge and really like it when you use a few Japanese words. However, let me warn you that some chefs may get offended if you reveal that you know the jargons they use as a secret command or order to the staff.
Agari: This refers to green tea that is typically served after a sushi meal to mark the end. You will often hear the chefs say ‘agari’ to the servers which means the customer is about to finish his meal, so serve green tea.
Neta or Tane: It is typically used by sushi chefs to denote the catch of the day. Some chefs may use the word to indicate the fish that they are serving that day.
Aniki: In Japanese, the word means ‘old brother’ but when used by a chef in a sushi restaurant, it means old ingredients. So, if there are two cuts of raw fish on the block and the chef inquires which one to use first, the senior chef may reply by saying ‘aniki’ which means use the older one first. It does not mean that the fish has gone bad, it’s just older.
Otouto: This is the opposite of ‘aniki’ and it means younger brother. It refers to the newest ingredients or the freshest cuts of the fish.
Shari: This is the Japanese term for sushi rice and it is derived from a Sanskrit word that means little white bones of Buddha. Rice is considered as a precious and sacred commodity in Japan. The term ‘shari’ shows the kind of reverence sushi chefs have towards the rice.
Gari: It means pickled ginger and is called so because when you bite into young ginger, it makes a sound gari-gari. This happens only with crunchy young ginger and not the mass-produced commercialized ones.
Geta: It is the Japanese word for wooden sandals. However, when used in a sushi restaurant, it refers to a wooden serving plate which looks similar to the sandal.
Namida: It literally means to ‘tear up’ but the term is actually used to refer to wasabi. Many people like to end up their sushi meal with an order of fresh wasabi roll.
Hikarimono: You may hear the chef often use this word to refer to raw fish with shiny skin. Common examples of this type of fish are mackerel and shad.
Tsukeba: This Japanese word is used to denote that place inside the kitchen where sushi is prepared. It actually means ‘to marinade’ referring to the art of marinating in the Edo period. In modern times, tsukeba is used to refer to a dedicated sushi kitchen.
Yama: It means ‘mountain’ and you may wonder what does it have to do with sushi. Well, when a sushi restaurant runs out of fish, the chef may often say ‘Yama’. It follows a logic that fish is found in the sea/ ocean and not in the mountains.
Sushi Etiquettes For The Chefs
If you thought sushi etiquettes are only meant for the customers then you are mistaken. The chefs also have to follow a set of etiquettes to ensure a fine dining experience for the guests. If you are new to Japanese culture, read my article that talks about sushi etiquettes for customers.
#1. No matter what time of the day the shift starts, the chef must greet by saying ‘ohayo gozai masu’ which translates to good morning in English. So, if the shift starts at 3 pm, it may feel odd for a chef to say good morning but this is the norm they have to follow. While nobody knows how this tradition started, some traditionalists believe that it is derived from ‘ohayo’ which signified the beginning of something.
#2. The sushi chef must arrive at least 10 to 15 minutes before the shift starts. It is necessary to ensure that the chefs are properly dressed in their traditional attire and take their tools and knives out. They must not leave the kitchen table in between for bathroom breaks, so everything should be taken care of before the shift begins.
#3. The sushi knives are the biggest tools of the chefs, just like weapons are to a soldier. So, the chefs must ensure that they have their knives properly sharpened before they start taking the orders. Working with a dull knife or sharpening in between sushi preparation shows a lack of preparation on behalf of the chef.
#4. When moving inside the kitchen with a sharp knife（see my favorite one), a chef must loudly say ‘knife’ to avoid any unexpected accidents. The chef must also hold the knife correctly, behind his back and with the blade facing away from fellow workers.
#5. If the chef needs to take a bathroom break, he must ensure that he opens the kitchen apron before entering the bathroom. This is to ensure good hygiene in the kitchen. He must neatly fold the apron and keep it in a specified area away from the eyes of the customers.
Two Words To Befriend Your Sushi Chef
One of the most important aspects of sushi is the way customers interact with the chef. No other food culture in the world calls for such an amazing interaction between the chef and the customer. At a sushi bar, you have the opportunity to sit right in front of the chef, watch him prepare your meal in front of you, and get into a friendly conversation.
While there can be several conversation starters, the two magic words that you can tell to your sushi chef are ‘Itadakimasu’ and ‘Gochisosama’. Even if you are a non-Japanese, these two words are easy to remember and they can make your sushi experience more enjoyable.
Itadakimasu is the Japanese term that means ‘let’s eat’ or ‘I shall receive the meal’. It’s very similar to bon appétit used in English speaking countries. By saying Itadakimasu, you will immediately attract the attention of the chef and he will ensure you have a great experience.
When the meal ends, thank the chef by saying ‘Gochisosama’ which means ‘thank you for a wonderful meal’. This reflects your respect and interest in Japanese culture. Your Japanese chef will appreciate you for this.
Some other words that may also help you are ‘Kon-banwa’ which means good evening; and Arigato gozai-masu which is the Japanese expression for ‘thank you very much’. Another good way of showing gratitude to the chef is to buy him a sake or beer. The chef will remember you for this kind gesture and give you a friendly welcome when you re-visit.
What is a chef called in Japanese?
The Japanese word for chef is itamae and in western countries, people usually associate itamae with sushi. The chefs undergo years of apprenticeship and training to be called a master sushi chef or itamae. In the Japanese culture, people who make sushi are also referred to as ‘shokunin’, which translates to ‘artisan’ in English. If you are wondering how sushi chefs make in Japan, you can have a look at this article.
Is it okay to tip a sushi chef?
In Japan, the tip is included in service fee but in the U.S., it is common for customers to tip the sushi chef. However, I would recommend you not to hand out money to the chef because he uses his hands to handle raw fish and prepare sushi. You may respectfully keep the money on the table or buy him a drink.
What’s the best way to complement a sushi chef?
The best way to complement a sushi chef is to opt for an omakase meal which means you leave it up to the chef to give you great dining experience. This gives the chef the freedom of creativity to present you with the best sushi options. Although an omakase is slightly expensive, the experience you receive is worth it!