3 26, 2004

Laguna Beach sushi chef slices and dices convention

Register columnist
She has her knives, and she knows how to use them.

One helps her slice sashimi in a single, fluid motion. One helps her clean fish. And one helps her chop, angling the curve of her arm as she unfurls veggie ribbons and sets up a marble block with banana leaves luring us with a creation of seared ahi.

Miki, as the locals know her in Laguna Beach, is a woman in a man's world: a sushi chef with her own following and her own art in her own restaurant.

Does she know why this is?

"I like ... to do ... everything," she slowly says. "I like making. I like pictures. Beautiful nature. But I'm female. Sometimes ... it was very hard. ... The Japanese guys, they don't like you, so I learn ... cheering myself."

Miss Izumisawa, her formal name, took over a 22-seat space just more than four years ago along Coast Highway, shopping for supplies at Henry's Market in Laguna Niguel, then welcoming customers with seasoned octopus salad, baked yellowtail cheeks and pepper-crusted salmon. Her hands work nonstop, she jokes, "25 hours a day."

"I'm no business person; I'm chef," she adds, fond of excluding articles when she speaks. "My favorite dishes? So many kinds. It's like my baby ... more than 100.

"And U.S. people like BIG fish. I make big."

Where she comes from, Japan, sushi-making by tradition always has been dominated by the boys. Chefs are required to keep to a rigorous apprenticeship, where they learn how fish must always be fresh, how everything is temporal in their culture of cooking, how to wash rice, how to cut according to the grain, how to present.

It takes years and years. A trainee can be washing the floors, sweeping and waiting on tables for months before he is allowed to practice the simple task of positioning a shrimp atop the rice.

Only the best - the very best - graduate to work in Tokyo's exclusive Ginza district – the preferred meeting place for business executives through the decades.

Miki's teacher, Nobu Matsuhisa of Nobu restaurant fame, taught her some of his secrets at his eatery in Las Vegas. It's partly why her menus are so exotic, so fun.

At her 242 Cafe Fusion Sushi, indulging is a celebration to the beat of salsa and reggae. The menus are rolled. But most regulars prefer the specials, which change daily.

SPECIAL CUT: Miki Izumisawa, who runs 242 Cafe Fusion Sushi in Laguna Beach, is making a name for herself in the male-dominated world of sushi chefs.


The walls display her wood sculptures. There's an open kitchen and a constant flow of delicacies. One of the most popular? The "Lava Flow to Green Hill," which consists of crab, salmon and tuna, graced with organic red chard and Macadamia nuts.

Miki, by the way, studied physical education in college. She played softball for 10 years and now meditates and does tai chi. "So many kinds of people live in the U.S.," she says, "so many kinds of people eating sushi ... so many tastes. ... All chefs should be welcomed."

Indeed, gals behind the sushi counters across Southern California hail from Mexico and El Salvador and Guatemala. At some neighborhood spots, male chefs pretend they're Japanese when they're Korean. There's been a steady increase in American students at the California Sushi Academy in Venice, and at pan-Asian fund-raisers in downtown Los Angeles, lookie-loos flock to the school's booth to taste and to sign up for six-month courses.

It used to be that women, according to the men, couldn't make good sushi because their hands are too warm and that ruins the fish, Miki explains, retelling tales.

"Not true," she says. "Never true."

For a woman to go into the sushi chef profession in Japan is growing easier. The government revised its Equal Employment Opportunity Law in 1999, pushing equality in hiring and promotion, and lifting a ban that prevented women from working after 10 p.m.

Back here, by midnight, Miki is still on the job, carefully wiping off the knife after slicing each fish, wiping off the oils.


This column on Asian culture and communities appears every other Friday in Local.
To contact Do: anhdo_2000@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2004 The Orange County Register