Miki Izumisawa placed her wrists on her head and wiggled her index fingers. She was demonstrating how she detects the signs that have guided her to becoming one of the most talked-about female sushi chefs in Southern California.
Sign 1: While shopping for a storefront for her first restaurant in 2000, she saw a yin-and-yang symbol on the sidewalk. It matched the one she had tattooed on her back. 242 Sushi on Coast Highway in Laguna Beach was born.
Sign 2: Izumisawa's creativity Eshe's famous for her Sexy Hand Roll, which mixes spicy ahi tuna, mint, cilantro, avocado and a potato crisp Equickly picked up a following. She took her success as a sign to open a second sushi eatery in Manhattan Beach.
Sign 3: Her friend Higtaka Takaira, decided to close downtown San Clemente's Del Mar Sushi and jet off to Australia. 242 Sushi went from twins to triplets.
"At first, I didn't want to open up another restaurant because the economy is going down, but then my friend said he was leaving, and I'm always looking for a message," Izumisawa said after scrubbing the walls of her new space at 129 Avenida Del Mar. "I put my antennas up here and said, 'So what should I do, Miki?' and God, space, something sent me a message."
There's no official count of how many female sushi chefs there are in the United States, but they're a growing trend. When Tracy Griffith became the California Sushi Academy's first female graduate in 2005, less than a dozen women wielded knives at the thousands of sushi restaurants across the country.
"There have been a few (female sushi chefs) who are starting to get noticed," said Trevor Corson, sushi concierge and author of "The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice." One of the main characters in his book is a woman of Irish-Italian background.
That wouldn't fly in Japan. Male sushi chefs there say women don't have the reflexes to slice and dice raw fish; female hands are warmer and wipe away the fish's freshness, just as perfume and lotion disrupt the flavors, they say.
None of that's true, Izumisawa said.
"Female, male, it's the same human," she said, dressed in sweats and a blue bandana that read "242 Fusion Sushi." "In Japanese culture, the wife stays in the house and the guy works outside. At sushi restaurants it's the same."
She plans to be at the San Clemente location most of the time once it opens Sunday. The opening date, Nov. 1, is another sign: The three numbers in 11/1 and the scheduled full moon that night symbolize new beginnings, she says.
As for Takaira, he's off to new beginnings, too. He plans to open two restaurants in Perth and Gold Coast, Australia. He said he's moving for the change of scenery. He chose those two cities because they are surfing meccas, much like San Clemente. He said he may name one of the restaurants Del Mar Sushi to honor the friends he has made here.
But Takaira and Izumisawa's styles are very different. He's old school, she's fusion.
Izumisawa tore down all the bamboo from the restaurant's walls and carefully placed colored rocks as a border near the ceiling. One night while she was decorating, she got the urge to stick her hands in the paint cans and start splattering paint on the floor. The result: a Jackson Pollock look-a-like.
"My brain's like a computer. I just think I need some spicy stuff, some sweet and then I go mix it together," Izumisawa said, picking at imaginary ingredients in the air.
For her, sushi and art go together naturally. She's also a sculptor and often channels her artistic urges through her cuisine. Her Lava Roll looks like a green volcano with lava streaming down the sides. She's also inviting local artists to sell their work at the restaurant. First up is Colleen Hanley Ethink waves, surfers and palm trees.
Growing up in Tokyo, Izumisawa wanted to be a P.E. teacher. She had some early success as a softball player but didn't want to play professionally, despite offers. At 23, she left her athlete friends at Tokyo's College of Physical Education and jetted off for Okinawa, one of Japan's southern prefectures. There she started silk-screening as she mingled with the art crowd. She plans to put silk screens with the 242 Fusion Sushi logo on some of the eatery's lamps.
"Another trend is that people really like sushi chefs that are personalities," Trevor Corson said.
But Izumisawa, who moved to the United States in 1986, quickly squashed any suggestion that diners go to her restaurants because they like her personality. "I'm a chef. I'm going to concentrate on my food," she said. "It's not a magic show."
But, she said, she wants her restaurant to spice up the nightlife in quiet San Clemente.
"I love this town. All the surfers are such nice people, but the street needs some fun," she said. "And I'm a little crazy. My food's different."