The Japanese word “Shokunin” means “traditional sushi chef”. Shokunin have been perfecting the art of sushi for well more than 1000 years. A true Shokunin always wears a knotted headband and a traditional apron. Shokunin are very protective over their knives, which belong to them alone. In Japan, being a Shokunin carries a great sense of honor. They are both master craftsmen and master artisans at the same time.
To be a Shokunin, one must start at the bottom. It is customary for a Shokunin to begin his or her career in a restaurant doing the dishes or taking out the trash. This is meant to be a chance for the potential Shokunin to get a feel for what life in a hectic sushi restaurant is like.
After a couple of years doing this, the potential Shokunin is ready to embark on an apprenticeship. Whereas in the West, people view traditional school-house instruction as the way to learn, the Japanese culture places a strong emphasis on hands-on apprenticeships. A potential Shokunin is paired with a Shokunin and shown how to make sushi. This process is slow and methodical, often taking upwards of a decade.
At the end of that decade, assuming the apprentice has absorbed everything his master taught, he is ready to assume the title and mantle of Shokunin. This cannot be done lightly.
Shokunin are master craftsmen in regards to the technical expertise required to make sushi. Tiny slices made with delicate precision can often be the difference between good sushi and bad sushi. In the case of the famous Fugu fish—the poisonous blowfish that is a delicacy in Japan—the Shokunin’s mastery of his craft literally means the difference between life and death. It stands as a true testament to the trust placed by society in a Shokunin that people eat the Fugu fish with some regularity in Japan.
Shokunin are simultaneously master artisans in regards to the artfulness and creativity employed by a true sushi master. The first of your five senses to experience any meal is your sight. If sushi doesn’t look appetizing, likely you won’t find it appetizing. This holds true for all food. But sushi presentation is about more than merely looking appetizing. A plate of sushi is a bit like a painting. It is a beautiful sea of color and shape, arranged artfully for a truly one-of-a-kind experience. And then, you get to eat it.
If you have the good fortune to eat sushi prepared by a true Shokunin, you know that you are in for a treat. There are so many radically different types of sushi, you’re guaranteed to find some you like, some dislike, and some you absolutely love. But, regardless of your personal tastes, if you’re eating Sushi prepared by a Shokunin, you know that it will be made in keeping with the highest standards of excellent of more than a thousand years of proud tradition.