sushi 101 at the hyatt regency maui: master sushi chef jay ledee is ‘on a roll’

sushi school #2If you think learning the art of sushi making is tedious and boring, think again. Participating in Japengo Restaurant Master Sushi Chef Jay Ledee’s Sushi 101 class at the Hyatt Regency Maui is one of the most delightful assignments I’ve ever been on. Not only does Chef Jay know his stuff, he’s witty, engaging, and his smile could light up the entire state of Alaska in the dead of winter.

Sushi 101 is held in Japengo’s sleek, chic air-conditioned sushi lounge, that’s decorated in shades of orange, green, and gold. As Janet and I enter, we see several tables for two have been set up with materials we’ll need to create sumptuous sushi rolls: rice, crab, tuna, white ginger, water (to tame the sticky rice), julienned cucumbers, sliced avocados (apparently, we won’t be trusted with knives today!), wasabi and, of course, chopsticks so we can eat everything we make.

Chef Jay, who’s looking sharp in his chef’s whites, begins class by telling us he’s been making sushi for 22 years, seven of which have been at the Hyatt. “This is my office,” he jokes. He says he’s a working chef on the line, and performs taste tests for freshness every day. “I get my ‘sushi fix’ that way,” he says.

Chef begins by asking if we know the difference between brown and white rice. The answer: brown rice is the whole grain, with just the first outer layer (husk or hull) removed through milling, retaining its fiber and germ. White rice is brown rice that has been milled to remove the bran and much of the germ. Chef’s rice of choice is Nishiki medium grain. I ask Chef why some of the sushi I’ve purchased at grocery stores falls apart as I eat it. He says you should never refrigerate your sushi, because that’s what makes the rice fall apart. Ah ha!

Chef demonstrates how to properly wash rice prior to cooking: “Put your dry rice in a bowl and use a little bit of water to remove the white talc,” he says. “The talc makes rice mushy. Rinse it three times and don’t scrub it, because that breaks down the rice. You want to maintain its integrity. When you can see the bottom of the bowl, you’re done!”

Using a rice cooker is ideal, says Chef Jay, although if you don’t have one you can boil rice on the stovetop for 21 minutes. He’s given us a handout with his secret recipe for sushi rice vinegar (you’ll have to attend class to get it), and he says the perfect ratio of rice to vinegar is 6 to 1. “Pour your vinegar over the cooked rice, and mix it with a spoon to eliminate clumps,” he says. “Cut the vinegar into the rice with the side of the spoon, but don’t cut too much or the rice will break down.”

Next Chef Jay discusses wasabi, and we learn the difference between wasabi powder and fresh wasabi root: “The root itself isn’t as hot as the powder,” he says. “I personally prefer the powder because I like it hot.” He shows us how to mix wasabi powder with water until it’s the consistency of Playdough. “You want to keep it relatively soft so it will mix well with soy sauce,” he says. Chef Jay then produces a fresh wasabi root, which he grates by hand with an aluminum foil covered grater. “When you take my class, you learn what real wasabi root tastes like,” he says, before allowing each of us to take a taste. Janet and I discover the key difference between powdered and fresh wasabi: the powdered version packs a punch throughout the entire taste, while the fresh root tastes clean and natural, burns in the beginning, then tapers off.

To prepare the snow crab, Chef Jay tears the legs apart and mixes the meaty chunks with a bit of Best Foods mayonnaise. He says for variation you can also mix in flying fish caviar or green onions. Next he spices up some squares of fresh tuna with sambal and sesame oil. “You can make it as spicy as you want, and be sure to add a little mayo for a creamy texture,” he says. After Chef demonstrates his knife prowess on avocados and cucumbers, he discusses nori (seaweed) sheets. “Buy the most expensive nori you can find,” he advises.

Now it’s time for us rookies to join the action: we’re going to make hand rolls. Chef tells us to hold our nori horizontally in our left hand with the rough side facing up; wet the fingers of our right hand and form some rice in the shape of a heart; place the rice on the left side of the nori and layer the crab, cucumber, and avocado on top. “Then roll it up like an ice cream cone and eat it,” says Chef. So far, so good!

After we make a second hand roll using the spicy tuna mixture, Chef Jay announces, “Now on to the ‘big boy’ rolls!” We’re going to make inside out California rolls. Chef says, “The person who invented the California roll knew Americans don’t much like seaweed, so he disguised it by putting it on the inside and the rice on the outside.”

We’ve each placed a nori sheet on our work surface. “Dip your hands in water, clap them together, then make a rice ‘football’ in your left hand,” Chef instructs. “Place the rice on the nori and spread it out, then flip everything over.” Easier said than done! We layer our ingredients, and are ready for the coup de grace: rolling our creations with the maki su (bamboo mat). “You want the roll to look like the letter ‘D,’” says Chef Jay. “Don’t curl your fingers—keep them straight.”

Chef Jay puts the pressure on us when he announces he’s going to have a contest to see which one of us produces the best sushi rolls. “I’m going to be the judge, and the winner will receive a bottle of sake,” he says. “Be creative!” The room becomes quiet as we concentrate on the task at hand. One by one, we approach the judicial bench so Chef can slice our rolls and scrutinize our handiwork. The winner is Kerri, a visitor from California, who shows great promise as a sushi maker! Janet is no slouch, either, and I gaze at her rolls with a great deal of admiration and more than a smidgeon of envy. My rolls, on the other hand, look pretty amateurish, but Chef Jay declares “reporter girl did good,” and I head back to my table beaming, but decide I’d best stick with writing for now.

For the grand finale, we happily nosh on our sushi rolls while Chef Jay’s assistants prep for the evening’s service over at the sushi bar. Although my rolls don’t look like much, they taste delicious, and I think with a little practice I could actually impress friends at my house someday with homemade sushi. Class dismissed!

–heidi pool


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