Piscatory Professor

updated 09/11/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/11/2000 01:00AM

Under the watchful eye of Andy Matsuda, five students work swiftly in a narrow kitchen, chopping raw fish, wrapping seaweed, sprinkling sesame seeds. The bite-size results, done right, look like little edible jewel boxes.

"May I?" Matsuda asks one student, Terri Zander, 38, an Orange County, Calif., housekeeper.

"Please, sensei," she says, using the Japanese term for teacher.

Matsuda rearranges the cut rolls so they angle to the right. "Sushi is hand food. A good chef notices if his customer is right-or left-handed," he says. "You don't want it to be hard for him to grab, right?"

Master chef Matsuda, 44, is the principal instructor at the California Sushi Academy in Venice, America's first professional sushi school. Students come from all over to learn the art of making nigiri sushi (gleaming slices' of raw tuna, halibut, scallop and abalone) and maki rolls (paper-thin strips of dried seaweed wrapped around layers of vinegared rice, vegetables and fish, then rolled and cut to display the textures within). "What we're seeking to do," says Phillip Yi, 35, the academy's director, "is take the mystery out of sushi. We want people to understand it's just food."

In Japan a student must apprentice to a master chef for eight years before he is permitted to roll his own. By that standard the American plan is sushi lite: Academy students can opt for a three-month course ($2,000) or a more rigorous six-month professional course ($4,000). Students also learn the history of Japanese cuisine and how to make soup stock and identify the freshest fish. "When they start, there are a lot of complaints," says Matsuda, noting that students are on their feet for hours and are excused only for brief bathroom breaks. "They say, 'Oh, my back! My legs!' They toughen up, though—don't you?" he calls over to Jay Terauchi, 36, a former ad executive from Los Angeles. Terauchi just rolls his eyes and continues to slice.

But the demanding work seems to pay off, at least judging from a CSA bulletin board brimming with Help Wanted notices from all over the country advertising for sushi chefs, who make starting salaries of $24,000 a year.

Matsuda learned traditional cooking from his father, who owned a restaurant in Kobe, Japan. After high school, Matsuda, who also excelled at judo, was accepted as an apprentice at one of Osaka's top restaurants. He stayed there five years, then departed for the U.S. Arriving in L.A. around 1980 with just his sushi knives and no English, he found his way to Little Tokyo and was promptly hired by a restaurant. He later worked in New York City and Aspen and developed a following.

In 1998, Phillip Yi, who had heard about Matsuda, asked him to consider teaching. Matsuda, who had earlier weathered a bout with colon cancer, was ready for a change. "I was so grateful for the [medical] treatment I received here," he says. "I wanted to use what I know to give back to Americans."

Still, Matsuda—who lives in Palos Verdes with his wife, Setsu, 37, and 10-year-old daughter Julie—has found teaching Americans a challenge. "America is not really a fish culture," he says. "Some people feel funny handling it. They worry it's not safe." Also, in Japan, says Matsuda, if the head chef says, "Do it," you do it. Here, Matsuda says, students "want the reasons why."

They are clear, though, about their passion for sushi and their reasons for enrolling in the academy. Elmer Luna, 29, a chef at Paramount Studios, signed up because the studio commissary is opening a sushi bar. Terri Zander wants to start a catering business. "This opens the door for a lot of people," says Ronnie Pesis, 56, a former garment business exec from Milwaukee. "Even if you're not a sushi chef, your life will change for the better if you take this course. Mine has."

Matsuda smiles. He understands his students' enthusiasm—the way working with sushi releases the creative juices. "I like to say," the master chef explains, "we make art that is two inches long."

William Plummer
Karen Grigsby Bates in Venice

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