How an angry man revolutionized the modern sushi industry
Unsurprisingly, these leaders were angry when they heard about Suzumo’s plan. According to them, it took 10 years to train someone to make sushi. No machine could do the job.
Suzumo asked some of the people it was trying to drop for their thoughts on the prototype. “They said, ‘This is not good, this is terrible, I don’t know what this is,'” said Oneda, 73, who became chairman of the company this year.
After three years, Suzumo was far from its goal and strapped for cash. We thought “the business would break down,” Oneda said. “We thought about quitting.”
Suzumo stuck to the task, and two years later sushi chefs finally declared the machine usable. In 1981, the company completed its first robot, which formed sushi rice into balls called nigiri. Today, it offers 28 different sushi machines.
“What they’ve done is democratize kaiten restaurants and make good Japanese food affordable and accessible,” says Robin Rowland, CEO of Yo!, a British sushi chain with nearly 100 restaurants in the world. “We serve 7 million customers a year. You’re talking 500-600 dishes on our belts in the UK. That’s a lot of food. And you need to automate some of that.”
But even so many years later, the debate still rages over the machines. For purists, if you use robots, it’s not the same thing.
“It’s a totally different genre,” says Yoshikazu Ono, son and heir to Jiro Ono, the chef featured in the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” “Sushi isn’t just rice balls. The process is the most important thing. It takes hard practice to make a single piece of sushi rice – things like how you select, prepare and cook the rice, how much water you use, etc. You can’t get that from a robot.
At Kura Corp. headquarters, about an hour south of Osaka, Kunihiko Tanaka bristles when he hears this argument. For the president and founder of Japan’s second-largest sushi chain, and a longtime Suzumo customer, artisans are on the wrong side of history.
“The days when it was okay to make sushi with your bare hands are over,” says Tanaka, referring to artisan sushi chefs in general. “They keep doing it and say it’s the real sushi. Things that should be changed should be.”
Already, about three-quarters of Japanese say that when they eat sushi, it comes from a conveyor belt, according to a survey released by fishing company Maruha Nichiro in March. Nearly half of them choose their restaurant based on price.
Michael Booth, a food writer whose latest book, “The Meaning of Rice,” is due out in October, sees room for both types.
“I want everyone to have the chance to taste the amazing taste of Jiro’s sushi, because it’s a very, very different experience,” Booth said. “But then again, cheap, mass-produced sushi is like the gateway drug into the sushi world, and that can also be a good thing. People are exposed and can get curious about what the good ones look like. sushi.”
In a way, Suzumo dealt a blow to one part of traditional Japan, the artisan sushi industry, so that another could thrive: the rice industry. This was an act of political subversion aimed at derailing the government’s policy of controlling the price of rice.
“As tastes have become more westernized, the demand for rice has started to decline,” said Eiji Minemura, an official with Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture. “We have adopted the policy of decreasing production to adjust to the oversupply.”
The actions of Oneda and his colleagues show that they never agreed. After developing their first sushi machines, they helped launch an iconic Japanese burger that uses rice cakes instead of bread. They helped mechanize the kitchens of rice bowl restaurants. And they even made a Californian sushi robot, as they targeted American demand for the food as a healthy and trendy choice.
It’s true that by a narrow definition, Suzumo has failed. Japan has continued to control rice production since the policy was introduced in 1971. And demand for rice has plummeted.
Still, the company’s share price has more than tripled since bottoming out in February last year. Investors believe Suzumo will benefit from the labor shortage in Japan and the sushi boom overseas, Oneda said. Of the three analysts covering the stock, all recommend buying. Shares rose 1% in morning trading in Tokyo on Thursday.
But despite all the fanfare, Oneda—as he continues Suzuki’s legacy—is still thinking rice.
“Are you eating a good breakfast?” he asks the Japanese journalist. ” What are you eating ? I bet it’s bread, isn’t it? »