On a Roll

It can take a full decade (or longer) of training to become a traditional sushi chef, turning out highly stylized artistic delicacies. Sushi presentations are often gifts from the ocean wrapped in rice and seaweed packages, many times as much of a delight to the eyes as to the mouth. Four eager and appreciative Malibu youngsters, barely a decade old and younger, got the rare opportunity to go behind a sushi counter and learn the art of sushi making courtesy of the chef and management at Zooma Sushi in Malibu.

The best sushi chefs typically start their apprenticeships merely washing rice daily for as long as three years—never touching a piece of fish. Working under a master, they learn the Japanese tradition through discipline. Before the actual molding of rice and raw fish into mini masterpieces, young sushi chefs spend years learning to clean fish long before ever taking up a knife. But the four young students of the Serra Home School in Serra Retreat got the rare opportunity to make sushi rolls as part of their curriculum studying Japanese culture.

The youngsters’ teacher, Ashley Kerr, believes in hands-on experience. Newly arrived from Canada, Kerr said she started the kids learning Japanese Haiku poetry. While researching Japan, she discovered Obon—the Japanese Buddhist festival honoring the spirits of one’s ancestors, held every year in August. 

“I thought it would be really cool to introduce sushi making to the kids,” Kerr said. “I reached out to Zooma Sushi and I thought this would be a fun way to celebrate. If we learned a little bit about the holiday, let’s learn to make sushi rolls. The owner (Peter Soli) was great and welcomed us in.” The sushi restaurant, which normally opens at 5 p.m. for dinner, actually opened 90 minutes early to accommodate the young students. 

That’s when the excitement began under the tutelage of chef John W, who patiently guided his four young apprentices for the afternoon in making individual rolls for each child to eat. The four, ranging in age from 10 to six, started by washing their hands. They then donned plastic gloves that were comically too big for their tiny hands. With wide eyes, each child took sticky rice, avocado and cucumbers and, just like a real sushi chef, used a bamboo mat to carefully roll out their own vegetarian California roll. Eight-year-old student Nellie Hersel exclaimed, “I’m making sushi at a real restaurant!” The third grader added, “I can’t believe it!” and “I’m enjoying it.”

The children were so well behaved and intrigued with the process, especially when the chef supervised the cutting of each roll placing his skilled hands over theirs. When junior sushi chef, 10-year-old fifth-grader Nathan Hersel, told the chef he was an adventurous eater, W whipped up a beautifully constructed roll for him using fish and other exotic ingredients.

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Kerr, who called Serra Home School a “progressive” place, was grateful to Zooma Sushi for providing the experience. 

“It’s awesome—the community. I find all the people here really friendly,” she said. “I’m loving it here, but this was great. Getting the kids excited about a different culture.”

Jean-Jacques Retourne, the manager of Zooma Sushi and the Coral Beach Cantina next door, set up the entire event gratis for the kids, saying, “They’re celebrating the Japanese festival going on right now and it’s a community thing for children. What I thought was wonderful was that the chef decided to come early and set up. It’s fun. It really is our pleasure.” 

Chef W agreed, calling the day “special and fun” and said he enjoyed sharing his culture with the youngsters.

Nathan Hersel, who says he wants to be a journalist and an actor chimed in, “Sushi is my favorite food.” The restaurant has a “help wanted” sign in the window—prompting nine-year-old student Parker Kaplan to ask, “Maybe they want us?” 

The kids’ next adventure was to be a trip with another homeschool to Topanga Beach to learn about beach life and nature. Kerr said she’s trying to connect with other businesses and groups in town to collaborate on other learning experiences with her students.

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