They say that it takes a sushi apprentice 10 years just to learn to wash the rice, long before they even touch any of the seafood. So how did Van Nguyen go from sushi enthusiast to sushi chef in the space of covid lockdown?
The answer, Nguyen says, lies in YouTube. “There are so many YouTube videos of really high-end omakase chefs being super open about how exactly they do things. There are people that have done the 10 years…and [then] imparting their 10 years into a 5 minute video”.
When asked about how he manages to juggle being a full time medical student and a sushi chef on the side, Nguyen leans forward enthusiastically, as if imparting the secrets of the universe.
“I study on the train and the bus, usually, because it’s on my phone. Or in the hospital, sometimes I’m following a doctor, they get called away on administrative tasks and I’m left there by myself doing nothing. So I just study little bits throughout. Because I get all my study done during the day, I have time at night to do my own thing, like go to the gym, go [play] tennis.”
Nguyen's love for sushi began with the rolls at the humble sushi kiosk. “I think it started at year three? You know the sushi rolls at the food court? I was always looking forward to that. And that stepped up to year seven, going to sushi trains.”
Chats with nurturing and open chefs as well as watching documentaries like Jiro Dreams of Sushi piqued Nguyen's interest, and soon he made the leap from diner to chef.
But this burgeoning career nearly didn’t happen. Nguyen had enrolled into hospitality in year 12, but a teacher took him off the list. “It was actually really funny. One of my high school teachers un-enrolled me [from hospitality]. I think it was probably because I was a little bit on the academic side.”
“I knew her intentions were good, so I didn’t take any offence. Realistically, I knew I wouldn’t have pursued cheffing as a career [then]. I had friends at that stage in the industry, and it just looked horrendous…you lose your weekends, your Fridays. The other thing is that I like cooking to make people happy, and being a chef you’re behind the scenes and you can’t even see how customers react to [your food]”.
It’s this love for diners and their eating experience that led Nguyen into the world of omakase, which literally translates to “I’ll leave it up to you”. An omakase diner surrenders to the complete artistic vision of the chef, who is like a virtuoso playing without an orchestra. Usually to an audience of under 10 people at a time.
Combine that passion with a natural bent for precision and science, and it’s no wonder that Nguyen's at-home omakase experiences and omakase sushi platters have been in such high demand that he sometimes employs a lottery system for orders placed.
If you’re not one of the lucky few to get your hands on his platters and you’d like to give it a go, Nguyen has some tips .
1. Get the right rice
“That is the ultimate thing that you cannot salvage with any technique or any ratio, [if you have the] inappropriate rice.” Nguyen uses emi no kizuna rice, which can be hard to find, but you can use a good quality koshihikari rice, which is more accessible.
2. Massage the rice wet but not soaking
“[The rice] is actually supposed to be grinding on each other”. Nguyen recommends that you pour most of the water off your first rinse, and use your hands to agitate the rice grains to remove excess starch. Repeat this process two more times (three agitation cycles in total) and don’t over-wash it. You’ll need the last bit of starch left or your sushi will completely fall apart.
3. Soak your rice
This one’s a simple but important step. Leave the rice to soak in the water for at least 30 minutes before turning on your rice cooker.
4. Cut and fold
When your rice is cooked and it’s time to season, it’s important to employ a cutting and folding technique. “The key thing is not to smash the rice. It’s like lifting and folding, and it’s very delicate to get the vinegar mixed in”. To see this in action, Nguyen recommends videos by Tokyo Sushi Academy on YouTube, which he finds to be a very helpful channel.
5. Rest your rice
“You must let your rice cool down for enough time before using it. Some people get too eager (and they’re hungry) and they just want to eat.”
Nguyen lets his rice rest for an hour and a half before he uses it.
“Otherwise, what happens is that the vinegar has not had enough time to incorporate into the rice, and it [sits] on the outside. You’ll notice it when you eat it, it’s very mushy and sticky. Whereas if you wait enough time, [the vinegar] has penetrated, and it’s more dry and the right consistency.”
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