Updated: Oct 10, 2020
I think one of the most critical aspects of sushi bar experience is the interaction with the chef. No other cuisine offers such dynamic interaction between a chef and a customer. A customer has an opportunity to sit directly in front of a chef to place an order. This, creates a unique bonding experience for both the chef and the customer.
Because I've been a sushi chef for over nineteen years, and worked at about ten different restaurants, here are some of the tips I can offer to those who are interested in becoming "friends" with a sushi chef.
1. Be patient
Someone once said to be an excellent customer at a bar is like becoming a member of a private club, except there is no membership card. To obtain this invisible membership card, you need to go there frequently, be noticed and recognized by the chef, and get to know about the sushi chef before he gets to know you. Watch his moves, say hello and thanks, and most importantly, study him. If your sushi chef is exceptional, then he will notice you, watch you and learn your likes and dislikes. So, when will you know you have obtained the membership card? You will know! It's a small thing like he starts recommending you a special fish, or giving you a special dish before you order anything.
2. Learn the two beautiful Japanese words
These are the two words that will get any Japanese chef's attention: "Ita•daki•masu" before the meal and "Gochiso•sama" at the end of the meal. "Itadakimasu" simply means "Let's eat" or "I shall receive this meal." It's is similar to "bon appétit." Gochiso•sama means "Thank you for a meal." These two words are non-religious, but rather, a reflection of beautiful Japanese custom based on gratitude. If you say this before and after the meal, with your hands clasped together, you will gain any Japanese's attention and respect in no time. By the way, saying, "Kon•banwa" (good evening) and "Arigato gozai•masu" (thank you very much) doesn't hurt either.
3. Leave it to the chef
The best compliment you can give to any sushi chef is to ask for Omakase - a chef's recommendation. This action confirms the chef that you trust him to give you the best. Any exceptional sushi chef will do whatever it takes to make your dining experience extraordinary. I always asked my customers both what they liked and disliked. I think all the sushi chefs should ask his customers their preferences before starting for omakase.
4. Do make a reservation
Every time you visit your favorite sushi chef, please make sure you reserve your seats at the bar. Also, make sure to request that your seat is right in front of your sushi chef and if possible, ask to inform your chef so that your sushi knows you are coming, and he can prepare for your visit. When I saw a "reserved" sign at the sushi bar, I always asked to find out if it was my customer or not so that I could reserve a special part of a fish only for that customer.
5. Offer your chef a drink
To offer a drink to the chef is just one gesture to show your gratitude, like saying Arigato. While in Japan, this custom is practiced only among the regulars, in the US, it's OK to offer drinks even if it's your first visit to the establishment, because many Japanese chefs would understand your gesture, being in a different country, not Japan. But make sure to ask if he drinks or not. If you find out the chef doesn't drink, that is an excellent opportunity to ask questions to find out what he/she likes instead.
6. Avoid asking the chef, "What's fresh today?" or "What's good today?"
Because everything is supposed to be fresh and great. Many sushi chefs, myself included, feel this is somewhat insulting when a customer asks this question. In fact, sushi chefs may think you are "inexperienced customer" because, if you are a connoisseur, you should be able to tell the quality of fish by looking at the fish in the display. I do understand that some people use it as an ice-breaker to start a conversation with a sushi chef. Instead, ask the chef to make you a couple of recommendations. When I was working at a sushi bar, I always had some special fish (like special engawa). Those were never listed on the "Special's" because there were only one or two servings. I saved it for my favorite customers in case they asked for something special. "Ask, and you shall receive" is true, but you need to ask to receive it.
7. Go to visit the chef during the slow time
When I was working at a sushi bar, the best time for me to welcome a good customer was around 5:30 PM-7:00 PM on Tuesday or Wednesday night. Why? Because it was after finishing setting up the sushi bar before the dinner crowd hit the restaurant. During this time, I was usually not so busy and relaxed, and so were the other chefs. Naturally, I had more time to take care of the customer at the sushi bar than say on Friday night.