“You are not doing it right. You do it neater, like the Japanese.”
I would have just twirled the bamboo paddle into the rice like I was winding spaghetti on a fork. Like I always did. Hey, I'm Italian, it's in my blood. But since Hiromi was here, I had to flip the rice like I was disarming a bomb. Careful, methodical.
She made me feel like I was a giant baby sloshing around the kitchen, fucking everything up with my doughy American hands. After all, Hiromi relentlessly pursued excellence from the moment she escaped Vietnam. She wore platform Nike sneakers every day, fitting for her ever-kinetic state. When she wasn’t behind the knife, she wore bubblegum-pink ballet flats. (Once, while raiding her desk for Tiger Balm, I discovered a selectively highlighted brochure for an adult dance academy. Months later, while utterly blazed out of my mind, I would briefly recall the seemingly apathetic Hiromi in her pink ballet flats, and feel a significant weight form in my chest, only to be diminished and forgotten immediately by the discovery of a video depicting an unhappy cat in a bathtub.)
“You must keep your knife sharp, I tell you every day. Look at the green onions, my gahd,” Hiromi continued to rant, her hair a dark helmet that bounced above her shoulders. She thrusted her finger at me, then at the food, then back at me. It was all white noise to me by then. The rice soaked in vinegar while I soaked in her criticisms. She barked at my heels like a rabid Pomeranian. If she was so unhappy with Americans making her sushi, I couldn’t understand why she kept hiring us to do it. The turnover rate there was unreal. Kristen, this wiccan girl from Kansas, only worked there a week until she ran out in tears, a trail of tarot cards flipping in the wind behind her. And Kevin, Kevin threw a rice bowl at the wall one time.
Bits of porcelain crackled under our heels for days.
“No, no, no, I do it.” She took the paddle from my hands and shook her head. She did this every day; it was really just inevitable. “What did I hire you for?” She flipped the rice exactly how I did. I chuckled at this tiny human, furiously churning rice with what looked like an oar compared to her Yoda-esque stature.
Was there a difference in her method from mine?
Could I identify that difference?
Hiromi was 5 feet of pure discipline … and gossip. She could tell you the shit on everyone in the town without missing a single ingredient. Hiromi would tell you Bob’s wife, Cheryl, made him get a vasectomy. Cheryl knew her husband had been cheating, but the only “job” she had out of college was managing her travel blog, and illegitimate children would really put a speed bump under the wheels of her Lexus. That was Hiromi’s favorite chunk of gossip, she told it to customers all the time. I knew it like a nursery rhyme, I heard it on her lips while I worked in the kitchen and could envision the sparkle in her eyes as she told it. She could sense when a customer was into that stuff too, women with the pastel button ups and the rosé lipstick. They always seemed to tip better when they left with something juicy bring back to their friends at the country club.
Hiromi and her husband ran the little place on an old Denver street between a laundromat and a used bookstore. It had been there for 15 years. Everyone knew it was the best restaurant in Denver. Bags of takeout orders piled on top of the host stand; every weekend customers wrapped around the side of the building and onto the sidewalk. If you didn't reserve a table two days ago you were shit out of luck.
Inside was the cacophony of hunger-driven forks scraping cheap porcelain, the warm drone of conversation, the occasional soapy dish shattering on tile punctuated by the occasional smartass who clapped. Servers were unconditionally jolly until they rounded the corner into the kitchen, and then they became what we all were: young, broke assholes. Between physically draining shifts and earning barely enough to pay rent, it was clear the only reason I stayed was for the food. I could swim in boxes of curry, I could dive deep for shrimp and sweet potato. I could gargle oxtail broth. My hair smelled like lemongrass. I had a wonderful arrangement with Vietnamese food: I was able to take and take and I never had to give back, which is honestly the best kind of relationship (am I right? Yes I am).
The food being the only silver lining, making it through a shift without getting crucified by Hiromi was an accomplishment. The restaurant pulsed behind her cracking whip as if we worked in Amazon’s corporate office.
Hiromi was a spicy lady.
She thrived in Silicon Valley throughout the 80’s, where she worked her way up in a software company in “six months” she tells me, “and you can’t even cut fish right.” Her job was firing people who she didn’t see as an asset to the company, which is pretty much what she still fucking loves to do. At the peak of her career she met Steve and they fell in love. Romantic, right? It might be romantic if it made any fucking sense. The two were complete opposites. Steve was sloppier than Hiromi’s idea of any American. He didn't like working to any extent and would charge people for soda refills.
I bet you’re wondering why a young, successful Vietnamese refugee working for a high-end software company left her career before the modern technology boom to work at a restaurant. I have also dwelled on this puzzle, much like Tom Hanks in the Davinci Code, and I still don’t know.
But I have a few theories.
First theory: Hiromi blew it at the company, probably by murdering someone out of pure rage with a properly sharpened sushi knife, and she had to go into hiding, adopting a guise of apron and spatula. Second theory: Hiromi and Steve met each other as refugees and made a connection. Which (I must disappointingly admit) is the more likely option, although Hiromi had never talked about it. It was Steve’s dream to open up a restaurant even though he couldn’t cook. But he hardly had to move a finger because Hiromi saw dollar signs in the restaurant business. Steve mounted her restaurant success like a golden Pegasus and rode it straight into the sunset while double-fisting Sapporos.
Hiromi angrily jabbed rice into seaweed sheets. “You make rolls, I be back if you can’t handle OK? OK.” She pitter-patted out of the kitchen and left me with the rice and fish. I was treated like Arnie Grape around there. The customers were reptilians, my coworkers were bored teenagers and garbage punks. The grooves in all my shoes were packed with mashed rice.
There were mice in the walls.
I pinched crab out of the mixture with my chopsticks, arranging it in a straight line across the seaweed like tobacco on cigar paper. I delicately tucked and rolled it into a tube, admiring my work briefly before biting into it like a Japanese hot dog. Hiromi had no idea I had been eating nearly half of the inventory since she put me at the sushi station. I could eat a sushi tube in 25 seconds. (I know, I timed myself.)
I ate at least 4 rolls a shift.
I never wanted to leave that place.
As I vigorously chewed, a mouse darted around the corner across from me. By the sheer force of my own disgusted cowardice (and incredible reflexes), I ejected the food-tube from my palm before I could rationally process what was happening. The sushi roll hit the wall, crab meat bursting out of the ends on impact, splattering everywhere like a meaty party popper.
In that moment by myself, I found my primal instinct absolutely hilarious. I laughed through an unchewed wad of rice and crab, wet mayo dribbling down my chin. The mouse scampered across the linoleum and abruptly darted through the doorway, cutting behind a pair of platform Nike sneakers. There, Hiromi stood; gaping, wild eyed, expression twisted in disgust.
I have another job now.
It’s the cat videos that keep me going.