As sustainable sushi begins to gain a foothold in the United States, it makes sense to do a quick recap of how far we’ve come.
When you look at the headlines, it is easy to feel disheartened. Traditionalists and high-end restaurants are seeing Industry staples like bluefin tuna under threat of extinction. On the other end of the spectrum, unsustainable aquaculture and overfishing are compounded as sushi continues to backslide into the realm of quick-fix fast food.
For example, take the ubiquitous Genki Sushi, which wraps its tentacles around the globe like Kraken attacking a Norse longship. The robotic sushi giant has long dominated Japan and Hawaii, but new installations have recently popped up in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Thailand. The company has even managed to establish a presence on contiguous American soil, with restaurants opening their doors in New York and, most recently, Seattle. Genki is not aimed at delivering a white-tablecloth sushi experience, but rather a quick in-and-out power lunch revolving around a gimmicky network of robots and converyor belts.
This kind of mass-produced sushi tends to draw from mechanized fishing, as it demands large amounts of cheap fish that can be sold in massive quantities for acceptable prices. Factory trawling operations take advantage of economies of scale by ripping staggering amounts of fish and shellfish biomass out of our oceans in single swoops. This keeps their operation costs down and allows them to undercut other fishermen in the marketplace. Fast food sushi relies on these marine rapists – otherwise, how are they going to sell two pieces of nigiri for $2.25 and make a profit?
(I should mention that a Genki has recently announced a plan to begin incorporating seasonal and loval seafood and vegetables into their restaurant menus. This is theoretically fabulous news, but I’m going to hold off on the fireworks until I have more information. More on this in the next few weeks – hopefully Genki will respond to my interview request.)
Parenthetical caveats aside, the point of this somber introduction is not to reiterate this depressing state of affairs, but rather to highlight those few pioneers who have lit beacons in the darkness. Indeed, there’s no time like the present for an examination of the resounding successes that the sustainable sushi movement has enjoyed in the face of this creeping malaise.
This serial piece will examine the current status of the three known sustainable sushi restaurants that are currently operating in North America: Bamboo Sushi, Mashiko, and Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar. I will certainly include other restaurants if appropriate.
Perhaps the best thing I can do to foster the growth of this list is to expound a bit on the triumphs and setbacks of these restaurants. Each of them has adopted a different business model and interpreted sustainability in a different way, and thus they have engendered their own opportunities and challenges.
It is my hope that these articles will encourage other sushi chefs and entrepreneurs to entertain the idea of moving towards sustainability themselves. Many thanks to Sushihound for providing me with the idea for this piece.