On March 6, in a banquet room of the Hotel The Manhattan in Chiba a group of television camera crews surrounded American chef Jeff Ramsey as he carefully spooned a layer of black rice onto a slice of omelet.
“The chef is using something black. What could it be?” a reporter whispered into her microphone, in a tone that recalled old “Iron Chef” episodes.
Murmurs of speculation continued as Ramsey balanced a black-and-gold roll on top of a ball of vinegared rice.
Ramsey was one of the 18 contestants who had gathered to compete in the World Sushi Cup, held in conjunction with the annual Foodex international food and beverage exhibition. The first of its kind in Japan, the event attracted accomplished chefs from around the world — including unlikely sushi hot spots such as Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. Organized by the World Sushi Cup Japan Committee and the Chiba Prefectural government, the competition was intended to celebrate diversity in the sushi world, and to promote cleanliness and hygiene standards in sushi restaurants overseas.
Sushi has become a global phenomenon. A report by soy sauce giant Kikkoman estimates that there were between 14,000 and 18,000 restaurants serving sushi outside of Japan in 2007, and the numbers have continued to rise as Japanese food has gained popularity abroad. Ever since the invention of sushi in Southeast Asia several centuries ago — when it was made by preserving fish in fermented rice — the cuisine has been evolving. With international chefs utilizing local ingredients and putting modern twists on the dish, there are now more varieties and styles of sushi than ever before.
The competition was divided into two categories, one for individual chefs and one for chefs representing restaurants. The first day was devoted to the individual category. Contestants had 50 minutes to prepare two plates of sushi, which were then judged by a panel of professionals. The open-ended theme of the competition was “the first,” and Ramsey had chosen “the first-class luxury of Las Vegas” as the inspiration for his striking sushi creations.
“The sushi should have a touch of the country you’re coming from,” he explained. “I’m going to try to do some things over the top because that’s Las Vegas, and that’s America.”
Best known for his modernist style of cooking as the former Michelin-starred chef of the Tapas Molecular Bar in Tokyo’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, Ramsey started his career as a sushi chef. Before moving to Japan, he took home top accolades in several international sushi contests, such as the Seven Sushi Samurai competition in London. At the World Sushi Cup, he applied a mix of modern and traditional techniques: The black-and-gold sheets had been made from shiitake mushroom puree cooked with egg, while the black sushi rice had been colored with powdered charcoal.
Some chefs opted for a more conservative style. The contestants were required to use ingredients primarily from Chiba Prefecture, and Marek Hora from the Czech Republic and Garry Loh, of Yamagawa restaurant in Singapore, used the local seafood to make traditional Edo-mae nigiri (hand-formed sushi) and sushi rolls.
After more than an hour of evaluation, the judges selected Danish chef Pepi Anevski, of Umami restaurant in Copenhagen, as Chef of the Year. Anevski had impressed the panel with his plate of Scandinavian-inflected nigiri, which was based on the concept of the four seasons. Lightly grilled scallop, sprinkled with a powdered butter emulsion, was the chef’s interpretation of winter; while salmon, smoked with green tea and finished with dried strawberry puree and chopped peppermint, represented summer. At the center of the dish was lobster meat wrapped in sliced carrot, topped with avocado foam, verbena oil and lime caviar.
“I concentrated on taste and simplicity,” he said. “I’m glad that the judges could understand what I wanted to express. But the best thing about (the World Sushi Cup) was seeing what other chefs are doing in their countries.”
Second and third prizes went to Japanese chef Takeshi Matsumoto and Ramsey.
Eight of the contestants went on to compete in the restaurant category on March 7 and 8. The event was open to the public, and for an entry fee of ¥2,500, attendees were invited to taste the sushi and vote for their favorite restaurant.
Each restaurant team was given an hour to make 200 pieces of sushi, and most of the chefs strove to highlight the flavors of their home countries. Toshihiko Ochi, from El restaurante Kokoro in Uruguay, finished his rolled sushi with dried beef and chili sauce, while Romanian chef Georgiu Gavril used tomato sauce in his “Dracula Roll.” Ramsey, however, concentrated on produce from Chiba, smoking local sea bream with wood of 1,000-year-old trees from Yakushima in Kagoshima Prefecture, before marinating the fish briefly in konbu (seaweed).
“It’s so difficult to choose one restaurant because they’re all so different,” remarked one attendee. “I really liked the Belgian chef’s roll using small shrimp from Belgium and a sauce made from Belgian beer.”
At the end of the last day, Saiko restaurant in Malmo, Sweden, was named Most Outstanding Sushi Restaurant. Chef Pontus Johansson’s elaborate salmon nigiri — topped with a marble-sized ball of fried salmon, rolled in gold dust, aioli sauce made with green garlic from Sweden, and thinly sliced hazelnuts cooked in soy sauce — proved to be a hit with the audience.
“I’m so happy to come to Japan and show you our way of approaching sushi with Scandinavian flavors,” Johansson said, as he accepted the award. “Now, it’s sake time.”