Hajime Sato, owner of Mashiko Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar in West Seattle, says he has always scoffed at the notion that women had no place behind a sushi bar. Now he’s telling others to drop the belief, too.
In an “open letter to bigot diners” on the Mashiko website, Sato wrote recently that some customers were making “ignorant comments” to his staff and in online reviews, saying that no Japanese people are working at the restaurant.
“Why yes, we do have a female sushi chef. She also happens to be Caucasian,” he wrote.
“Her name is Mariah Kmitta, and we are blessed to have her behind our sushi bar. Mariah has been wowing customers at Mashiko for over 12 years. She has an amazing following of devoted customers who only dine with us when Mariah is working … Should you refuse her fare based on her gender or race, you are an absolute fool.”
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Several people of Japanese descent work at Mashiko, Sato wrote in the blog post, but it shouldn’t matter. “Would you refuse service at an Irish pub if your server didn’t speak with a fanciful brogue? You do realize that sometimes people in this great big melting pot may not have a look that accurately reflects their genetic makeup. Do you also insist on DNA tests wherever you go? Of course not. Stop being an ignorant racist.”
It’s a step in character for Sato, who took a stand on principle when he decided in 2009 to make Mashiko the city’s first sushi bar serving only sustainable fish. No stranger to strong words (his website is www.sushiwhore.com), Sato was blunt in explaining to The Times back then why he wouldn’t be serving such endangered fish as bluefin any more:
“Would you go to Africa and shoot a lion and eat it?” he asked. “No. Then why are you eating bluefin tuna that’s close to extinction? What’s the difference?”
Sato was fully aware he was taking a chance that his customers might balk at forgoing some prized delicacies.
“We might lose some business from people who like to eat toro or unagi all the time,” he said. “But we have to do this. We must do this. Because five, 10 years from now, we’re not going to have any fish left.”
It was with the same sort of passion that Sato came to the defense of his white, female sushi chef.
“It’s kind of sad we even have to talk about it,” Sato said this week, but he had seen a persistent problem. If people still believe there’s an issue with non-Japanese staff at a Japanese restaurant, “it’s time to fix it.”
People even look at Sato, he said, asking if he is Japanese, and, then, if he grew up in Japan. “Even if I grew up in Japan, I might be working at Nintendo; how is that relevant?” he said. “Someone like Mariah’s been practicing for 12 years. It’s getting to the point of ‘come on.’ ”
Kmitta said that probably 90 percent of customers know and appreciate what she does at Mashiko, so she tries to let any objectionable comments roll off her shoulders.
“Occasionally I get a weird look, and once I start making the food and talking to them, they realize I’m doing a good job for the restaurant and hopefully for them.”
When she started out in the field, she said, women were more commonly challenged than now. If anything, she said, the pressure has pushed her, and made her want to learn more.
She’s traveled to Japan a few times to study, and gone through a sake certification class, trying “to be respectful to the cuisine and the culture.”
Mashiko customers applauded Sato’s letter on the website and on a Facebook post, which was widely shared and debated online.
A writer at Slate, though, said it seems like an oversimplification to say that race and gender and sexual orientation don’t matter:
“Mashiko, which has a Japanese owner, should not be accused of cultural appropriation. But if, hypothetically speaking, a group of white Americans opened a sushi restaurant and hired an all or mostly white staff, would race still ‘not matter’?” wrote L.V. Anderson.
“In that instance, race would matter, and quite a bit, because the owners would be capitalizing off others’ culinary traditions and their own white privilege at the same time. It sounds great to say that everybody is equal or that you don’t see race, but it minimizes the persistent systemic racism that favors white people over everyone else.”
Sato said it’s crazy that some 50,000 people have seen his blog post, where in the past he might have posted about a topic like smelt and had 100 people read it.
He told the West Seattle Herald, “I’m passionate about anti-racism, but I’m passionate about smelt, too. I just hope people will eat smelt more and not be racist.”
Rebekah Denn blogs about food at seattletimes.com/allyoucaneat. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @rebekahdenn. Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson contributed to this story.