Note: This article first appeard in the Orlando Sentinel on May 6, 2003
Anyone who has watched a sushi chef at work knows that the preparation is as much a form of artistry as it is a kitchen skill. There is much more to preparing good sushi than simply slicing, pressing and rolling. It’s a craft that must be studied and learned, and usually the master sushi chefs pass along their knowledge to young apprentices.
That path was a little different for Yoshie Cabral.
In 1967 when Cabral was 18, she decided she would like to become a sushi chef. She had been cooking for her family since she was 8 years old, and she knew that she wanted to make her living with food. But when she approached the chef at a sushi bar in her native Okinawa, Japan, and asked him to teach her the trade, she was told no. So she asked another chef and then another, and all of them said no. And they all gave the same reason.
Only men can be sushi chefs.
“They told me no because a female is behind in the back,” she says. Women could only be in the kitchen where the cooked foods are prepared. But it wasn’t as if the men didn’t give her a reason.
“They said a female’s hands are too warm,” says Cabral. “When you touch raw fish, you bring up the temperature.”
So only cold-hearted, cold-handed men were suitable for preparing sushi.
That was 36 years ago, and although the world is more enlightened in the new millennium, it’s still rare to find a female sushi chef. Toshi Kishimoto, sushi chef at Hanamizuki Japanese restaurant in Orlando, was trained in Japan 20 years ago and says it is still a job more suited for men. But although he doesn’t believe the body- temperature theory, he does think the job is more demanding than most women can handle — and most men, for that matter.
“In my personal opinion it is kind of a hard job for a woman,” says Kishimoto. With fish to clean and large pots of rice to lift and carry, there is a lot of physical labor involved, things the diners in a sushi bar never see. He says most men will quit the job in less than a year. He says he hired three or four men with no experience in sushi kitchens to work in his restaurant in the last year and all of them quit because they found the job too demanding.
But Cabral, 54, doesn’t find the work too demanding, and she has been the lead sushi chef at Walt Disney World’s California Grill since the restaurant opened in 1995.
She never did find someone who would agree to give her formal training but instead read books on sushi, went to sushi restaurants and sat at the bar so she could study the chefs at work. Then she went home to practice, preparing sushi rolls for her family.
She says she got the hang of it fairly easy, creating her own style of sushi. But her self-schooling wasn’t without failures. She remembers having trouble making the rice properly, and finding the right balance of spices that wouldn’t overpower the rice and fish.
But she kept practicing and making sushi for her family until she had perfected her style, which she describes as sort of a comfort- food version of sushi, with the fish or vegetables as the main ingredient and the rice as an accent rather than a filler. And her rice is sweeter than at most sushi bars, thanks to a secret ingredient.
Cabral’s style is also more creative in its approach, using, for example, fruits such as strawberries and mangoes in her sushi.
One of her taste-testers was her husband, Frank Cabral, whom she met in 1969. But her parents didn’t approve of the relationship, because Frank was an American, stationed with the Air Force in Okinawa, and because memories of World War II were still relatively fresh.
“They kicked me out because we could not marry Americans because of the war,” she says.
Cabral speaks with faltering English, which gives the listener a false notion that she is more timid than she is. But she is apparently strong-willed, and when she determines what she wants she will do whatever it takes to achieve it, whether professionally or romantically.
After moving to the States with her husband and eventually making it to Central Florida, she raised three kids — Raymond, Lani and Glenn — and landed a job at Disney’s Old Key West resort as a line cook. The only sushi she prepared was for her husband and kids. They were all supportive of her goal, especially Frank.
“He was very surprised,” when she told him she wanted to become a sushi chef, “but he believed and knew I could do,” she says.
When she heard in 1995 that California Grill would replace the old restaurant at the top of the Contemporary Resort, Cabral began to lobby the executive chef, Clifford Pleau, to include sushi on the menu — and to make her the sushi chef. She told him that sushi was trendy in California, and many Japanese tourists visit Orlando .
“It took three months to get an OK from Cliff,” she remembers. And even then, she thinks Pleau planned to try sushi for one day and then can the idea.
“I had some hesitation that she could handle the volume,” says Pleau, now executive chef at Seasons 52. “I let her put one item on the menu, I think it was her sushi sampler,” and the orders poured in.
Cabral finally had her first job as a professional sushi chef. And soon another sushi chef was added to help her. Then another. California Grill’s sushi became a popular catering item for Disney events. “I think our largest one, we did 10,000 pieces in one day,” says Pleau.
Pleau admires Cabral for her discipline and her caring nature. “She’s so personable that you just want to be with her,” he says. “Some of my favorite nights at California Grill were standing next to that woman making sushi.”
Cabral isn’t the only female sushi chef in Central Florida. Jenny Jing makes sushi at Shari in downtown Orlando. She was trained by head sushi chef Chau Tran, who doesn’t buy into the notion that a woman isn’t suited to be a sushi master.
“Just like anything else, being a sushi chef is a passion,” says Tran. He says those who go through formal training must learn the proper way to handle knives, memorize the kinds of fish, learn how to cook the rice and other ingredients. “That doesn’t mean a woman can’t be a sushi chef, “you just have to follow those guidelines.”
He may be more enlightened because his mother, Mai, is a sushi chef at the restaurants she owns, Saikyo in Winter Park and Longwood.
Cabral’s contact with her family in Japan is sporadic, she says. She returned to Okinawa three years ago because her mother was ill. And although her mother has recovered, they’ve spoken only twice since that time. Still, Cabral hopes to someday go back to Okinawa and prepare sushi for her family. “They still can’t picture me as a sushi chef,” she says.