So near yet so far

The chef and I are playing a game. I'm sure of it; we've been avoiding eye contact for the past hour. The game starts the moment I sit at the wooden counter, where I'm less than half a metre away from him preparing my nigiri. I put on my best poker face when I'm eating my food; I've to be careful not to show displeasure.
While such a seating arrangement makes me worry about the effectiveness of my poker face, counter seats are typical of most sushi-yas. "In the Edo period, sushi was sold from wagons where customers would eat in front of the cooks," says Taku Ashino, owner and chef of the cosy 10-seater Ashino at CHIJMES.
The street hawkers kept to the culture of an intimate dining experience when they opened sushi eateries and it has been a Japanese practice ever since. For itamaes or sushi toques like Ashino who work in an omakase joint, a waist-high counter isn't just about socialising. “I can observe how much they eat, whether they use their hands or chopsticks to adjust portions and recommendations," he explains.
Anxieties aside, I do see the draw of such personalised treatment and I've had some good experiences (mostly at tastings in my capacity as a food writer). When chefs do acknowledge your presence at the counter, meals can be enjoyable and include banter on topics ranging from what he thinks about the weather to fish migration patterns. But then,
I've also been ignored as a team of cooks work away and have had my food served to me by the wait staff instead when I was just an arm's length away.
Jenny Tan, a wine and cuisine specialist with food and beverage communications consultancy, FoodCult, suggests that the lack of dialogue could be due to a language barrier foreign chefs face. Even then, the air of silence is quickly forgiven as kitchen theatrics take centre stage. "When I was at Shinji by Kanesaka in Macau, it was fascinating to just watch the deft action of how sushi is assembled; it was a visual education of ingredients," she adds. Tan isn't alone in the preference for front row seats; non-Japanese
restaurants are starting to provide such options including the likes of Fleur de Sel and Cattopardo.
Flowever, FHiroyuki Kodama, a distributor of matcha with ITOEN, believes that a professional sushi chef should learn the spoken language of where he's based in as communicating with customers is a crucial part of the counterculture. Chefs, he says, should be approachable and friendly, adding "they should be able to feel if a customer prefers to talk or not". It's a skill not every itamae has, unfortunately; he recalls a situation in Japan where the chef couldn't stop talking when all he wanted was to have a nice meal with his wife.
Still, an eager beaver is better than receiving the cold treatment. I can fall in love with the idea of having a thought-provoking conversation or being entertained while
tucking into a good meal but the fact is that most restaurants can't deliver what's promised with counter seats. Instead of huddling at a corner or looking down while prepping a dish, a chef or cook should understand that by taking a job behind the counter, he or she becomes an entertainer by default and the 'performance' makes up a customer's dining experience. Perhaps a sushi house apprenticeship should include counter service 101?
More itamaes should take counter seats as a good opportunity to chat with guests, teach diners more about etiquette or encourage the fussy eater to try seasonal or lesser known produce, instead of letting just good food and theatrics do the talking. Otherwise, it doesn't feel any different from me eating my takeaway and silently watching a rerun of my favourite Jurassic Park movie at home. WD

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