How Michael Jackson Inspired My Sushi Career
by Marisa Baggett
Many would be surprised to find that I count Michael Jackson as one of the most influential figures in my sushi career. I never had the pleasure of meeting the superstar nor have I ever found any accounts of him being a sushi lover. I can’t do the moonwalk and haven’t committed all the dance steps of Thriller to memory. Yet I can confidently say if it weren’t for him, I may not have ever ventured into a career of sushi. In the past when people would say to me that I couldn’t become a sushi because I was a black female, I super-imposed Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk over their image in my mind and find strength. Whenever I face a sushi challenge or feel like I can’t press out one more nigiri-zushi, I can use the same image or turn on his music and once again I am strong. In essence, I equate sushi with Michael Jackson and the connection came to me in a very unexpected way.
About ten years ago in the town of Starkville, Mississippi, I owned a small restaurant called The Chocolate Giraffe. The restaurant, which could best be described as an eclectic upscale sandwich shop and bakery, was the storefront for a catering company as well as a coffeehouse. Back in those days I dreamt of becoming the town’s premiere baker of spunky wedding cakes as well as becoming the it caterer. It was through my catering business that I agreed to provide sushi for a dinner party despite having no knowledge of the cuisine. A few employees that had actually frequented sushi bars in other towns put it all together while I focused on the ambiance. The party was a huge success and The Giraffe as we were so known, began hosting weekly sushi nights.
I liked sushi enough. On the one hand, it added a distinct panache to the restaurant’s reputation. It was pretty and one could barely argue against the income it provided. We were the only sushi game in town, not a single one of us was Asian, and it felt great to do something we were told by another restaurant owner would never catch on. But for all of its glory, sushi didn’t touch a special place in my heart. In fact, it literally didn’t touch me and vice versa. I opted instead for a more hands off approach, directing my line cooks on presentation and creating the menus without ever once preparing any of it.
Sitting at the bar one sunny afternoon and recovering from a lunch service, I watched as my father parked his pick up truck in front of the restaurant. He entered very purposely, removed his signature cowboy hat and took a seat next to me. He offered no greeting but instead looked me directly in the eyes.
“Even Michael Jackson still has to dance,” he said.
It seemed a strange, irrelevent thing to say. I had expected to hear a report that I had perhaps overspent my labor budget for the prior week or something of the sort. Daddy, who doubled as a business partner, rarely visited mid afternoon unless there was some corrective action I needed to implement immediately. He must have known that I was confused because he repeated his profound statement.
“Even Michael Jackson still has to dance. You serve sushi but you don’t even make it. Even Michael Jackson still has to dance, “ he offered.
And before I could respond, he replaced his hat and left me sitting alone at the bar. His words haunted me all afternoon. His words couldn’t have been any more timely as it was the eve of one of our most booked sushi nights. As usual, he was right. How could I continue to justify not taking a more active approach?
I retired from work early that evening and curled up at home with a thick stack of sushi books. As I flipped through page after page of beautifully photographed nigiri-zushi and maki, my father’s words rang over and over again in my head. I had to at least give sushi making a try or I would never hear the end of it. I resigned to make the most of it and spent hours reading about the cuisine and comparing various tips on its preparation.
With more studying what once seemed so foreign and elusive became somewhat familiar. Though having no hands on experience, I had a hunch that I would know what to do when the time came. I closed my eyes and imagined myself to be a sushi “dancer” that allowed the preparation of sushi to flow through me like music does an amazing dancer.
The next day, I joined my staff in the kitchen. They raised eyebrows when I announced that I would be joining them in making sushi for the night. When the preparations were nearly complete, we all huddled around the pot of rice and watched as little tufts of steam emerged. This had always been their favorite part of the process. I had to admit that it was mesmerizing quite like a mysterious dance partner beckoning one onto the floor. It was at that very moment that I fell in love with sushi. Sushi beckoned me onto the “dance floor” and I accepted. It was then that I knew sushi and I would have a lifelong affair.
“I think we’re ready to open. What are we listening to tonight?” asked one of the kitchen guys.
I smiled and retrieved a cd from my purse, slipping it into the player without letting anyone see. I took a deep breath of the vinegar-perfumed air before pressing play and resuming my place behind the counter. Within seconds, the tell tale beat of Billie Jean filled the restaurant. I hovered my hands over the sushi rice. I was ready…ready to dance.