The Secrets Behind an Omakase: Everything That Goes Into a Single Piece of Tuna
Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes of a sushi omakase?
We quizzed Wayne Cheng, one of three chef-partners at New York’s Jōji, on the whole process that goes into producing the undefeated queen of sushi counters far and wide: maguro (tuna). It may show up as o-toro (extra fatty tuna), chu-toro (medium fatty tuna), akami (lean tuna), kama-toro (tuna neck), but one thing’s for sure: you’re bound to find choice parts of the prized 500-pound fish on every omakase menu, no matter where you are.
Why just the deep dive on tuna? Because though maguro is just one of the 14-to-15 fishes the team at Jōji prepares on a daily basis for their omakase, it’s a peek at the skill and knowledge required to do but a single fish right, from the moment it’s caught to when it’s finally served at the counter.
Step 1: Buying the fish.
How many tuna vendors do you have at Jōji?
Wayne Cheng: Three — one in Spain, one in Japan, and one in Boston.
And why do you have three different vendors just for tuna?
All the vendors have different sourcing, and they don’t always have good tuna. We have to order from two or three different companies to compare which one is better. Every tuna tastes different.
Is tuna available year round?
Tuna is around the world, but the largest focus is bluefin tuna, which is only 1% of all tuna variety that’s caught. The farm-raised ones in Japan, yeah, they’re year-round. Boston tuna is best during summer, from June to September. For Spanish tuna, it depends.
And you order from all three vendors every single week?
If it’s stable, then we’ll just order from one company only. If it’s not stable, we have to switch. The season could be bad, the batch of tuna could be bad; there are so many reasons.
How can you tell if tuna is bad?
Mostly by touching and the color. That’s the most important — when you’re touching the meat, the sliminess, the bounciness. Everything can tell you if the tuna is good or not. The color is usually different; it turns a grayish color, not pink. And you don’t have that freshness of smell. Like if the tuna is too watery, then the meat is more bouncy and it’s kind of shiny but in a different way.
And how can you tell if tuna is really good?
You smell it first, touch it, feel if the texture is good, if the color is right. The toro has to be pink, not pale. Akami has to be bright cherry red color, not a dark red.
You never do little taste tests?
No. Just by the look and touch, you know.
Is wild tuna usually better?
It’s like a lottery. The meat is sometimes too dark, and it doesn’t have that brightness to it. It’s fresh but it’s gray. And sometimes, there’s so much salt water in it, you can taste it in the meat. Good wild tuna is rare and that’s why it can be so expensive. A good local Japanese kuro maguro (black tuna) could be up to $400 to $500 per pound. A block of tuna is about 30 pounds, at $400 per pound, that’s $12,000 per piece. It’s insane. But that’s the highest; it’s very rare to see that. At our price point, we can’t do it.
What’s your budget for tuna?
Around $50 per pound. But that includes stuff we can’t use: skin, fat, sinew, bones. When you throw that away, the true cost of the meat itself is $70 per pound.
Is tuna the fish that costs the most?
Not the highest, but top three. Akamutsu (sea perch) is number one, it’s $70 per pound with the head and everything. So each piece of nigiri probably costs us $10.
So you mostly use farm-raised tuna at Jōji, then?
Mostly farmed because it’s more consistent and the price is good. 90% of sushi restaurants use farm-raised. But farm-raised doesn’t mean it’s raised in a lab — the farm is still in the ocean; they just control the area they can swim in. The Boston tuna we get is wild, but only when it’s in season in the summer.
And how do your vendors pick tuna for you?
They know the budget but every day you have to tell them what you’re looking for. They’ll show you the auction price, different options, which area the tuna was captured. They’re experts: they see and touch tuna every day, way more than us. You have to trust them.
How much tuna do you order a week?
Around 60 to 80 pounds. I usually order three blocks of meat a week from the center and front of the tuna belly. It takes about two and a half days to finish one whole block. It was so hard to figure out the right amount, to have no waste and finish the whole thing.
Step 2: Prepping the fish.
What’s the first thing you do when you get your tuna delivery?
First thing is to see if the tuna is good to use for today, tomorrow, or the next day. If it’s good for today, I will just cut it up. I cut the akami out and separate it from the chu-toro and the bone. I’ll cut one piece of chu-toro that’s close to the bloodline — that’s my favorite piece because the flavor is stronger and there’s no sinew almost. I’ll cut pieces of chu-toro and o-toro, wrap them up, and put them in the fridge until service. We call those pieces “saku.”
How many pieces of nigiri can you make from one tuna saku?
At Jōji, 12, maybe 15 — a full seating.
Do you dry age tuna at Jōji?
It depends on the meat quality. When the sinew is too strong, you have to dry age it — the tuna will release water, the flavor is going to be stronger, and the meat, muscle, and sinew will be softer.
In most of Japanese cuisine, not just sushi, they talk about when’s the perfect moment to eat something. For chu-toro, the sweet spot is when the warm rice touches the fish, and it starts to melt.— Wayne Cheng, Chef-Partner at Jōji
What other parts of the tuna do you use?
We use kama-toro, the neck part, for a shabu shabu appetizer. We use negitoro, which is the mix from akami and toro for the handroll. We’re using nakaochi, which is the bone meat, for sashimi or nigiri. You have to understand every part. It’s not easy.
Do you think tuna is one of the hardest fishes to master for sushi?
Yeah 100%. It’s a big fish with so many different parts. It’s just like a cow — there’s so much to know, and it’s so much more than o-toro. You could use the sinew for sushi — you grill it and put it on rice, it’s called suji and it has a very meaty, beefy texture. You can use the bone marrow. At Masa, they’d even marinate the bloodline in miso and eat it for family meal.
Step 3: Serving the fish.
How do you prep the toro nigiri during service?
It needs to be room temperature for the fat to melt. When the fish is too cold, you can’t taste it. O-toro is so fatty, so we sear it with a hot blade and put some scallion on top to balance it out. Chu-toro is always straight up, just soy and wasabi, and I will use warmer rice for it, because when the warm rice touches the chu-toro, it melts immediately from that contact. In most of Japanese cuisine, not just sushi, they talk about when’s the perfect moment to eat something. For chu-toro, the sweet spot is when the warm rice touches the fish, and it starts to melt. When you put it in your mouth, it almost combines with the rice already, you don’t have to chew.
So technically, people should be eating their chu-toro nigiri right out of your hand.
People sometimes let it sit and they don’t eat it. And they really miss out.
What about akami?
One fourth of the akami, the bottom part, has so much sinew that we can’t use it for nigiri, we’ll scrape it for the hand roll. The top part closer to the bloodline is the softest with almost no sinew; it’s the best and we only serve this for nigiri. We marinate it in sweet soy for about a minute, pat it dry, and then serve it with scallion underneath sometimes. Akami has very low fat content, but when the rice is warm, it almost melts. Good akami should be soft, smooth, and melt in your mouth. And when it has a slightly acidic taste, it’s the best — a lot of people don’t know that.
Noëmie Carrant is Resy’s senior writer. Follow her on Instagram. Follow Resy on Instagram and Twitter, too.
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