The faces of Mashiko: Chef/Owner Hajime Sato and Chef Mariah Kmitta at their West Seattle restaurant.
Mashiko’s chef/owner calls out “bigot diners” over discrimination
Mashiko, a well-loved sushi joint on California Ave. in West Seattle since 1994, made news this week – not for their sourcing of sustainable ingredients or the quality of their work – but for a “Open Letter to Bigot Diners” chef/owner Hajime Sato unleashed upon the internet on Aug. 23 on his usually sleepy “sushiwhore” blog.
After thanking his many customers for their continued patronage over the years, Hajime’s metaphorical rubber met the road:
“The thing that saddens us is that some of our customers are bigots,” he wrote. “To everyone else, thanks for not being a bigot.”
Hajime fought back against customers who – either to their face or behind the veil of internet anonymity – have called the restaurant out for not having enough Japanese people on staff, not having enough Japanese diners, and (one that really riles Hajime’s feathers) calling out his 12-year sidekick sushi chef Mariah Kmitta for being (#1) white and(#2) female.
Food bloggers and news organizations picked up on the letter with a flurry, dissecting it and posing self-reflective questions on whether or not they personally discriminate based on the person making their sushi, the ethnicity of diners surrounding them and the like.
“It’s crazy, like 30,000 people looked at (his blog post),” Sato told the Herald. “And before (the bigot letter) I posted about how smelt is great and I got like 100 people looking at it. 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.”
So, who is that (#1) white (#2) female making sushi at Mashiko for the past 12 years?
Her name is Mariah Kmitta, she’s a Burien native with 35 years on the planet, she holds a degree in graphic design, and she’s passionate about her craft.
Thirteen years ago, she was bouncing around working odd-kitchen summer jobs in between college semesters when a friend working at Mashiko asked if she could come in and help out for a few weeks. She did, and she never left. Starting out making rice in the back, Hajime said she was a hard worker and so he started giving her more tasks, eventually moving her out to the sushi counter for the lunch shift (back when they had such a thing). She enjoyed the work, and she excelled.
“Mariah has been wowing customers at Mashiko for over 12 years,” Hajime wrote. “She has an amazing following of devoted customers who only dine with us when Mariah is working. If you know Hajime, you know he is one picky son of a bitch.”
“I guess I’ve always been inclined to – I went to school for graphic design, for art, I like cooking, I like creating, I like the health aspect of Japanese cuisine a lot,” Mariah said. “It just seems to rely on the seasons and the seasons supply you with what you need. Here (the menu) is changing all the times, new fish in season, new clams, new oysters, just something new and interested to keep you excited for next month. “
Hajime, who grew up in Japan but learned about sushi in Seattle and Idaho in his early 20s (he's now in his 40s), said he’s worked with non-Japanese his entire career, and never really thought much of it.
“Whoever can do the job can do the job,” he said, pointing out that he just hired another white sushi chef named Blayne. “He’s a white guy with a Mohawk, and he can make sushi. It’s not about gender, it’s not about color; it’s about the skill.”
Hajime teaches sushi-making and said in his research of the craft's history he found that, in the beginning 3-400 years ago, Japanese women made the sushi. The men simply served it. Today, he said, female sushi chefs in Japan are almost unheard of.
The bigots amongst us
Sato said the bigotry often rears up on restaurant review sites like Yelp (an example from Yelp user Vivi Y: “When I scanned across the restaurant, all the waiters and chefs seem to be non-Asian … immediately my friend and I exchanged a look – this wouldn’t be as authentic as the reviews suggested.”), but they also deal with it in person on a regular basis.
“I feel like Seattle’s pretty passive aggressive, so a lot of people may not right out say something to my face,” Mariah said.
A common question she hears: Have you been to Japan?
“Before I did, no, but even if I had or hadn’t it didn’t have anything to do with my culinary skill or what I’m making. I’m sure you could go to the Tokyo airport and become an expert,” she joked.
“Now so more, it’s just a look I get and I’ve just learned to ignore it because I have to, and I feel like once I make food I can prove whether or not I’m a good chef, that it’s not important that I’m female or white and they kind of calm down. Their body language goes from aggressive to relaxed.”
Hajime said he’s often pulled aside by diners – usually male – who ask, “So … how’s she doing?”
He said he also gets flack because “My English is too good and so I’m not Japanese enough.”
Hajime said the point of his post was not personal attacks or sly public relations work, but to plea with the greater world to “erase that bigotry.”
“Don’t discriminate against so-called scary food too,” he added. “Meaning open your mind to everything … if you open your mind about food you’ve never had before, sushi you’ve never had before, try even one more thing that takes you out of your comfort zone. Just like getting out of your comfort zone and eating (the creations) of a white sushi chef.”
“People get caught up in an image,” Mariah jumped in, “and they should just relax and enjoy good food.”
To read "An Open Letter to Bigot Diners," please click here.