Who Will Become 2009’s Sushi Master This Weekend in Little Tokyo?

Florida's Regional Contest
Florida’s Regional Contest Photo: Courtesy of Quench, Inc.

The final battle in the 2009 SushiMasters is being co-hosted this Sunday in Little Tokyo by the California Rice Commission, which claims that “every piece of sushi made in the United States uses California rice.” The event differs this year by bringing in chefs from outside of California, pitting three regional sushi champs against last year’s Cali state winner for up to five grand in prize money and bragging rights to the title. We’ve carefully weighed these warriors and are happy to predict that while SoCal has been rolled out of the finals, the D.C. and Miami candidates have a scant shot against our NorCal counter-parts. Here’s the breakdown of the competition and our prediction of who will achieve honor and glory by way of raw fish this Sunday.

Our Underdog: Chef Randy Noprapa, the D.C.-area challenger
Restaurant: Noprapa’s currently at Maneki Neko, Fall Church, Virgina’s only sushi restaurant, with a menu that includes such non-traditional squeem-inducers as a “bagel roll” and even scarier, one-dollar sushi.
Pedigree: Noprapa was trained in Japan and started at Arlington’s Matuba Restaurant as a sixteen-year old. He’s most often associated with Virginia’s Tara Thai and Temple Lounge, a Pan-Asian nightlife spot that makes us wary with more boasts of one-dollar sushi.
The Odds: Noprapa’s chances seem slimmest. His restaurants are the least lauded and though he might have won a gold medal in the D.C. Regionals for his signature “Element of Life roll”, he only received bronze for his Morikomi plate, unlike his competition who took home gold in all categories. He still pulled Best of Show in D.C., but remains our long-shot this Sunday.

Our Darkhorse: Chef Toshi Furihata, the Miami-area challenger Restaurant: Chef Toshi owns Moshi-Moshi, an Izakaya in Miami with two locations, which appear to have a serious sushi selection and a fan in Enrique Iglesias. On the downside, their Facebook page indicates participation in the Val-Pak mailings, something you could never say for Urasawa.
Pedigree: Furihata is a native of Japan, but gained his knife skills as executive chef for four years at Sushi Samba in New York City. He won both gold medals in Miami’s regional battle, as well as best of show for his “kiku roll” which made a flower out of lotus root. His bio affirms his dedication to infusing sushi with Latin influences.
The Odds: In the Miami finals, Furihata swept all three awards. He could surprise the crowd and pull a victory off again, though his Sushi Samba stint and beach-bound influences seem more tropical than the traditional top of the heap in this contest, which could be a plus or a minus.

The Contender: Chef Hyun Min Suh, California’s competitor
Restaurant: Sushi Ran in Sausalito is consistently praised for its food and earned a Michelin star in 2006. Its current executive chef, Scott Whitman, recently helped win a bronze medal for Bay Area chefs at the 2009 World Culinary Contest in Taipei, and their CEO has been honored by the Japanese government for achievements in the restaurant industry.
Pedigree: Not only did Min Suh win both gold medals and best of show in California’s regional competition, he beat out chefs from L.A.’s Toshi and Takami, thereby eliminating SoCal’s bid for the title.
The Odds: Besides his position at one of The Bay Area’s finest sushi spots, he defeated Chef Atsushi Okawara, who works alongside this year’s defending champion at Sanraku Four Seasons. Min Suh also appears hungriest, as his SushiMasters bio expresses admiration for culinary go-getters Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse.

The Master: Chef Tomoharu Nakamura
Restaurant: Sanraku Four Seasons, an elegant restaurant in San Francisco’s Union Square, received 3 ½ stars from The S.F. Chronicle and a positive review from The S.F. Examiner.
Pedigree: Chef Nakamura is certified by western Japan’s Ehime Prefecture and was trained in classic Japanese cooking. He has worked for quite a few elegant Japanese restaurants including Kaisen-Ryori, Kaisen Kaku at the Inunaki Grand Hotel, and the Minaguchi Century Hotel.
The Odds: Here comes the State champion, still looking indomitable after winning with his all-vegetable Olympic ring plate last year, slicing and dicing chefs from L.A.’s Geisha House, San Francisco’s Kyo-ya, and Sushi Bar Nippon in San Diego to win the crown. Nakamura appears to have the most traditionally classic skill, but will opening this up to national competitors change things? We’ll find out on Sunday.

The 2009 SushiMasters Finals East/West Challenge will be held on
Sunday, September 20, 2009 from 2:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. at the Aratani/Japan America Theatre, at 244 South San Pedro St. in L.A.’s Little Tokyo, “the community where sushi in America got its start,” according to organizers.

Tickets range from $52-$130 and can be purchased here. An after-party will be held with sake drinking and eats.

Who Will Become 2009’s Sushi Master This Weekend in Little Tokyo?