I'm Michelle Carpenter and I am (a very rare) female Itamae (sushi chef). I have been making sushi for 25 years. Also, my staff is really proud of the fact that I invented the Caterpillar Roll.

I own and operate ZEN Sushi, a modern Japanese restaurant in Dallas, Texas and we are celebrating our 6 Year Anniversary this weekend.



Ask me Anything, and BTW, one horse-sized duck, although I've been bitten pretty badly by a duck-sized duck.

*EDIT: Per request, here is a photo of me: https://twitter.com/ZENSUSHI/status/365234405603672065 This is a photo of my best-selling Xalapa Roll, a creation that best exemplifies my biography and culinary style.

*EDIT #2: My restaurant is now open. I have to step away to make sushi. I'll be back tonight.

*EDIT #3: Redditors, Thank you for your enthusiasm and participation. We never expected to make front page or even have over 100 comments for the entire post when we started this.

ZEN is a tiny 60-seat establishment. We’re underdogs compared to the competition (which is fierce in landlocked but restaurant-dense Dallas, Texas), and we’ve made it to 6 years because I have an incredibly loyal kitchen staff and servers who believe in my mission.

I owe this Reddit AMA to my BIL who asked me to do it for his late birthday present. I did this because I wanted to make sure that other young women know that becoming an Itamae is something they can achieve even if it was a very difficult path.

Finally, I want to reiterate my thanks to my customers.

UPDATE 8/15/13: A Reddit Roll with Bacon has been made, per your request.

Comments: 2556 • Responses: 34  • Date: 

ITrecon715 karma

Since there are so many sushi bars, how can you tell the good from the bad?

michellecarpenter898 karma

A lot of people tend to think that if a sushi bar is really busy, it's good. That's not always true.

For me, if I were to walk into a sushi bar, I would immediately sit at the sushi bar and not a table. I would engage the Itamae. You need to develop a connection or relationship to the Itamae. In one trip, you can tell if it's good or not. It boils down to one thing. Is the chef putting his/her name on the line? If a restaurant is promoting their rolls more than they are promoting their chef, you should be hesitant. Of the less than 10 real sushi bars in Dallas, all of them are connected to a real Itamae, not just an assembly line of sushi makers.

It's not different from walking into a chain restaurant or a mediocre restaurant vs dining at a restaurant with an actual named chef.

EDIT: I agree, just because your name is on it does not mean it's going to be good. But once you do put your name on your food, you are subject to judgement, and I would hope that a named chef would put forth his/her best effort. I do and so do the sushi chefs I referenced.

GrooveCombo566 karma

You can get the caterpillar roll in Japan now. lol

michellecarpenter615 karma

Wow. I didn't know that.

uriman496 karma

What do you think of Jiro Dreams of Sushi?

Do you get to travel to Japan to see various methods?

Is it true that some sushi apprentices in Japan spent a year plus just making the rice.

michellecarpenter737 karma

During the movie, I was very proud that my craft was being showcased by a superior chef.

Reflecting on the movie, I felt very sad. The man spends spends his entire life trying to attain perfection, but perfection is not static. But it can't be done. Secondly, on a more selfish level, the movie made me sad because I wish my customers were more like his customers. With all due respect, my California Roll customers pay my rent. With all these sushi bars that are opening, I am afraid that the art of sushi is dying. There are so many rolls covered in sauce. True Itamaes don't do that. Of the 100+ sushi bars in Dallas, there are less than 10 true sushi bars. Everything advances and changes, at a natural pace, but this new fast-food, mass-produced sushi covered in 3 different sauces defeats the purpose of sushi.

I am very, very blessed to own a restaurant, especially in this economy. And I do have a handful of very devoted Sushi Warriors that will travel with me on my culinary journey. Shout out to my SSS members. They allow me my own growth as a sushi chef. And it's not cheap.

What you see in the sushi bar may only take a few minutes to prepare in front of you, but what you don't see is that it can take all day to prep. That's one bite that takes 4 hours to make in the back. That's why it's expensive.

kk917363 karma

I see on your menu you use cream cheese and salmon which are not traditional Edomae sushi ingredients. As someone who prides themself by using the term Itamae. What does your restaurant do, that sets you apart from other typical sushi bars in the US? What gives your customers a real Japanese sushi experience?

michellecarpenter575 karma

My restaurant is a modern Japanese restaurant. As I mentioned earlier in a previous comment, I have to pay the rent. I try to offer something for everyone, for varying levels and preferences. I personally don't like it, but it is a best-selling roll. There is place for the Philly Roll. I met the Master Itamae that invented this roll, and he is the much more traditional than I am. But he understood his audience and it took me a while to understand my audience. I do not have many Japanese customers. ZEN is located in a very diverse, transitional neighborhood in Dallas.

What sets me apart is my own biography and culinary profile. I'm not trying to offer the Japanese experience. I consider my food New American with strong Japanese influences. My personal creations reflect my style. I was born in on Tokyo. My mother is Japanese and my father is Cajun. I grew up in South and Southwest. I have a distinct flavor profile.

KalconFick167 karma

I know this one's probably obvious but...

Does the temperature of your hands really affect the taste of sushi, or is that some sort of myth?

michellecarpenter247 karma


michellecarpenter233 karma

Some studies have shown that women's hands are colder. Male-dominated Japanese society perpetuated that. It makes no difference.

MammonAnnon154 karma

Well now that we kind of breached the subject I'll go ahead and drop the question: traditional Japanese do not approve of female sushi chefs. To the point where most sushi chefs would refuse to train a woman. How have you surmounted this problem?

michellecarpenter475 karma

I think I was in the right place at the right time. They were desperate and I was willing to work for free... and be abused. I didn't know about the abuse. The abuse came later.

Everyone gets treated like crap, but some went out of their way to make my experience miserable.

I never in my wildest dreams imagined what would happen last year: A chauvinist chef that I once with, who hit me twice, actually applied for a job at ZEN. My revenge fantasy from 20+ years ago came true, but I didn't feel good. I felt sorry for him.

kapplesaucey132 karma

For the most part, I enjoy the experience of Omakase (for those who don't know, it literally translates "I'll leave it to you" and means you leave the meal choices in the hands of your chef). I have been at restaurants where stern instructions were given with each offering, with the tone of "you eat it this way or don't come back". What is your opinion of this attitude? Do you think it belongs in modern sushi?

michellecarpenter344 karma

Chefs should probably change the word "instructions" to "suggestions." This goes back to the egomania of any chef. I can see that artists have a vision, but you cannot dictate to your customer/viewer/consumer how to experience what you produce. People's tastes changes every day. Based on your body chemistry which is always fluctuating, you may need a bit more salt. It's okay if my customer wants a bit more soy sauce than normal.

Any chef, in any cuisine, needs to understand that they are making food for you. Food with instructions is like masturbation. Your purpose is to make food for someone else.

doppelstranger130 karma

Is toro worth the extra cost?

michellecarpenter230 karma

I don't determine if its worth it. You decide.

Honestly, I pay over $50 per pound at wholesale prices. To me, it is the best part of the best fish.

lil_morbid_girl102 karma

are you bad tempered like the sushi chef on the Simpsons?

michellecarpenter257 karma

Itamaes are naturally ego-maniacs. In Japans, being an Itamae is the best chef you can possibly be. It has ranking and draws a lot of respect. It is because the training process is so rigorous and takes 8 years. That's 8 years of very bad treatment. Once you make it, you have a (false?) sense of superiority. So you get grumpy at stupid people, stupid questions or stupid requests.

Although I'm not like that anymore because I am older, I do remember my ill-tempered days. You eventually learn that you don't know sh*t.

So, yes, the Simpsons depiction is quite true. I can attest to that stereotype.

And BTW, The Simpsons constantly gets referenced by my customers and my staff here loves the Simpsons. We even have our own Sherri-Terri, here.

DallasAdmission89 karma


Fakefx30 karma

Not to take away from her, but you really must go to Keiichi in Denton. Best sushi in DFW. Sorry, not sorry.

michellecarpenter31 karma

I've heard really good things about his place. I'd like to try it, too, when I get the time to drive to Denton from Oak Cliff.

BeastmanBob70 karma

Wouldn't it have been easier to just become a carpenter?

michellecarpenter169 karma

Yea, it would have been.

It would have been just as rewarding. There is an art and honor to being a carpenter.

bill_clay64 karma

People say the freshest fish is best, but from reading online it seems fish should be frozen for a period before being served raw. Can you talk about the timing and process of getting fish ready for consumption? Does it really make a difference if my fav restaurant isn't on the coast? Thanks!

michellecarpenter119 karma

No, it does not make a difference. The supply chain for the food and shipping industry is unbelievable now. A day fisherman in California can catch a fish, have it on the dock, and have it sold to a distributor by 10am. I can be preparing this same fish the same evening in Dallas for dinner service.

If you catch fresh fish, you should ice it for at least 6 hrs, so that the adrenaline and hormones in the fish works it way out. Those hormones are detectable, and you want it to taste natural.

WhimsicalPythons60 karma

How did you get into making Sushi?

What was the training process for you like?

Are there any problems you face being a female sushi chef?

Are there any aspects of your restaurant you would like to better? Anything you want to change?

If you could meet one person, alive or dead, who would it be?

michellecarpenter103 karma

When I started 25 years ago, there were no schools for sushi. The only way to become a sushi chef was to apply for an apprenticeship. Back then, Itamaes were all Japanese men. They were very against training non-Japanese and women. I was both.

I'm not sure what offended them more, that I was not full-blooded Japanese or that I was a woman. It might have helped a tiny bit that I was half-Japanese.

I started making sushi in San Antonio. I was just a sushi maker, but I wanted formal training so I could be a real Itamae. I knew I had to move to California to learn the very best. I was lucky enough to find a company in San Diego that operated 3 different sushi bars that allowed me to train. Because it was a large restaurant group, there were at 10 Master Itamaes. None of of them acknowledged my existence except for one. Thank you to Mino-San. I learned mostly by watching and mimicking and that actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I learned so many styles from 10 different Masters. I took what I thought was best of each of their styles and I developed my own style. Most of the chefs at this restaurant group were from Tokyo. I learned Edo-style.

For my one person, its toss up between the Buddha or Bruce Lee. I don't want to be a cliche but they are both badasses. One is a mental badass and the other is a physical badass.

sternje19 karma

San Diegan here. What was the restaurant group please? And did you train with/under Shige-san?

michellecarpenter36 karma

This group is now defunct, but I worked at the original Sushi on the Rock in La Jolla, Genji in Del Mar, and DaTe in Ocean Side. This was in the late 80s.

ahirebet59 karma

There are some kinds of sushi that I absolutely love, and others that I'm not a fan of. The best sushi I have gotten is by doing "omakase", even though I'm always a little nervous about what I'll get.

My question is, is it poor form to request omakase but put some restrictions on it (e.g., no uni, or no maki, etc.)?

michellecarpenter103 karma

I can only speak for myself: I appreciate some direction if I have never made food for you before. It gives me information about you so that I can make your best meal.

J_Hook47 karma

What makes sushi so damn addicting at a level well above other foods?

michellecarpenter60 karma

Some people say there's an addictive agent in wasabi. But most sushi bars don't use real wasabi because it's so expensive. People like wasabi because it probably released low-level endorphins from the burn. With anything that does that, whether its a video games or exercising, you are more likely to be addicted.

JediGlitterChild36 karma

What can we do to attract more women into the sushi chef profession?

michellecarpenter61 karma

I regularly have interns from culinary schools who are female. I think things are changing. Honestly, there doesn't seem to be that much interest from females. I really don't know. There's more opportunity so let's work on building interest.

RagingSeaPig33 karma

My dad's been a sushi chef for over 28 years and we just recently opened up another restaurant in BC, making a grand total of 6. After a couple of our employees left, we're stuck looking for Itamae, but all the ones we hire end up being sloppy with their rolls, and since my dad's super strict about quality, they always just quit. In my opinion, my dad's reasonable about what he says and how he trains people, there's just a lack of responsibility and perseverance. So my question is, is there a way to know if someone will meet your standards, maybe a certain question that will help my dad understand who will meet his requirements?

michellecarpenter51 karma

During the interview, I make them perform a few tests including cutting vegetables and making sushi and a roll. The more detail-oriented some is, the better their sushi is going to look. This means they will be slower. You have to find a balance between someone who is meticulous but also quick. This is a very hard combination. You can teach neatness. You cannot teach a sense of urgency.

bearsloveboomboxes28 karma

I love the Bishop Arts District, but I have yet to go to Zen (hopefully I will soon). Before I leave for culinary school, I want to try and go to most of the restaurants on the D best 100. Which restaurants are your favorite, whether it be pizza, steak, french, and are there any Sushi restaurants other than Zen that you think people should definitely try out in the Dallas area?

michellecarpenter64 karma

If you are going to go to my competitor, at least go to a place I would eat at: Tei An, Sushi Sake, and Yutaka (when he's there)

architype23 karma

You must create a Reddit roll now.

michellecarpenter33 karma

Let me think about how to make it. I may do an edit to this post in the intro.

LetsRunAway14 karma

I love you.

michellecarpenter45 karma

I love you, too.

harmoni-pet9 karma

Hi, big fan of your work. I enjoy your sushi regularly, and would describe it as life changing. Thanks for doing what you do.

I was wondering how your restaurant always has the best music playing. Pandora? What's your secret?!

michellecarpenter31 karma

All of my servers are artists, musicians, and creative-types. We let them pick the music, so I can focus on the food.

elyse_bee4 karma

any tips for women trying to get into the business? recommended courses, etc?

michellecarpenter13 karma

I really believe that the best way to learn is to beg for an apprenticeship with a respected chef. I have been quite disappointed in the skill level of the graduates from some culinary programs. You learn by repetition. You have to make a California Roll at least 1000 times before it looks half-way decent. You get this practice on the line, not in school.

Burgerflaps3 karma

Are you out?

michellecarpenter3 karma

Yes. :)

KonigTX2 karma

Wow! I've eaten at ZEN Sushi! Was fantastic. Thank you for making some awesome sushi! I'll definitely be going back next time I'm in DFW :)

My question is this: What are the 10 true sushi bars in Dallas? I want to try each and every one of them, and then go back to ZEN for comparison.

michellecarpenter1 karma

Please see early reply about my competitors.

Captain_BANANASWORD2 karma

Thank you for the AMA!! Fellow Dallas Reddit denizen.

  • What do you find to be the one quality of a restaurant (other than its food) that will keep you coming back every time?

  • Have any of the items from your SSS dinners made their way to the main bar by popular demand (or otherwise)?

  • Does the high cost of the SSS membership detract from the number of participants? I realize that this cost allows flexibility in ingredients, etc., but do you feel that you could attract more people to an adventurous dining style with a slightly lower price point?

michellecarpenter4 karma

  1. Consistency and value keeps me coming back. It doesn't matter if it's $10 or $100 that I spend.

  2. Yes, several of SSS creations landed on my permanent menu. My ZEN Bruschetta, Fox Ears, Avocado Gazpacho, Kabocha Squash Soup are just a few off the top of my head.

  3. Probably could attract more people. But my food cost is over 50%. I have to staff for the event, so when I do these events, it's not for profit. I'm happy to break even on SSS nights because I am flying seafood in, I outsource special desserts (since pastries are not my expertise - she's the premier French pastry chef in Dallas) and I pay for extra chefs.

WeAreUnited1 karma


michellecarpenter6 karma

There are two different ways to create. One is to put a lot of thought and continuously experiment. The other way to create is spontaneous. You don't plan it and that's what happened with the Caterpillar Roll. It just popped into my head. The second way is much better.

hooliganking-6 karma

I really think caterpillar roll sucks.

michellecarpenter5 karma

Its not my favorite either.

YourLordship-9 karma

Why are you not japanese?

michellecarpenter9 karma

I am half-Japanese and half-Cajun.