Rice and shine

Diné sushi chef inspired by mother, grandmother


When Tommy K. Begay III first started as a sushi chef, at a Chinese Malaysian restaurant in Tucson, Arizona, he spent an entire year just learning how to make rice — the most important part.

Man at counter in restaurant.

Courtesy photo
Sushi chef Tommy Begay III prepares to work at Sushi on Oracle in Tucson, Arizona. Begay has been working at the restaurant for six years.

Sushi is “a Japanese dish consisting of small balls or rolls of vinegar-flavored cold cooked rice served with a garnish of raw fish, vegetables, or egg,” according to the Oxford Living Dictionary.

Begay described his first year as “trying to perfect the smallest detail of making rice.”

“There’s a science to making rice,” he explained. “It’s not just one thing. It’s the time of year. Where the rice has been. How dry it is. How long you should soak it.”

During that one year of only making rice, Begay, 34, was never instructed on how to make it better. He was just told, “This is OK but it’s not good enough,” or, “This is really bad,” Begay said.

As he continued his career, he was approached six years ago by a well-respected sushi chef, Yoshinobu Shiratori, to work with him. Begay accepted and started his new job at Sushi on Oracle in Tucson, where he is currently the executive chef.

Now Begay gets to Sushi on Oracle around 9 a.m. to start making the sushi rice. Then he breaks down the fish they’ll need for the shift and starts to cut up the vegetables used in the sushi rolls.

Begay talks fondly of his mentor Shiratori who once purposefully gave him a minor case of food poisoning. “A month and a half in, he had me open some oysters and he was like, ‘Are these oysters good?’” Begay said. “I was like, ‘This one is not so good, I can tell.’” Oysters were one of his favorite foods and he could easily spot the oyster that had gone bad.

“(Shiratori) was like, ‘OK, eat it,’” Begay said. He did eat the oyster and in fact it had gone bad. The next day Shiratori told him, “You need to remember how it felt all day yesterday and this morning. And you don’t want anyone you feed food to to ever feel that way.”

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Categories: People
Tags: Sushi

About Author

Pauly Denetclaw

Pauly Denetclaw is Meadow People born for Towering House People. She was raised in Manuelito and Naschitti, New Mexico. She was the co-recipient of the Native American Journalist Association's 2016 Richard LaCourse Award for Investigative Reporting. Denetclaw is currently finishing her degree in multimedia journalism from the University of New Mexico - Main. Denetclaw covers a range of topics including genetic research, education, health, social justice issues and small businesses. She loves coffee, writing and being with her family. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Her handle is @pdineclah