Most of my classes are mix-gendered; the ratio is about 70% female, 30% male. Many of the males in my classes complain of being “dragged” to the classes by their female counterparts. Or the emotionally-neutral euphemism is used: “it’s a date”. I have, however, held many sushi-making classes exclusively for women- from playful stagettes to the most serious causes around women’s issues (ie. comfort women). I enjoy these because they are always edifying and fun, with plenty of good-natured jokes coming at the expense of the males not in the room.
Like most activities they engage in, men and women behave differently when making sushi. So, at the risk of making sweeping generalizations (oh, why the heck not?) , here are 5 salient differences (proudly unscientific) I have noticed between women and men in my classes:
1. Women appear to enjoy making sushi more than the men. They are much more at ease around the rice and other ingredients. They are the first ones to break the ice with strangers, offer compliments, crack a joke- lowering the initial tension level at the table. I have many more photos of women smiling than men in my classes.
2. Women are process-driven. They recognize that every step in the sushi-making process is equal to every other. They are the ones to ask, “Am I doing this part right?” or “I should have folded it here and not there, huh?”. Men, on the other hand, are eager to just get the thing over with and show me the final product, “So, whaddya think?”.
3. Women take a lot more pictures. They spend a disproportionate amount of time finding the best angle to snap a photo. When the men are chomping down on the finished (and admittedly less photogenic) product, the women are sending Instagrams of their creations onto their Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook pages.
4. Women make it an event. They dress up (many of them don high heels), bring fancier wines with them, want the volume of the music turned up when the room gets going. It’s a night out; they are going to truly enjoy themselves. Men dress up too, but it is usually because they would look a bit foolish beside their partners if they didn’t. As for the only examples of sweatpants and tops I have seen worn at my classes: all three of them were men.
5. Women network effectively. At the end of every class, it is inevitable. The women are engaged in animated conversation in the middle of the room, exchanging business cards and cell numbers, while the men hover around the perimeter, waiting. The women are the ones who send me ‘thank you’ emails and request virtual connections with others who were in the same class.
Recently, I had a women-only class at the BCE Place in Toronto’s business district. It was a networking event, organized by the real estate giant, Cushman & Wakefield, and generously sponsored by Evian and Select Wines. Thirty of the most talented business people I had ever met gathered in an office space on the 15th floor, overlooking the city skyline. These women embodied all five of traits above to a tee. A fabulous night was had by all, followed by many thoughtful “thank you” emails.
I grew up in government-subsidized housing during my elementary to high school years. And while the Jane-Finch projects in Toronto is no Third World slum, it had its own set of severe limitations for its children. I witnessed many kids, some of them my friends, interminably running around the triangular track of despair, violence, ignorance. This was- at least from a child’s POV- a consequence of some complex reasons: heavy-handed budget cuts to schools and after-school programs; parents working all day and night and therefore incapable of having a hand in their children’s affairs; an indifferent upwardly-mobile society. So, with few apparent opportunities, and even fewer role models, the kids in my neighbourhood didn’t place much value on education. Neither did I at the beginning.
But fortune came to my side in the form of two teachers: Mr. Oakley and Miss Vienna. They saw something in me and also allowed me to see that I was more than the mere sum of my circumstances. These people embodied that most salient quality of all great teachers: the unshakable belief in a child’s innate potential. They were like animated signposts, directing me to my own promise, inspiring me to stretch myself out to the boundaries of what was possible. An unimagined life was, they taught me, one not worth living. And both breathed the original meaning of the Latin verb, educere: to lead out.
Recently, I was invited into two schools to teach kids how to make sushi. High Park Alternative School and Royal St. George’s College are both extraordinary institutions in their own ways. The former is one of those rare schools where the parent community and school staff work collaboratively and intensively for the common good of the students; the latter is a university preparatory with the highest standards of academic achievement. I was invited there by Shannon Bramer (High Park), a playwright and poet, and Mardi Michels (RSGC), a French teacher at the all-boy’s school, one of my favourite food writers, and co-founder of Food Bloggers of Canada. It must be said, dealing with them confirmed for me that the spirit of Mr. Oakley and Miss Vienna is very much alive today. They are the kind of mentor-teachers that all students deserve, but only a few are rewarded. You see it in their fierce passion for cultivating intellectual (and, in this case, culinary) curiosity. And with the kind of indomitable patience that only great mentor-teachers have, they hold open heavy windows with their arms, legs and necks, repeating the mantra breathlessly: “Look. Explore. Imagine.” In the years to come, many of these students will recall the efforts of these straining women of their past, recall them with a gratitude that can never be precise, for they will be able to acknowledge at last that the quality with which they conduct their lives was in no small part thanks to these Jean Brodies in their prime.
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The two days played out like this: first, a grade three class at High Park Alternative School. It was a diverse and sophisticated group. Every one of the 24 students had consumed sushi at some point in the past year. We went through all the ingredients that make up sushi; discussed its shapes, textures, flavours. Then they were asked to write and recite poems utilizing the ingredients before engaging in the making of sushi itself. As a writer, I envied their facility with language. When I was in grade three, I could barely string together a simple sentence- not to speak of writing one. Two of the students wanted to be chefs when they grew up. As a chef, I was flabbergasted with their dexterity of hands, their intuitive sense of form and flavour. When I was in grade three, I thought Kraft Dinner was the apotheosis of haute cuisine. At High Park Alternative School, these students taught me that the alternative to their astonishing talents is, and always will be, mediocrity.
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It was in a science lab that the latest culinary revolution was taking place in Toronto. But Les Petits Chefs of Mardi Michels’ weekly class at Royal St. George’s College were not paying homage to Ferran Adria by experimenting with molecular gastronomy, turning turkey and mashed potatoes into foamy essences. No, this was not A Day at elBulli, but about “the power of kinesthetic learning”, as Mardi so eloquently terms it. These 8 to 12 year-olds knew more about the touch-and-feel of food, the language around it, the tactile intelligence of making it that pleases both the eyes and palate than most chefs I have worked with in my 27 years. And not once in my adult sushi-making classes have I had to field questions at this level of deep understanding about food. One of the students- he may have been 11 years-old- replicated the dishes for Sunday family dinner after each of these cooking labs. This was duly noted in my personal multi-volume journal, the one that takes up an entire wall in my bedroom, called: 1001 Reasons For Not Feeling Good About My Life Achievements.
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Some bitter truths: I have neither the patience to be a mentor-teacher, nor the strenuous courage to hold open windows for children with my weak knees, arms and neck. However, I have learned much over the years, perhaps picked up two or three nuggets of wisdom along my path. And what I have learned is that there is one bit of wisdom that is the mother of all the others, and it is this: that the windows which mentor-teachers like Mr. Oakley, Miss Vienna, Shannon Bramer and Mardi Michels holds open for students like us does not give us a vista into the world so much as a meaningful glimpse into the panorama of our own possibilities.
And, being smarter than I was at their age (and even possibly now), the students at High Park Alternative School and Royal St. George’s College get it.
HSBC recently underwent some muscular and life-transforming team-building exercises. Okay, perhaps “life-transforming” is the not most appropriate term; nor is “muscular” for that matter. Just a bit of sushi-making fun.
It began at the headquarters in downtown Toronto. Managers and executives took off their gloves (and washed their hands with soap) before engaging in one of the more competitive forms of sushi-making I have ever witnessed.
Wonderful to see employees of the world’s largest bank chain, some of whom passed each other daily in the hallways without so much as waving a fin at each other, bond over rice and seaweed. There were groups from a variety of branches across the GTA, as well. Once class in Mississauga was so big, we had to move it to the Coptic Centre to make room.
In all my years doing this, I had never witnessed a group so talented at rolling sushi. Pitch perfect shapes, great touch with the rice, no mess. Perhaps some night jobs at local Japanese restaurants are in order? (I promise not to tell your bosses…)
The groups in Markham were a blast. Classes over a two week period, they were less focused on creating the best roll and more happy to be chumming around and bonding with their colleagues. Just good ole fashion fun.
It was a great experience had by all, especially by me. Having done so many team-building sushi classes for so many corporations over the years, this one was very special. The people of the world’s local bank proved again that if all organizations are ecosystems, HSBC is one of the healthiest and fun-loving ones around.