Toronto-Kampala Live Feed Sushi Making Class: The Food Literacy Project

Those who have taken my classes know how important the issue of food literacy for children is to me. I start every session talking about it before we get down to the nuts and bolts of making sushi itself. It all stems from my experience of growing up in the Jane-Finch housing projects, where welfare cheques were meager and nutritious food even more so. As a pimply kid helping to raise two younger siblings while our single mother worked three part-time jobs, learning about food literacy wasn’t exactly on my list of priorities; and even if it was, food literacy programs just weren’t readily available. The schools didn’t teach it (except for one year in junior high school, when we were taught to make classic WASP dishes like mac ‘n cheese and beef stroganoff by the eternally optimistic Miss Harriet — she never told us her last name– in her “Home Economics” class); libraries didn’t have books on it (at least what would have been intelligible to a pre-teen); and television was too busy turning our gaze to the kind of food that, even as children, we just knew was low on the nutrition scale because it was so high on the ‘craving’ one. Finally, local supermarkets, developed in board rooms far removed from the hub of immigrant life were not responsive to communities desperately needing to re-connect with their culinary roots (try buying napa cabbage to make kimchi, a Korean staple, at Price Choppers in the ’80s).  Food illiteracy was the norm and everyone suffered for it. 

This is why food literacy for children became my singular focus outside of making a living. In my own small way, I wanted to get out there and let children discover what schools/libraries and television and the limited options in supermarkets did not let me discover during my own adolescence. But I felt limited in how I could achieve this. For years, I was “the guy who did sushi”, and for reasons that perplex me today, I didn’t give much thought to how my expertise in sushi could help my cause. In 2006, when I first launched my classes (it was called “Sushi 101” then), I lacked the imagination to find a link between sushi and food literacy. But within two years, with the help of some wonderful teachers and parents who shared my belief that the ABCs of literacy (reading, writing, math) must include food, I was in classrooms, teaching the basics of nutrition by rolling sushi. 

This was soon followed by overwhelming buy-in by decision-making adults who could help me make a difference. I was allowed into the boardrooms of multinational companies to teach their senior managers and executives how to roll a California Roll; but these people, many of whom had children of their own, seemed more interested in my food literacy quest than the difference between two grades of sushi rice or how nori is processed. They wanted to know the WHY of what I did and wondered how they could help me mobilize my ideas to far greater numbers of people.

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And, of course, that answer to the question “why” always comes easily off my tongue: it’s about the kids, about giving them free reign to deepen what they already know: that the preparation of nutritious food in a safe environment is a basic human right no matter your age and that a child should be taught how to engage his/her rights from the moment their parents register them in their very first institution. So in 2009, I set myself a goal: to conduct the world’s largest connected sushi-making class by 2015. The idea is a simple one: connect thousands of children from all seven continents, including Antarctica and the Arctic Circle, with hundreds of children here in downtown Toronto and teach them how to make sushi. This would be accomplished over a twelve-hour cycle via the internet. The ultimate objective is to get one clear message out to the grown-up world: that institutional food policies and food literacy programs should be adopted within our school systems with the goal of a healthy child at the center of it. The nourishment of the mind and body must have equal emphasis in the classroom. 

This spring, I did a pilot project with children in Kampala, Uganda. Through an organization, called Kids Canada, Ugandan children were connected with children in my Toronto restaurant via Skype. Other great organizations on the ground in Uganda also played a key role in ensuring the success of the project, including Kyoto Japanese Restaurant, whose owner, Ahmed Rende, and his chef procured all the ingredients; Insieme Si Puo, who was kind enough to offer the space for the class; Sosolya Undugu Dance Academy; and Pellitier Teenage Mothers’ Foundation, a powerful womens’ organization run by the indomitable spirit-warrior, Solome Nanvule. But, of course, none of this would have been possible without photographer and activist, Maylynn Quan, who does life-altering under-the-radar work in Uganda through her cultural exchanges, photography workshops, clean water projects, and micro businesses. Her astonishing generosity of spirit, as well as her experiences while she was in Uganda at the time of the pilot project, are documented in a blog called How To Change The World In 30 Days. It is moving stuff.

On Sunday April 14th, 11am local time and 5pm Kampala time, we linked up over a patchy internet connection. Children came to my restaurant, Yakitori Bar, and met with children over there gathered in the Insieme Si Puo office space. After a glorious showcase of traditional Ugandan music and dance by Sosolya to inaugurate the festivities, I taught the kids the basics of sushi-making through a webcam. They picked it up quickly and rolled with it.

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Children on a continent where sushi is an alien concept (read: exotic, oriental, Other) tried something new. They discovered, as children do (in spite of cultural, religious, racial, gender and continental differences), yet another way to explore the infinite possibilities of the world and their relationship to it. They went from ME to WE within a span of two hours, connecting with others in ways that was impossible for me at their age. Through a simple sushi-making exercise, they learned that food, like any of the other forms of love, unites.  The experience transformed everyone involved. 

All of this was a prelude to a goal I set out for myself years ago: to conduct the Guinness Book Of World Records’ “Largest connected sushi-making class”. I want to do this by spring of 2014, but I cannot do it alone. I need help from people up and down the food chain and across all the partitions set up to divide people, especially children, in our society. Perhaps, dear reader, in a moment of revelry, as you look back at a time in your own life when you wondered why Reading, Writing and Math was so important to the adults around you but Food Literacy never got an honorable mention– perhaps you might find yourself afterwards considering ways to make this dream of mine (ours) happen?

“Yes, the springtimes need you.

Often a star was waiting for you to notice it

A wave rolled toward you out of the distant past

Or, as you walked under an open window,

A violin yielded itself to your hearing.

All this was mission

But could you accomplish it?”

-Rainer Maria Rilke-

Sushi And The Grieving Child

This post was published by the HUFFINGTON POST as”How Death Changed Our Child”. You can read it here.

That the flash flood felt, by Toronto standards, Biblical in scale, brought Noah and his ark to mind. I had made it to the airport mere minutes ahead of the news of submerged cars, power outages, and flooded subway stations. The 4:25pm Tokyo-Toronto plane circled above the angry clouds for an hour, then diverted to Ottawa to refuel. The six-hour wait for the plane’s return to Pearson International gave me time to think. Outside the Arrivals zone, sheets of water pummeled waiting taxis and I thought about what Noah had fed his family during the 375 days they were on board the ark.

Fish, of course. And with no refridgeration, mostly raw fish: sushi. I imagined him and his sons out on the deck, bracing themselves against the rocking waves and unrelenting downpour and casting their net into the bottomless ocean. Nobody in their right mind would have started a fire in an ark made from willow branches and palm leaves. No point burning the house down when you are the only house left floating in the world.

I also thought about the conversation I had had with my daughter’s mother three weeks ago, after receiving word that our daughter’s sobo (grandmother) had passed away in Japan. Should she take our daughter with her to engage in the potentially traumatic Buddhist rituals around her sobo’s cremated body? We were mindful of the gravity of the experience and knew that it would be a watershed moment in our daughter’s life; another rite of passage that would be as defining as when she uttered her first meaningful word, took her first step, and strung together her first coherent question. In the end, we thought she was ready. So did she, our brave eight year-old.

We were all wrong.

Nothing leaves a more lasting and indelible impression than the death of a family member, even as the passage of Time attempts to make a smudge of it and Memory unabashedly blurs the line between fact and fancy. Death confuses. Our minds tell us one thing and our bodies another. We know it is a natural phenomenon (older people told us so); yet we feel that it is somehow alien, like the way disease feels alien in our bodies.

In the car, our daughter referred to them as “the shivers”.

“It feels like something hurting in my feet and then moving up to my head.”

According to her mother, this “dis-ease” had been afflicting her since that day she picked up the bones of her somo’s cremated body and placed them in a ceremonial vase, a custom for family members of the deceased.

At home that night, we spread out a mattress on the living room floor. She didn’t want to sleep alone.

“I can’t stop thinking about it.”

“About what?”

“About mommy dying.”

I offered some meditation advice: lean into the thought, become friends with it, be gentle with yourself.

“Think Monsters Inc. Remember Boo? The monsters weren’t scary to her when she wanted to hold them. They were just cuddly things that needed her love.”

She clung to her stuffed Hello Kitty doll each time a wave of monsters rose up her body and toward her head. It didn’t help. I massaged her feet and legs and asked her to describe as specifically as she could just what was bothering her.

“Picking up the bones of somo’s nose to put it in the jar. And not wanting mommy to die.”

Later that night, with the second storm rattling our windows, the torrent began:

“I want to die before mommy so that I could spend the rest of my life with her. I want to die before mommy because it would hurt too much if she died before me. I love mommy so much, daddy, I love her so much, and I don’t want her to die.”

The tears were of a new kind, came from a different place. The cries: primal, atavistic. Tears and cries that break the hearts of even the most hardened parents. She was no longer the same child I said goodbye to at the airport three weeks ago.

And this annihilated me.

“Daddy, why do people have to die?”

Clichés issue easily from us when we see another human being suffering.  And who wants to utter naked truths at such a time, especially when it is to your own 8 year-old child?  The existence of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy is one thing; a death in the family, another. Forgetting is long and she will never forgive you for the platitudes, the bullshit. This I knew. And yet I wanted to feed my daughter lies so that she could sleep, feel better when she woke; feed her lies so that I could sleep, feel better when I woke. But it was still afternoon in Japan; sleep would not come easy for her. So we stayed up all night and cut to the chase. I needed to hear that crushing incoherent noise that was at the source of my daughter’s pain.

Yes, I wanted to lie to her, to the one person I loved most in this world. But I could not.

“What if mommy doesn’t live a long life. How do you know if she won’t die tomorrow?

“I don’t, my love. Mommy might die tomorrow. We can’t know. But because of you she is trying to be around for a long time, to watch you grow.”

“What if we died together? Then we can meet in heaven together at the same time, right?”

“There is no heaven out there, sweetie. What is beautiful and what is horrible is inside all of us.”

“But if we can’t meet somewhere after we die, what’s the point of living? It doesn’t make sense.”

“You are right. It makes no sense.”

“Daddy, I wish people didn’t have to die. I wish they could live forever. Don’t you?”

“No, I don’t. When we know that people die, we appreciate them more. Don’t you?”

“No, I think that I would appreciate them more because I see them all the time.”

You stop yourself. You don’t want to argue with a child’s logic of love.



“I feel it coming again.”

“What does it feel like?”

“Like my brain is about to explode. It doesn’t stop time. Everybody changes. I wish I had a time machine.” 

“I understand.”

I held her. She held Hello Kitty. All night.

The following morning, when the clouds broke and I thought the sun would never rise, she said:

“Daddy, can we make sushi for mommy when she wakes up?”

I washed and prepared the rice. We emptied the fridge of left-overs: grilled chicken, pork, raw salmon, vegetables. She set out the rolling mats and sheets of nori on our garden table.

And we went to work. Silently, in unison. We piled everything we could onto full and half sheets. We rolled. We cut the rolls. It was messy. Like love. Like life.

And death.

We gave each other high-fives and hugged. It felt different. She leaned into it.

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The sky began to darken again, so we moved everything inside. Storm clouds and more shivers. I thought about Noah again, about his family safely ensconced in the ark, and I imagined him whispering to himself as he waved a contemptuous farewell to a world gone corrupt, superfluous: Apre moi, le deluge.

After me, the flood…

Trend Hunter Video About Sushi Making For The Soul

Another great addition to the collection of reviews about the sushi classes and hints of a massive personal project in the works with children and food literacy around the world.

Check out the wildly creative Trend Hunter video here.

New format for signing up for Levels I and II. Go to the Classes tab for details.

“Since becoming a popular international cuisine only a few decades ago, sushi has become a household name and Sang Kim, owner of the Yakitori Bar, is trying to make sure this nutritional food stays for good.

Most people experience sushi only when dining out, but Kim, owner of the recently opened Yakitori Bar in Toronto, is using all of his culinary knowledge and skills to make this healthy delicacy available the one place it absolutely should be.

Also the creator of the Yakitori Bar’s Sushi Making for the Soul class, Kim teaches attendants the techniques and history behind this centuries old culinary art form.

Since he is also interested in enlightening immigrant youths and families about the nutritional benefits of this delicious cost-effective cuisine, Sang gave the Trend Hunter team a tasty and educational introduction into the art of sushi making.” Brandon Bastaldo

Sushi Making For The Soul Of Ugandan Children

My love of observing children making discoveries for the very first time answers the perennial question of why I, paradoxically, also get a kick out of conducting classes to a room full of adults. Most of my classes, both onsite and away, comprise of adults who, after overcoming the initial unsettling feeling of doing something new, display the same quality of enthusiasm and playfulness that I so much enjoy watching in children. This cannot be helped, I guess, especially in the Level I Makimono class, because there is something about dipping your hands in water, smooshing a riceball across a sheet of nori, creatively blending in available ingredients, and that self-congratulatory posture bordering on narcissism when the roll has been finished, that seems to revive some dormant inner child in us time-worn people. It hearkens back to those less encumbered days when we squished Playdoh between our fingers and fingerpainted on the wall. And it seems to lend a kind of solace to those of us who may feel that time and experience has all but worn away any traces of the “childish” in us. I hear it all the time- from banking executives to housewives to one grandfather who was “dragged” all the way from Owen Sound by his granddaughter to try sushi for the first time- about how fun the class was, how much for granted they took the simple pleasures derived from coordinating their hands, eyes, and heart; alas, how they took for granted the simple pleasures of acting like children again.

Recently, I was asked to emcee an event for The Nggaali Project, a fundraising gala whose ultimate purpose was to bring the children of Uganda and Canada together under “one roof”. It was held at the Daniels Spectrum theatre in the recently revived Regent Park area of Toronto.  It was a grand night of dancing and singing and dining, all in the name of sharing with people across the pond.

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It was thrilling to see these young faces beaming across the computer screen from someone’s backyard in Kampala, enjoying the festivities in their honour with us over Skype. I decided then and there that I wanted to conduct a sushi making class with these very children who had never heard of, not to speak of, tasted, sushi. So, with the director of Nggaali Kids, Maylynn Quan, who will be making her way to Uganda in March, it was settled: I would teach them how to make sushi all for the narcissistic pleasure of watching these children make new discoveries. They loved the idea over there as well. The date for this momentous event will be in late April and it will be held at Yakitori Bar. I would be assisted by children over here, who would participate as sushi makers on this side. I would also need to find ingredients that work appropriately for a Ugandan palate- they get squeamish at the idea of raw fish. All exciting stuff. Oh, and very childish of course; ergo, utterly meaningful fun…

Sushi Making For the SEOUL of Koreans

Hello all sushi lovers!

I will be opening a new restaurant on December 1st, 2012 and conducting my sushi-making classes from there. It’s in a great location in downtown Toronto, beautiful and intimate (1 Baldwin Street, at McCaul, one block north of the AGO).  I have started a blog that traces the development of the restaurant, called HOW TO OPEN A RESTAURANT IN 30 DAYS. You can click on the link below, which is about me having THE sashimi experience of my life in Korea. There will be two classes in December. Stay tuned in the “Classes” tab of this site or “follow” for immediate posted dates. Thank you all for your interest in my classes!