Rock ‘n’ roll

Ben Beckman

Photo By Laura Hauser

Ben Beckman doesn’t look like your average sushi chef. He’s not Japanese—he’s of German descent. And he came to Chico for the sense of sound, not taste. In 2001, Beckman moved from Ventura County to attend the recording arts program at Chico State. He spent a year as a deejay at Rawbar, entertaining people downtown, before taking a job as an apprentice sushi chef four years ago. He’s apprenticed at Rawbar under Masaaki Tanaka, who has been a master of the cuisine for 30 years. Beckman, now 28, is in the music industry program at Chico State and has taken a Japanese-language class. In August, he will become a full-fledged sushi chef (unless Tanaka deems otherwise), but this journey has taught him much more than how to make a California roll.

What made you want to be a sushi chef?

I’ve always really liked sushi, and when I first moved to Chico, I had a roommate who was Japanese and a sushi chef himself. He gave me his expensive set of sushi knives, and that motivated me.

What’s it like working under a sushi master as respected as Masaaki Tanaka?

There’s a big cultural difference. In Japan, you work for free and may have to train for three years before you can even touch a fish. I’m extremely lucky to have this unique opportunity, especially not being of Japanese descent. Tanaka is an excellent instructor, and I have great respect for him. He has even taught me a lot about life through the craft.

How do you use what you learn at work in other aspects of your life?

Eastern philosophy teaches a lot about how your home life affects your work life and vice versa. I have learned to be clean and organized. Tanaka taught me patience and determination; it’s not an easy craft. I’d have to say that my apprenticeship with him is what keeps me here.

What is the hardest part of perfecting a sushi roll?

In the beginning, it’s keeping the rice off your fingers when you roll it. It takes about a week or so to get it down.

Got any specialties?

I actually created the Garlic Ahi Tuna roll. It’s got a crunchy garlic texture to it. Tanaka considers it “German sushi” because I’m German and it’s a California-style roll.

What’s the weirdest sushi request you’ve ever gotten?

Once someone requested a sushi pizza. The person said it included cheese, but I have no idea what that is to this day. Needless to say I couldn’t do it.

So is this a long-term career plan?

For now it’s Plan B. I’m working on a degree in music and the Japanese language, which will get me a job with a Japanese company like Yamaha or Sony.