My lunch with Dale
A sushi newbie reaches out to the RN&R for help, but does he have an ulterior motive? A lunch date takes a fishy turn.
Dale Chappell had never had sushi. A few weeks ago, he emailed Brian Burghart, the editor of this newspaper, whom Chappell had never met, and wrote, “I have never eaten sushi before. And now, I have a very important date coming up at the Lake at the end of the month that will include a major sushi dinner. … I was hoping there’s someone on your staff that adores sushi … that could have a feast lunch with me before my date. That way I’ll know what I’m in for—if I can get it down (smile), what to order, how to eat it etc. … None of my friends are sushi people, so this would be so helpful for me.”
Brian sent him in my direction.
I started eating sushi about 12 years ago, when I was in college. One of my roommates had started eating the stuff, and I clearly remember bicycling with him from our house near downtown to Sushi Pier in the Costco Shopping Center on Plumb Lane. And I remember the sluggish bike ride home when I was absolutely stuffed after an all-you-can-eat lunch—and back then, still a growing boy and an avid bicyclist, all I could eat was a lot.
That was during my vegetarian phase, before I’d really developed a taste for food. “A taste for food” might sound like something that all animals are born with, but what I mean is that I ate food in order to survive, rather than for the pleasure of it. I was more eat-to-live, rather than live-to-eat.
When, a few years earlier, in my late teens, I had decided to become a vegetarian, it was an easy decision because though I loved animals, I’d never really enjoyed food. I mean, I liked pizza and Honey Nut Cheerios, but that was about it. And my parents, aging hippies, were both vegetarians. They’d taught me a little bit about food. My dad had turned me on to Indian, Thai and Vietnamese cuisines at a fairly young age. My mom was a baker and made the best cookies and cakes—so I had a sweet tooth. But no meat—not even fish—was a part of the classier sides of my diet. When I thought of meat, I thought of McDonald’s hamburgers. When I though of good food, I thought of vegetable pad Thai. It seemed like a no-brainer to become a vegetarian.
So, that first trip to Sushi Pier, I basically just ate cucumber rolls and inari, the tofu rolls. My roommate had convinced me to go out for sushi in the first place by dispelling my basic misconception about sushi: He told me that “sushi” actually refers to the vinegar rice balls, and not the raw fish, as rumors and lousy television standup comedy had led me to believe. I went in knowing there’d be plenty for me to eat, but I was blown away. The cucumber roll, for example: just a ball of rice, wrapped in seaweed, with a little vegetable crunch, but it was so light in the mouth and so bright in flavor. It was as though a tornado had swept my taste buds up and brought them back down, and everything was suddenly in color.
I became very curious about the other 90 percent of the menu at the sushi place. By the end of my second visit to Sushi Pier, I had reinvented myself along newfangled dietary lines: I became “a vegetarian except for sushi.” A year or so later, I dropped the “vegetarian” label and mentality altogether, but that’s another story. The point here is that falling in love with sushi was an important step in my ever-developing relationship with food—and that relationship has been one of the foremost obsessions of my writing life. Bottom line: I wrote Chappell and said I’d be more than happy to meet him for a sushi lunch.
Now, a lunch with a total stranger—a person about whom I knew nothing except that he’d never had sushi and that he was nervous about a “date” a month away—might seem like a daunting prospect to some people. (My wife, for example, told me to “be careful.”) But as a journalist, you kind of have to love meeting new people, the more eccentric the better. On any given night, I’ll talk to the weirdo in the bar for hours. So I looked forward to my lunch with Chappell. I started forming a mental image of him based on the meager information I had. I figured him for some kind of backwoods redneck recluse. Honestly, I sort of hoped he’d be crazy and extremely socially awkward, just because it would make a good story.
I initially proposed that we eat at Hiroba Sushi, on Skyline Boulevard, but Chappell emailed me the morning of our lunch to say that the place was closed Mondays—and Monday was the only day we could make work with both of our schedules. So we settled on Tha Joint, in Sparks, a restaurant I’d only eaten at once before. I really liked the sushi there but wasn’t a fan of the weird “prison” theme of the décor. I warned Chappell about the incomprehensible theme—who wants to go to a prison?—and that I’d be less familiar with the menu there, though I was excited to try it again.
We arrived at about the same time. It was easy to spot each other, since we were both clearly looking to meet someone who we’d never met in person. Chappell was different than I’d imagined, of course. He’s in his late 50s, with bright blue eyes that would have appealed to a casting agent of the Technicolor era. We shook hands. He’s shorter than average, and moves in a way that’s quick but casual, like he’s in no hurry but just enjoys the speed. Definitely more of a lover than a fighter. He would seem bumbling, if not so deliberate. He’s friendly and engaging, and one of those people who can be instantly pegged as an extrovert.
“It’s so nice to meet you,” he said. “I’m excited, and nervous! My first sushi!”
(I wasn’t taking notes, and there’s been a week’s worth of mental distortions, so the dialogue is approximate.)
We sat down at a table. I normally like to sit at the bar, where you can engage directly with the chefs, watch them prepare the food, and order more on a whim by whim basis, but I figured, for our instructional purposes, a table would be better.
I don’t have any formal training on how to eat sushi, and I’m sure there are some quirky rules of proper etiquette that I’ve been blissfully breaking for years, but I feel like I know enough that I can eat at an average sushi restaurant without making an instant ass out of myself. (It usually takes about five instances.)
The one piece of advice I’d given Chappell in advance of our meal was to practice with chopsticks if he wasn’t already comfortable with them, but he’d replied that he did feel comfortable with them. One of the earliest revelations of the meal itself was that Chappell is actually something of a foodie. He’s experienced a lot of different cuisine—he’s a big fan of Thai, for example—just not sushi.
“It’s never held any interest for me,” he said, just after we sat down. “It’s not that I have anything against it, I just had no interest. I figured I’d be able to get through life without ever trying it, but now I have this thing coming up at the end of the month.”
“Do you feel comfortable telling me about it?” I asked.
“I do, Brad,” he said. “And it’s incredibly interesting, but it’s kind of a long story, so not quite yet.”
This gave me pause. Often, and it’s one of the flipsides of my journalistic interest in meeting new people, I get stuck in conversations with various salesmen, zealots, publicists, promoters and others with ulterior motives—people trying to sell something, either for me to buy, or worse yet, and more likely, for me to write about. It might sound like paranoia, especially to someone who’s never worked in the media, but I have people pitch me stories every day, and as often as not, it’s in a casual setting, a bar or an art opening. I’ll be five minutes into an informal conversation with an acquaintance, and all of a sudden the tone will shift: “By the way, that reminds me,” they’ll say, “I want to tell you about this new business I’m starting. We could really use some press.”
I’m not complaining. I don’t really mind that this happens all the time, and honestly, I get a lot of story ideas this way, just from being out and about and talking to people. But the way Chappell dropped that “it’s incredibly interesting” triggered a red flag. Uh oh, here it comes, I thought.
But first: sushi. Because we were ordering from the table, we ordered more than one roll at a time. We poured a little soy sauce onto our trays and mixed in a bit of wasabi. Chappell used a lot of wasabi after I told him it was similar to horseradish, which he said he loves. We started out with nigiri, the bite-sized rice rolls adorned with a small piece of fish on top. We had sake (salmon), hamachi (yellowtail) and albacore tuna. All the fish was raw, which made Chappell nervous.
“So this is all raw?” he asked.
“Yep,” I said.
“How do I eat it?”
“Just pick up a piece with the chopsticks, dip the fish a little in the soy sauce and pop it in your mouth.”
“The whole thing?”
“Yeah, usually, but if you need two bites, that’s OK. Don’t choke.”
“Now, do I chew it? Or do I just try to get it down, like an oyster?”
“Oh no, you chew it. A lot of it is just rice.”
“OK”—deep breath—“Here I go!”
Using the chopsticks, he picked up a piece of hamachi, dipped it in the soy sauce, and managed to get it all in one bite. His eyes were wide with apprehension, and they widened still with a look of surprise.
“Oh my god,” he said, chewing slowly and deliberately. He cocked his head to the side, as if trying to listening closely. “This is what I’ve been missing?”
“Do you like it?” I asked, not quite sure if his shock was delight or repulsion.
“I love it,” he said, smiling, his eyes still cartoonishly wide. “It’s not what I expected at all. It’s not fishy at all. I expected something slimy and fishy, like raw oysters, but this is something else entirely.”
He was experiencing that same not-in-Kansas-anymore feeling I’d had years ago.
We moved on to maki rolls, the long rolls of rice, seaweed and fish cut into bite-sized pieces. Tha Joint has a few excellent specialty rolls, including the Tha Five-O, with crystal shrimp, cream cheese, cilantro, avocado, crab and Siracha hot sauce, and Tha Summergazm, with cream cheese, green apple, crab, salmon and kiwi purée. It’s an unusual roll, and so sweet and fruity that purists would probably call it Americanized, but Chappell and I both loved it.
“That tastes like a summer day!” he said.
Chappell grew up in the Washington, D.C., area but has lived in Northern Nevada since 1976 and worked as a waiter in Harrah’s Show Room for 23 years.
“I got to see so many great entertainers night after night,” he said. “Sammy Davis Jr. and so many other great people from that era. It was an amazing time.”
Talking to Chappell about working in the casinos was a bittersweet glance through a window into that now bygone era when the casinos were tourist attractions with classy, exciting, innovative entertainers.
He retired early and now pursues a variety of interests, including gardening and the theater—he’s a regular patron of local theater companies.
In his original email, he had said he wanted to try sushi before a “date” at the end of the month. I assumed he meant “date” in the romantic sense, but he didn’t. What really led him to try sushi was Lazaris.
Lazaris, according to Chappell, is an extra-dimensional entity that communicates through a human channel, Jach Pursel, and offers spiritual advice on living a happy, fulfilled life. To channel Lazaris, which he has being doing since the mid ’70s, Pursel goes into a brief meditative trance, and then begins speaking in a lyrical, elf-like accent which Chappell described to “Scottish.” YouTube reveals it to be far less specific—and actually fascinating in its variety as it shifts from England to Scotland to Australia to regions far less identifiable. On his website and in videos found on YouTube and elsewhere, Lazaris presents an innocuous peace, love and understanding New Age philosophy.
Chappell says he’s found that philosophy and Lazaris’ advice on how to apply it to life practical, helpful and fulfilling. He regularly attends Lazaris’ seminars and lectures.
“I don’t know why I went to see him the first time I did,” said Chappell. “I’m usually a total skeptic about that kind of thing. Maybe it was for the novelty of it, the spectacle. You had a line like that in one of your recent articles, the one about the band who played on the porch?”
“Soda Jerk,” I filled in, my own skepticism on the rise.
“In that article, you said something like, ‘I can’t relate to people who have no taste for spectacle.’”
While it seemed like it would have been flattering to hear myself quoted, it irritated me slightly. Was he just playing into my ego, trying to arouse my sympathy to help him proselytize for his kooky New Age religion?
“I have to ask you something,” I said, abruptly shifting gears. “Did you invite me to lunch just so you could talk to me about your religion?”
I’d been enjoying myself. The food was great, and, for the most part, Chappell had been lively, entertaining company. He told some good jokes and had been insightful about the food and Reno’s theater community. I was annoyed that it seemed to be a ruse to get me to pay attention to some fraud who talked in funny voices.
“No, not at all,” said Chappell. “I only brought Lazaris up because I’m going to a seminar at the end of the month, and all the regulars are going out to eat together afterward, and they’re all sushi people. And I was just going to do my own thing, but I figured, what the heck, let’s have a new experience. I only brought him up because that’s why I’m going to sushi, and I only brought that up because you asked.”
We navigated this potentially tense conversation politely and lingered on Lazaris only a moment longer. Chappell wanted to explain that he’s “not religious in the least.” Despite my skepticism, I was actually interested to hear more about Lazaris, because, as Chappell pointed out, I have a taste for spectacle.
But I was glad when conversation moved back to other topics, the evolving state of Reno and more about the local theater scene. Chappell had enjoyed Brüka Theatre’s recent production of Mr. Biedermann and the Firebugs. We ate more excellent sushi, and finished off the meal with green tea ice cream. Tha Joint, like many Northern Nevada sushi places offers an all-you-can-eat deal. Unlike many local places, though, this deal also includes dessert, even at lunch.
The lunch ended rather abruptly when I glanced at my phone and realized we’d been there for more than two hours—I needed to get back to the office.
“That was wonderful,” said Chappell, proudly. “I’m a sushi person now.”
“Well, I hope I was helpful,” I said.
“You were,” he said. “You were the lunch. The sushi was just a bonus.”
“Well, it worked out, because I wanted to try this place again,” I said.
“That was a good coincidence, I thought,” said Chappell. “Though there are no coincidences, not really. That’s one thing I’ve learned from Lazaris.”