In the Little Village home of Maria and Jose Alejandre, no one cares about the traditional Thanksgiving Day feast. “We don’t like turkey,” says Hector, 28, one of the Alejandres’ ten children. “It’s too dry.” Instead, Maria’s homemade chicken with mole sauce–full of cocoa, spices, nuts, seeds, and dried jalapenos–simmers in an enormous pot while tamales steam in their husks.
But the main dish at the Alejandres’ Thanksgiving celebration is sushi. According to a June survey in the Chicago Reporter, Latinos represent 30 percent of the city’s sushi chefs, and four of the Alejandres’ sons are among that group. At a table set up in the living room, Hector and his older brother Roy crack jokes as they make nigiri from tuna and yellowtail and roll spicy Mexican and dragon maki for their parents, relatives, and friends.
Roy, 40, who works at Kamehachi on Wells, was the first in the family to take to the trade, and his brothers followed suit. Hector, who oversees the sushi bar at Jia’s on Delaware, opens a bottle of fine tequila and pours it into shot glasses. “Salut!” His parents and guests empty their glasses and squeeze half a lime between their teeth. Noi, 30, is head sushi chef at the Kamehachi in Northbrook.
Former carpenter Jose Alejandre originally left Puerto Vallarta in the mid-1970s, leaving his family behind to find a better-paying job to support them. When he couldn’t get work in Texas, his sister in Chicago offered to help him find something. Jose picked corn and squash in Indiana in the summer, and come winter he took several temporary jobs in Chicago–in a hotel laundry room, in a steel factory–until he found a steady job at a banquet hall in Batavia, washing dishes and helping in the kitchen.
Roy came to Chicago around 1977, after he learned Jose was undergoing eye surgery. “My father sent us a sad letter saying, ‘I do not know what is happening to me. I might die,'” says Roy. “So I decided to surprise my father.”
While Jose was in the hospital, his boss asked Roy if he would be interested in replacing his father. “He gave me a couple of hours to prove that I could stay there,” says Roy. “I swept and mopped the floor. I washed the dishes and helped in the kitchen. I was so young and spoke no English.” He stayed there three years. By the time Roy moved on to a cooking job at a north-side Greek restaurant called Alexander’s, the whole family had moved to Chicago.
One day Roy visited a brother-in-law who was working as a sushi chef at Tokyo Marina in Ander-sonville. His brother-in-law introduced him to Jimmy Asato, the owner, who immediately offered him a job.
After Roy washed dishes for three days, then worked in the kitchen for three weeks, Asato moved him to the sushi bar. “‘[The kitchen is] not your place. You have to go to the front,’ Jimmy told me. I felt unprepared.”
But he appreciated the detailed work that went into the plates. “I started liking decorating it. It’s like art,” he says. After five years at Tokyo Marina Roy moved on to Restaurant Suntory, the now defunct high-end restaurant on Huron where nearly all the chefs were Japanese. Roy says his three-year experience there was invaluable. He learned, for example, how to squeeze the rice just right, not too hard and not too soft. “It has to be perfect,” he says.
It also taught him how tough some Japanese chefs were to deal with. “They want to keep their knowledge to themselves, and they really have to like you to teach you,” he says. “I have been lucky. I like to beg people to teach me by working for them. Whatever I do, I want to do it right.”
Suntory left Roy with one more unforgettable memory: Among the “movie stars, famous people” he served–Kenny G, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver, Sylvester Stallone–he says everybody knew how to eat sushi except Stallone. “‘What is this?’ he asked me. ‘This is sushi, sir,’ I said. ‘Is it cooked or is it raw?'” Roy told him the fish was raw. “Then he said, ‘I don’t think I am ready for this yet,'” Roy giggles.
He and his brothers occasionally face the hurdle of not being Japanese; at one of the restaurants he worked at after Suntory, Roy was once challenged by a drunk customer who told him he wanted a Japanese chef. Roy’s Japanese boss told the man that there were no Japanese chefs, and that if he wanted to eat sushi, Roy would be making it. Roy says simply, “Some people interpret in the wrong way.”
He says it took him more than five years to become comfortable with his skills. Now many customers ask him to make whatever he chooses. “It’s nice they have faith in me,” he says. “I feel very bad when I’m busy and don’t have time for my customers.”
At Thanksgiving dinner, Roy carefully explains each sushi item in detail to make sure his guests use the right sauces. Roy thinks many Americans get bored with traditional sushi because it’s too simple. “Americans want to experience something new every day.”
So he makes a Mexican maki from pieces of yellowtail, salmon, jalapeno, cilantro, and spicy mayonnaise. He shallowly fries rolls stuffed with deep-fried scallops, octopus, and avocado. The children savor orange salmon roe and California rolls, while adults swallow pieces of crimson tuna. They drink beer and tequila and dance to Latin music, and men in intricately tooled leather belts tap the floor with boots decorated with Native American patterns.
Jose beams with pride. “My sons do no drugs, no alcohol,” he says. “When they started [as sushi chefs], I thought they would be able to make it because they were hardworking.”
Hector and Noi dream that one day the four brothers can open their own sushi restaurant. But Roy has mixed feelings about going into business with his brothers. On one hand, he’s content with his life now. Occasionally he returns to Mexico with his wife and children for visits of six months or more, during which he hunts and fishes and grows vegetables. “You work very hard here for one year. And you go back to Mexico and can live there for three years without working.” On the other hand, his children will soon start going to school, and then he won’t be able to keep migrating back and forth.
After three straight years of work, the second-oldest brother, Jose Luis, is now in Puerto Vallarta with his wife and two children. “He’s getting suntanned and having fun, growing tomatoes and jalapenos,” Hector says. “We don’t know when he’s gonna come back.”
The brothers close their Thanksgiving sushi bar around 11 PM, when a DJ takes over. The sushi chefs start dancing the Mexican polka with their wives, children, mama, and papa. “We dance till four o’clock in the morning,” says Hector, grinning. “It’s like this in Mexico.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kimiyo Naka.