Manu Letellier loves sushi. The French native speaks infectiously about his passion for preparing and rolling up Japonica rice, which he has perfected across the United Kingdom, Germany, France and beyond during 15 years in the sushi trade. Whether it’s running his sushi chef training and consultancy business, working with his small team at his sushi cookery school, organising sushi exhibitions and conferences or hosting sushi team building events, Manu is on a mission to share his love for Japanese cuisine with the world. We caught up with him to find out how to make quality sushi at home.
So how does a Frenchman stumble upon sushi? Where did your culinary career begin?
Growing up in La Rochelle, a coastal town in the South of France, my family were all in the restaurant business. In the 1980s when I was a kid a Japanese chef came to work for my parents, but he couldn’t sell sushi because no-one knew what it was. He began making it for me in our kitchen, which completely blew me away. A few sushi making lessons later and I was completely hooked.
Did this passion take you to Japan for training?
Not at all. First I went to the United Kingdom for a gap year that lasted 15 years. I worked in the information technology sector and was an IT Manager for a while, and then at 26 I just had enough. I was making lots of money but I was not happy with what I was doing so I thought, “follow what you really love – sushi and cooking for people.” I started teaching because I knew how to make sushi well after practising since I was a kid. It’s a love story: you always have something that you can improve on, you can never make the perfect sushi.
Like anything in life you go either go to university and do the training, or you can be passionate. If you are passionate and meet the right people you will learn ten times faster. I spent a lot of time with different chefs and saw different techniques. It’s funny, because now I do training for Michelin star chefs and sushi chefs and sometimes I end up showing them new techniques.
The Sushi School was founded in Bristol back in 2006, and since then you and your small team have taught over 100,000 people in the UK how to make sushi. Why did choose to teach instead of opening up a restaurant?
I’m not a sushi chef in a restaurant because I don’t want to be one. If you have a restaurant you don’t have a life. I’ve got a little girl and a wife and I want to spent time with them. I like working but I don’t want to be a slave to my work. Instead I’m spreading the sushi love, showing people that sushi is easy to make at home. I think sushi making is a skill that should be available to everyone. If you get the rice right you can make sushi much better than many of those you currently find at a restaurant.
What are some of the basics that people first learn when attending one of your classes?
There is a big misconception surrounding sushi in Europe that I want to put an end to. Sushi is not raw fish. It is essentially vinegared rice that uses other ingredients which are more often than not vegetarian; for example, one of my favourites is blue cheese and fig – it’s absolutely delicious! A lot of people eat sushi but they don’t know how to do it properly – they drown it in soy sauce, which you should never do. It’s the equivalent of carefully cooking a dish for five hours, and having your guest sit down at the table and put salt on it before even trying it. In my opinion, ninety per cent of sushi you eat out is mediocre because it’s been sitting in the fridge. Sushi Expert Manu Letellier If you put sushi rice in the fridge it becomes hard like a brick. There is sugar around each grain of rice so it crystallises, which is why people feel the need to drown it in soy sauce, otherwise it’s too dry. If you eat freshly made sushi it is amazing!
Bearing in mind the different types of sushi – California rolls, maki, nigiri – what are the basics ingredients for simple sushi that one can make at home?
The basic ingredients for sushi are Japonica rice, sushi vinegar and quality water. You also need some kind of wrapping paper, either nori – dry roasted seaweed – or soy wrapping paper. What makes the special crop of Japonica rice unique from risotto rice or long grain rice is that it has four times more starch than any other rice. It’s very, very starchy, so when you begin preparing your rice you have to wash it about ten times before you cook it. The rice is the hardest thing to do, it’s got nothing to do with the rolling – it all comes down to the rice. It takes ten years to train as a chef, and the first three years are solely spent on preparing the rice. To prepare the rice you also need to ensure you have high-quality water. The quality of the water you cook your rice in will impact massively on the rice. When I’m teaching I wash it with normal water, and when I’m cooking for myself I use Evian water to give it a nice mineral taste. In cities the tap water can contain bleach or other unsavoury matter. Of course using Evian is for purists, but it makes a big difference.
When it comes to rolling the sushi, how does the quality of your mat affect your rolling technique?
Everyone thinks that rolling sushi is the hardest thing, but really, it’s not! My three-year-old daughter does it. Spreading the rice and cutting the roll is actually the hardest part. Don’t get anything other than a regular rolling mat, and then cover it in cling film so it’s all neat and tidy.
Why is cutting the sushi difficult? What’s the best way to do it?
The key is to wet the knife and clean the blade between each cut. Every slice will cover the knife in starch which makes it difficult, so wetting it between each cut helps avoid this. A clean, sharp knife will make perfect sushi. Sushi is food for the eyes, so it’s all about making a clean presentation. You need it to be super neat, but this shouldn’t stop you from trying. Sushi making is actually very therapeutic and relaxing.
Can you spell the sushi making process out for us step by step for those want to try at home?
- Carefully wash the rice and begin cooking it in a rice cooker.
- While the rice is cooking, prepare your ingredients. Making sushi is seventy per cent preparation, so you want to have everything neatly laid in front of you.
- Prepare the rice by cooking it down to room temperature while putting your fillings on the side.
- Start spreading the rice and place your desired fillings inside.
- Roll, cut, serve and enjoy.