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July 29, 2014

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Chatting with Linda Rodriguez, Las Vegas’ rare female sushi chef

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Executive Chef Linda Rodriguez of Hachi at Red Rock Resort.

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One doesn’t speak of off-Strip sushi without mentioning Hachi, the superb, modern Japanese/sushi/sashimi restaurant at Red Rock Resort. Its executive chef, Linda Rodriguez, is a Nobu alum and the only female executive sushi chef in town. We caught up with her, a month after she gave birth to her second child.

Why are there so few women in your line of work around here?

It goes back to the Japanese culture, where women have been typically repressed. It might sound ridiculous to Americans, but I’ve heard it said among Japanese that they think women’s hands are too warm to properly handle the fish. It is also a male-dominated culture, where they think if women are trained to be sushi chefs, they will be taking these jobs away from the men.

How did you receive your training?

I got my foot in the door at the very first Nobu in New York, after waiting five hours for an interview. There were no openings. I was looking for anything, not necessarily sushi work. The only openings they had were in the pastry kitchen, so I started there.

Did Nobu Matsuhisa actually train you?

He was there all the time, so I followed him around like a puppy, watching and replicating what he did.

Did you find any resistance from him, or was he receptive from the get-go?

He was very kind. He opened his arms to anyone who wanted to learn. It was the other sushi guys who gave me a hard time and kept their distance from me.

Was it like a fraternity hazing, or worse?

You have to be around Japanese people to understand. I lived in Japan for a few years so I knew the culture from way back … but actually working in a Japanese restaurant as a woman was something different. They wouldn’t speak English or even acknowledge I was there. You could feel the tension when you were near them. It was very cold. Over time, though, it got better when they saw how hard I was willing to work and how much I wanted to learn.

So how did you finally learn the sushi ropes?

It was a very small kitchen (in the New York Nobu), so anything you wanted or needed to learn, you could actually see it. Nobu helped me a lot, and then, eventually, I physically proved myself to all of the chefs. It also helped that I was not a girlie-girl. I was more of a tomboy who could play with the boys.

What advice would you give to a woman who wants to be a sushi chef?

If they are very lucky, maybe they could find a traditional Japanese chef to train under, but the better way would be to attend the sushi school in Los Angeles. It is nothing like the 10-year apprenticeship that takes place in Japan, but it does teach the basics very well. But even after that, you will still have to prove yourself to all the men you will be working with. And don’t even think about ever getting sick.

--Originally published in Las Vegas Weekly.

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