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I'm Nikki, Your Sushi Girl

Everybody got a drink? Everybody got a knife? It's time for this sushi class to get slicing.


Ten friends stand on either side of a narrow table cluttered with avocados, cucumbers, knives, cutting boards, soft drinks and apple martinis. They're waiting for orders from a young woman who is clad all in black except for her footwear--the Japanese wooden clogs called gaeta.


"Everybody have a drink? Everybody have a knife?" It's time for Sushi Girl, a.k.a. Nikki Gilbert.


During the next two hours, Gilbert will show the party in West Los Angeles how to make cucumber and California rolls, how to wrap rice, spicy tuna and daikon sprouts in a cone of seaweed and how to slice fish, then mold it to rice for classic nigiri sushi. It's serious business, but it involves a lot of laughter and winds up with a last course never found in a sushi bar--chocolate fondue, cake and Rice Krispie treats. Not just a class, this is a party for a group of women who get together regularly.


Gilbert specializes in teaching such groups. She charges $55 per person, with a minimum of 10 students. Sometimes students share the fee. On other occasions a host sponsors the party. Gilbert shops for fish, seaweed sheets, wasabi and other essentials and prepares the rice, which is medium-grain Calrose seasoned with a Japanese-style rice vinegar formulated for sushi. Guests have only to bring a knife and a cutting board.


One wonders how a Greek-German-Polish-Jewish fan of hamburgers and chocolate cake turned into Sushi Girl. Born and raised in Venice, Gilbert, has eaten Asian food since the age of 6. While in high school, she worked as a waitress in a Westside Japanese restaurant, then in a sushi bar while attending UC Berkeley, where she was an ethnic studies major. She asked the sushi chefs there for lessons. "I'd go home and bring in what I made, and they would laugh at me," she says.


After college, Gilbert taught elementary school in Kitakyushu, Japan, for three years. She became such a regular at a yakitori bar there that she sometimes got behind the counter to serve drinks. Back home, in Venice, started catering and taught at the Learning Annex and Epicurean cooking school.

"Anybody know the definition of sushi?" she asks the class. The answer is vinegared rice, not raw fish. Cut-up fish is just sashimi," Gilbert explains.


Now the women cut cucumbers into neat sticks to line on rice pressed onto a sheet of nori. They will roll this with the aid of a bamboo mat, called a sudare, which they have covered with plastic wrap to protect it from sticky rice grains. "The biggest problem with sushi is the rice. It makes such a mess," Gilbert says. She shows how to dip your hands in water, then clap them to remove the excess before handling rice.


A mashed rice grain later will serve as a seal for seaweed-wrapped tuna hand rolls. "You're sure to have one somewhere on your body," she says. And one student exhibits hands coated with rice because she forgot to dip them in water.


Using three cuts as Gilbert directs, the students turn each long cucumber roll into individual sushi. Some are a little lumpy. The filling oozes out of others. "There's no such thing as mistakes, it's just dinner," Gilbert consoles them.


One woman dips a piece into a saucer of soy sauce seasoned with wasabi. "You know what? This is good," she says. Another packs what she has made to take home to her husband.


The ice broken, they proceed to California rolls, filled with avocado, cucumber and crab sticks. The outer layer is rice, embedded with flying fish roe. The roe should have been sesame seeds, but Gilbert has left the seeds at home. "What, no goma?" laments a participant.


After this, spicy tuna hand rolls seem easy. The tuna isn't too spicy, Gilbert reassures those who hesitate. She has seasoned it with mayonnaise mixed with Tabasco and a Vietnamese hot sauce. This style of sushi is called temaki. ("Maki" is roll. "Te" is hand.)


Then it's on to nigiri sushi--a mound of rice topped with raw fish, in this case Japanese snapper. "Your only real goal is that it stands up when you put it down," Gilbert says. The way to eat nigiri sushi is to pick it up by hand, then lightly dip the fish side, not the rice, in soy sauce, she explains.


Gilbert walks around the table to give individual pointers. "This isn't as hard as you guys thought it would be. It tastes like sushi, yeah?" There's vigorous applause as the class ends.


Gilbert heads for the dessert table and dips a banana chunk in a pot of melted chocolate. It's the first thing she has eaten that evening. The class asks why she has passed on the sushi. "It's like when you bake cookies all day," she says. "You don't want to eat them."

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