Meet: Madame Saito, "Queen of Sushi." She's been serving sushi in the Philadelphia area — and teaching classes on how to make it — for more than 30 years.
Raw deal: Saito had to learn her trade after hours in Tokyo, when restaurants were closed, because it was against Japanese custom for women to become sushi chefs at the time.
Sometime in the mid-1980s, Madame Saito, owner of Tokio HeadHouse restaurant in Society Hill, gave a sushi-making demonstration at Longwood Gardens. At the close of the event, she said, she proudly presented her newest creation to the crowd — a sushi roll made with Philadelphia Cream Cheese and smoked salmon.
"I raise it up in the public and say, 'This is the Jewish roll!'" Saito said, noting that she was inspired to create the roll after a breakfast of bagels, lox, and cream cheese with a Jewish friend. "And the crowd says, 'No, a Philadelphia roll! Philly roll! Philly roll!' So they came up with the name of the roll, not me."
It's difficult to independently prove or disprove Saito's fish story. While several websites name her as the originator of the roll, a different creation story is often given. One site claims to have traced the Philadelphia roll back to San Francisco in 1985, but provides no sourcing or further information.
What is almost certain is that Saito, 68 — whose given name is Ai but who goes by Madame Saito (a name she picked up while studying in Paris) — was the first female sushi chef in the Philadelphia area.
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While she was growing up in Japan, Saito's father was a food importer-exporter who often took his family abroad, where Saito was introduced to many different cuisines. As a result, she dreamed of one day becoming a chef.
But being a chef — especially a sushi chef — in Japan was unheard of for women at the time, she said.
"It's a custom that the woman cannot service in the sushi bar," Saito said. "But starting from my generation, there was a little fighting" against that custom.
For three years, Saito trained with sushi chefs in Tokyo after hours when their restaurants were closed, so nobody would see her.
In 1981, she moved her family to the Philadelphia area because she wanted her three young sons to attend the University of Pennsylvania one day (spoiler alert: They all did and all became doctors.)
Saito opened her first restaurant in Upper Darby in the early 1980s, when sushi was still a relatively obscure cuisine in the United States.
Customers were so baffled by sushi and "so scared" of the idea of eating raw fish that Saito started teaching classes on the dish and how to make it.
At first, she said, other Japanese restaurateurs were shocked that she would teach sushi-making to her customers. They were afraid that if people learned to make sushi at home, they would not go out to eat at Japanese restaurants, Saito said.
But she thought otherwise.
"The more people know about sushi, you have more customers," she told them.
Through five restaurants and three decades, Saito has taught novices and masters alike. At Temple University's Center City location, where she taught noncredit courses for 21 years, Saito said, she earned the nickname the "Queen of Sushi."
Saito loves each class she gives, but there's one that's particularly close to her heart these days.
"Now, my grandkids ask for sushi classes," she said. "They love it. So that's my happiness."