I learned a valuable lesson in Japan; but first I must, again, tell you about my mother. Mom taught me from a very young age to clean my plate. I learned all about the starving children in China before I was able to walk. I remember the tests of will between my Mother and me. She was as absolutely sure that I would sit at that table until every last drop of my milk was gone; as I was that there was no way in Hell that I was going to drink that nasty powdered milk. I still shudder when I walk past the powdered milk in the store…
Anyway, in Japan… Cleaning your plate is a sure sign to your host that you’ve enjoyed your serving (beer, sushi, whatever), and also that you’re just not quite fully satiated yet. They subscribe to the “If you’ve cleaned your plate, you must want more” philosophy. Your Japanese host will continue to pour sake, beer, sushi, fish, and all sorts of weird fish-tasting things down your throat until you finally relent and leave your plate and your cup half full. This made for an ugly scene my first night there… I was determined to clean my plate (subliminally, perhaps) and my host was determined not to lose face. I’m a big guy. You see what was destined to happen here? My “under-belly” was so bloated with sake, beer and sushi that I could barely wobble out of that restaurant. Thanks Mom…
When you do finish a meal, place your fork (tines down) and your knife across the top edge of the plate, bisecting an imaginary line between 11 and 1 o’clock. Don’t call attention to the fact that you’re through, because others are still enjoying their meal. If the service is good, they’ll clear your plate for you at an appropriate time. Leave your napkin in your lap, as there is no need to toss it in a wad on the table in front of you!
Speaking of service, any issues should be addressed privately with the restaurant manager. Excuse yourself during the meal, and discuss the problem quietly with a manager so the issue might be resolved. Getting combative or confrontational on your way out the door after the meal really doesn’t do anyone any good. If the service is excellent, please tip at least 15 if not 20%. Remember, the wait staff is paid below minimum wage and they stay late after closing to refill condiments, sweep, mop, fold napkins, etc. They’ve earned that money. Besides, they have to pay 3-5% of your table’s total to the bar, even if you didn’t order any drinks so… If you stiff a waiter on a $100 tab, that waiter still has to pay the bar $5. That waiter does NOT want to pay out of his pocket to serve the likes of you!
On the subject of sushi, here are a few things to be aware of. Sushi chef’s have an enormous amount of pride in their work. Each piece is designed to be eaten and enjoyed in one bite. Some American sushi restaurants serve slightly larger portions, but the intent is the same. Leave the piece as a whole and eat it in one (or two, if you must) bites. Additionally, the creation and consideration of taste in a piece of sushi is all about balance for a good sushi chef. Nothing will offend him more than if you dunk your whole piece into a full trough of soy! You may lightly touch a bit of soy sauce, but no dredging! Wasabi and other ingredients are carefully added by the chef and your Sushi should be spectacular, just the way it is. Think about those fools who insist on a bottle of ketchup for their steak… bad form.
Also when it comes to sushi, I rarely order from the menu. The chef knows what’s fresh and what’s good on a given day and he will take pride in preparing a meal for someone who wants his advice. Ask what’s fresh. Ask if the chef has any specialty rolls that he is partial to. You’ll be impressed, I assure you.
EXTRA: If you have questions for Ken regarding business travel, hotels, airplanes, etc, please send an email! Your questions will be recorded and Ken will answer the best ones in his Ask the Expert podcast show.