If you’ve eaten at a Japanese restaurant, or even visited Japan recently, then you may have heard this term thrown around. Generally, this is a phrase used in sushi restaurants, although the Japanese have a unique way of working this little phrase into different parts of their culture as well. But if you are looking to dive into the world of classy living, it’s a phrase you ought to know! In fact, the Michelin Guide describes omakase as one of the few formal dining experiences that are “as revered or as intimidating as ordering omakase” (1). So, what is omakase exactly? Why are people saying this when they go into sushi restaurants?
Omakase can be translated exactly to “I’ll leave it up to you”. This phrase is used when customers leave themselves completely at the hands of the chef, allowing them to create a meal completely out of seasonal ingredients, usually whatever is available at that time, with art and elegance. If you choose to order omakase style, typically you can expect the chef to be creative, innovative, and surprising in the dishes they present. Rather than ordering off a menu, omakase leaves the creativity up to the chef allowing you to fully immerse in the dining experience.
Where did Omakase Come From?
Contrary to what many may believe, omakase is not an ancient phrase that has been used for centuries. Omakase came into play with the rise of sushi restaurants in Japan which were especially popularized in the 90’s. Prior to the 90’s, however, sushi restaurants were not always easy to get in to. During this time, it was not uncommon for chefs who knew the details of the fish and mixings of flavors to be particularly fond of the fine artisanship of sushi. Because of this, however, sushi restaurants were extremely pricey and not something that could be enjoyed by just anyone.
But with the 90’s came the soaring of Japan’s bubble economy and the opening of many new sushi shops. Customers came in with their pockets loaded, ready to enjoy a fine dining meal they had never been able to experience prior. As a result of this, the sushi culture changed and soon sake and side dishes were offered to compliment the main meals. Customers were happy with these familiar menu items, but still struggled to order when it came to main dishes. As many newcomers were not familiar with the dishes or the fish, they needed a way to order a meal and leave it up to the chef to avoid embarrassment of not knowing a particular dish – thus “omakase” was born.
But customers were not the only ones who enjoyed omakase. Chefs took to the challenge to serve the finest fish and ingredients they have available that day for their customers. They gauged customer reactions and chose each meal carefully to make sure they were completely enjoying their experience. Not only did it allow chefs to step up their creativity when it came to serving sushi, but it allowed customers the ease of placing their entire trust in the hands of the chef as they carried on with their conversations with friends or coworkers.
Omakase in the United States
Of course, omakase is quite a popular dining experience in Japan. In fact, author Trevor Corson wrote in his book The Story of Sushi that Omakase is what a sophisticated sushi connoisseur would say to the chef as they sit down for their meal. These types of sushi customers rarely order off the menu, although traditionally, sushi restaurants in Japan do not include menus but rather are all omakase ordering style.
In the United States omakase still means “I’ll leave it up to you” but it is typically an extended sushi dinner. You will order at the sushi bar, and the chef will prepare one piece of fish at a time and will explain the name of the dish, and its origin, along with answering any questions you may have. From there, it is up to the chef to gauge your reaction and anticipate what your next dish should be and how much more you should have. The dining experience requires giving up complete control of the ordering process and letting the chef decide your dinner choice. This is especially prominent in Masa Takayama’s omakase restaurant, Masa – the most expensive restaurant in the US. Click here to read more about Masa and the chef behind this brilliant restaurant.
In the United States, omakase is really no different. You are still able to pull up to any sushi bar and order omakase, but usually sushi restaurants in the United States will still include their full sushi menus. Why is this? Although omakase is a gamble, typically customers will receive a slightly discounted rate on the dish than they would if they had just ordered a la carte. Still, customers have reported racking up quite the large bill at the end of an omakase meal. Some chefs have worked to combat this by providing a set price for the experience, so customers know what they are getting themselves into. However, not every chef is transparent on the price simply because so much is dependent on your experience and what you eat, such is the case for Chef Urasawa of Urasawa such in Los Angeles.
Omakase in Japan
While the most popular setting to hear the omakase phrase would be in a sushi restaurant, the Japanese have actually leaked this omakase system into other aspects of their culture. It is also not unpopular to order omakase for lunch at other Japanese restaurants. In fact, most regular customers order omakase without looking at a menu. Others will order omakase simply based off the reputation of the restaurant even if they have never eaten there before. So if you are looking to experience a new restaurant completely at the hands of the staff and chef, then “omakase” it is!
But this doesn’t just stop at food. Omakase can also be used when ordering wine, allowing the sommelier complete control over the wine selection. If you lack knowledge of fine wines, sharing your budget and meal choice with the staff and omakase it, they will not only pick the perfect wine to go with your meal, but it will be in the right price range for you too. This also goes for ordering cocktails at a bar. Perhaps you’re in the mood to try something new but you’re not sure what – omakase it!
Last, but not least, omakase is leaking their way into the fashion industry. In recent years, as Japan soars to the top of the fashion industry in the world, there have been many fashion omakase services where you allow a designer to decide what looks best on you. Simply meeting with the designer or filling out a questionnaire will allow them to choose cuts that suit your figure as well as bold patterns or subtle designs to match your personality as well. Fashion is all about expressing who we are, but if you still have a hard time knowing what to wear, maybe consider omakase instead (2).