What’s in a nationality?

Why most sushi restaurants in Lebanon have Asian chefs

Like most sushi restaurants in Lebanon, Shogun’s chef is not Japanese (Greg Demarque | Executive)

Walk into most restaurants serving sushi in Lebanon and you will almost certainly not see a local rolling up your makis. Though the majority of sushi chefs in Lebanon hail from the Philippines, Vietnam or Thailand, there are two or three restaurants that boast Japanese chefs preparing your Japanese meal.

Restaurant owners Executive spoke to all agreed that hiring a Japanese chef for their sushi restaurant is simply too expensive. “In Lebanon, the salary of a non-Japanese chef is around $1,000. If I hire a Japanese chef, whose salary is much higher, how can I compete with the restaurants around me who don’t have Japanese chefs and pay them much less, given that our other expenses are the same? It’s just not cost effective for us,” explains Shogun owner Aref Saade, adding that a Japanese chef would likely find it hard to deal with the way Lebanese eat their sushi all at once mezze style instead of the slow, piece by piece style that Japanese culture is used to.

Moreover, Ramzi Adada, Yabani’s general manager, suggests that Japanese chefs are expensive because the quality of life in their country is so good that they don’t feel pressured to seek employment abroad.

Tsunami co-owner Rita Ekmekjian says that a typical sushi restaurant employs around 10 chefs, so bringing them all from Japan, knowing that the average salary for a Japanese chef is $5,000, is simply not feasible.

Fady Achkar, whose restaurant Mitsu-Ya is one of the only sushi restaurants in Lebanon that employs a Japanese chef, believes it’s an expense worth investing in. “Ok, they are much more expensive, but when people invest $1.5 million to make a sushi restaurant, they should definitely invest in a Japanese chef. At the end of the day, I don’t go to a restaurant to check out the artwork,” he says.

When asked why Lebanese chefs are not employed as head sushi chefs in Lebanon, the answers among restaurant owners varied. Some believe that, perception-wise, Lebanese customers are more confident in the chef’s skills when they see an Asian chef behind the sushi bar rather than a Lebanese, regardless of their rolling skills. 

Others insist that Filipinos, for example, understand fish better than the Lebanese since they live on islands and have many Japanese restaurants in their country.

Restaurant owners interviewed say it would be easier for them to get Lebanese chefs for their sushi outlets as they wouldn’t have to do paper work for them in terms of sponsorship, but for the time being, Asian chefs remain in charge of sushi restaurants.

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut.