At some sushi restaurants in Japan, you may notice an option on the menu called, “omakase.” You may have even seen some Japanese people walk right up to the counter and shout “omakase” to the chef. The chef then gets right to work and begins serving his best sushi in an almost celebratory kind of way.
This is not a Japanese delicacy or special kind of food, it’s a whole dining concept. Omakase (お任せ) literally means “I’ll leave it up to you.” It’s the act of allowing the chef to choose your order for you.
About the Practice of Omakase
This is one of the most honored yet adventurous dining experiences, but also one of the most exciting. If you don’t know the chef, you have no idea what you’re going to be eating. So, ordering omakase is not for picky eaters or those who have an aversion to adventures with sushi menus.
There are also omakase wines, cocktails, and food delivery. When customers order omakase, they expect an innovative surprise. This not only applies to food but also clothing, haircuts, and even traveling itineraries. However, the best experience of omakase in Japan is at a restaurant, particularly ones featuring sushi.
Many Japanese sushi restaurants offer some form of omakase. For instance, lunchtime spots will offer an omakase option. This is ideal for eating and getting back to work quickly.
Dinnertime restaurants have a myriad of courses that can range from 12 to 22 plate courses in all. In the US, omakase at a sushi restaurant often means an extended dining experience.
The thing about omakase is that the chef’s philosophy will be their guide on what they choose to make and serve. This means the experience will wildly change between different chefs and rarely will ever do the same selections.
Some chefs prepare food in a traditional way, called “edomae.” Yet others will employ more modern, westernized techniques. They usually base the menu on their style and it sets the tone for the omakase experience.
Where Omakase Began
This is a more modern practice that started with sushi restaurants in the 1990s. It came as the result of growing popularity with sushi and tourists to Japan. Since most people outside of Japanese culture don’t know or understand the ins and outs of sushi, saying “omakase” allowed them to save face and enjoy great food.
Why People Order Omakase
There are many reasons why the Japanese love “omakase.” First, it’s great for indecisiveness. Sometimes, we don’t know what we feel like eating, and putting your trust in the chef removes the burden of making a decision.
The chef themselves know what the freshest items are and therefore can make what he knows will be the best experience for each patron.
Another reason for “omakase” is saving face. In Japan, they do not take pleasure in embarrassing others in public. When newcomers enter a restaurant, they don’t know how to order or the way in which things go. Saying “omakase” is a perfect solution.
A Classic Way to Order
Plus, saying omakase to a chef when settling down at the sushi counter is a classic way to order. Connoisseurs of sushi rarely if ever order directly from a menu. Many sushi counters in Japan and a few in the US don’t have a menu at all. Therefore “omakase” can be a standard way of interacting with the sushi chef.
Trust in Expertise
Omakase is a way for customers to show their trust in the expert opinions and ideas of the chef. Leaving the choice up to the professionals will ensure you get the ultimate experience. Plus, chefs love the concept too.
It’s an intimate experience between chef and customer while providing an enriching experience for both parties. The chef gets immediate confirmation of their cooking skills and quality of the sushi, while customers receive a wonderful and unexpected surprise.
What to Expect during an Omakase Experience
Many people consider ordering omakase something akin to an artistic performance. Whenever you put yourself in the hands of a Japanese chef and completely cede the process of ordering, you can expect a top-notch, high-quality meal. But, it’s a gamble and you don’t know what you’re going to get.
Guaranteed though, it will be seasonal, artistic, and elegant with the finest ingredients available. In general, you get whatever the day’s fresh catch is along with other high-quality items. Because of the risk, you’re taking, the price can be less expensive than if you order it à la carte.
While many restaurants will do things differently, there is a general mode they will go about executing an omakase meal. This is especially true in the US, where diners tend to be pickier than they are in Japan.
When ordering omakase, you are getting the full attention and expertise of the chef. This means only a few customers get to enjoy the experience throughout the course of an evening.
For instance, if there are six seats at a sushi counter, then only about eight to ten guests will get to have omakase throughout a single dinner service.
How you order will depend on the type of eatery you’re at. If you’re at a food stall, you simply say “omakase” and they give you what their special is for the day.
For sushi restaurants, it’s appropriate to sit at the counter and order it directly. The chef will prepare it right away, one piece at a time. Here, they’ll announce the name and origin, answering customer questions, and guess what else their customers will enjoy. They also gauge how much more a customer can eat.
When you order omakase, it’s appropriate to quickly list ingredients you don’t want along with any food allergies or intolerances. Then, the chef determines on the spot what will appear on each plate.
Reservations And Cancellations
Some restaurants may require a reservation for an omakase meal. This is because of the many hours of preparation it takes to make all the food. When making the reservation, tell them about food preferences and allergies.
If you end up canceling your reservation, these types of restaurants will charge a cancellation fee if you call it off in three days or less. At the most upscale sushi eateries prices can range between $75 and go as high as $275 or more.
Changing Your Mind Is Considered Rude
Whether at a sushi counter or a high-end restaurant, once ordered and the omakase preparations begin, you must remain quiet and only give feedback on what you eat.
It is rude to change your mind about omakase mid-serving. Once the chef begins, you’re expected to eat the carefully prepared dishes.
Serving And Preparation
Usually, they’ll start with some signature appetizers and they gauge how the customers react to the food. From there the chef will decide if they can get more adventurous or if they should keep things more conservative.
However, other restaurants will provide a set menu because of how the chef wants people to experience omakase. They then work within this context when changing ingredients to suit a customer’s taste.
Customer Happiness Is Key
Throughout the whole process, the most important thing the chef keeps in mind is that the customer is happy and satisfied.
So, while you don’t know what you’ll get, they won’t continue to serve food you don’t like or seem to enjoy. They’ll leave a window open to change and adjust each dish as necessary for every course or piece of sushi served.