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Michelin-starred sushi restaurant under fire for serving female diner ‘smaller portions’

Diners say their $700-a-person meal was served with a side of discrimination and food waste.
screengrabs from a Tik Tok filmed at Sushi Noz
Scenes from the viral TikTok at Sushi Noz.@luiscarloszara via TikTok

Two-star Michelin restaurant Sushi Noz in New York City promises an immersively traditional experience, styling itself “like an ancient Kyoto temple,” according to its website, with not even a single nail used in its authentic Japanese interior. Chef Nozomu Abe was born to sushi, in a way: His grandfather owned a seafood company in Hokkaido, Japan — and he trained in the samurai-era birthplace of Edomae sushi itself, Tokyo. No detail of this deep history is overlooked. The restaurant uses a traditional hinoki wood ice chest as a refrigerator, and even asks that patrons not wear scents that could infringe on the sensory experience.

That dedication to ancient craft, however, is the root of a viral negative review on a decidedly modern platform: TikTok. Creator Luis Carlos Zaragoza recently visited Sushi Noz with his dining companions and posted about their shock after previous good experiences. Although they did have notes about the chosen wine pairings, the bulk of their negative reaction was over some apparently unnecessary food waste, and that their female dining companion was told she would get smaller portions — for the same price.

It’s a hefty price, too: The menu at Sushi Noz starts at $495 per very exclusive seat, and Zaragosa notes in the review that they each paid about $700 for omakase service. In the video, the restaurant’s smooth hinoki counter, serene Japanese decor and Michelin star plaques frame a succession of gorgeously minimalist dishes with flashes of maximalist ingredients: deep-red bonito sashimi, panko fried flounder with caviar, cascading leaves of white truffle.

“SMALLER PORTIONS?? There’s actually no way. How can they even do that?! Especially for the price?? What the heck?” one TikTok user wrote in the most-liked comment on the video.

“That part about the smaller portions for women BOILS MY BLOOD!” another commented. “Forced portion control in this day in age is actually insane and this is straight up sexism, especially as the price is the same as for.”

“It’s a tradition get over it,” someone else countered, while another suggested non-Japanese people shouldn’t “tell a Japanese chef how to serve Japanese food.”

“We had been to Sushi Noz several times and never expected to have the experience we did,” Zaragoza tells TODA.com, contrasting it with a similar meal at Los Angeles’ Michelin-starred Kaneyoshi, in which a woman seated near him was offered smaller rice portions, but only clearly in response to her needing several bites to finish a previous course. In explaining why he felt it was important to publicize his review, he continued, “It’s a nuanced issue because tradition is often viewed as something to be preserved and respected, but we had to draw the line when someone in our group, the only woman, was given less.”

Omakase means something like, “I leave it up to you,” a dining style in which the patron lets the chef choose the courses and pairings. There’s an overt artistry to it, in which the chef meets the moment, choosing ingredients according to quality, the season and their personal culinary vision.

However, even Michelin itself says the last ingredient is the diner, and that the chef’s role in the face-to-face meeting is to gauge reactions and help guide towards the best experience. It’s often said that tailoring the dish to the diner means women should have a smaller piece to complement supposedly smaller hands and mouths, but is that really seeing the individual, or is it just seeing the chef’s idea of them?

And is it true a widely celebrated restaurant like Sushi Noz intended the overgeneralization?

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for Sushi Noz issued TODAY.com the following statement:

“The meal begins with five or six otsumami (small plates), which can be quite filling on their own. Before the sushi section of the menu begins, the chef will often ask first-time guests if they prefer smaller rice portions, an offer which they are more than welcome to decline. This is done out of consideration for the guest, to make sure they are able to enjoy the full progression of the omakase menu without becoming too full. In a traditional Japanese restaurant like ours, cultural and language barriers naturally lead to misunderstandings from time to time — that being said, this is the first time in six years that we’ve heard of these actions interpreted this way, which couldn’t have been further from the chef’s intentions.”

This story is hard to resolve because it’s the intersection of real issues that more than one group faces. Women are often treated unfairly, and other cultures are often misunderstood.

No one knows that even Michelin restaurants are subject to controversy better than author Geradine DeRuiter. The James Beard award-winning writer made headlines in 2021 with a scathing review of the Michelin-approved Bros restaurant in Lecce, Italy. The fallout included ridicule and death threats — for her.

In her new book, “If You Can’t Take the Heat: Tales of Food, Feminism, and Fury,” she details the story of how a 1980s lawsuit brought by a woman business owner ended the practice of “ladies’ menus,” in which women are given menus with no prices listed, in the United States.

DeRuiter tells TODAY.com that some practices characterized as “tradition” are rooted in antiquated ideas about women or other groups, that they may not take into account that people vary in size, or income or appetite, and they remove their agency as people. “You can’t tell how hungry I am by looking at me,” she says, noting that traditionally, women weren’t even allowed to eat in tavern and restaurant spaces with men.

“Doing it this way because we’ve always done it this way is not a valid reason,” she says, “particularly when doing it the way we’ve always done it hurts people. If that’s the case, we need to be rethinking.”

Still, this wouldn’t be the first time women noted sexist obstacles in the world of sushi. Traditionally, women haven’t been allowed to be sushi chefs, either, the conventional wisdom being that their hands are too warm and would alter the flavor of the fish. Tokyo-based aquaculture pioneer and sushi chef Yuki Chidui has heard that — and much more — but it hasn’t stopped her.

chef Yuki Chidui
Chef Yuki Chidui is one of the first female sushi chefs in Japan, and the owner of an innovative U.N.-recognized salmon farm.Courtesy Yuki Chidui

Asked about her experiences in light of this story, Chidui tells TODAY.com that she has firsthand experience with the barriers female chefs face. She also maintains that there is a persistent practice at some restaurants, if not Sushi Noz, of training employees to serve women patrons smaller portions or lower quality food for the same price. Chidui points us to an extensive conversation in Japanese on X, in which some commenters share photos of meals they were given, inferior in comparison to those given men at their tables.

But Chidui wants to make it clear it’s not merely a Japanese problem, mentioning having seen a recent European hiring notice specifically for a male sushi chef.

“I think traditions always evolve with the times,” Chidui tells TODAY.com. “Otherwise, I think (they) become too restrictive for people to follow.” She says that her own practice is along the lines of what Sushi Noz’s statement maintains they do; she asks individual customers about their preferences without assumptions, and then she makes careful adjustments to be sure each person is treated with equity, both fairly and individually.

“I think the best thing to do is to make sure that there are no misunderstandings between the customer and the restaurant in the future. To this end, questions about quantity and quality should be asked and resolved first, regardless of gender.”

DeRuiter agrees, noting that diners are looking for entertainment and art on one level, but they’re also looking to eat, and paying for satisfaction. She points out it’s the restaurant’s obligation to ensure people receive the experience they’ve paid for, and also a customer’s responsibility to come to the table with an open mind.

“A good meal is a conversation,” she says, “among the diner, the staff and the chef.