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Big Sky’s newest chef talks art, culture, dedication behind sushi

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“Bowl of Sushi” by Utagawa Hiroshige, a master Japanese artist that lived between 1797-1858. PAINTING COURTESY OF WIKIPEDIA

By Michael Somerby EBS ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR

BIG SKY – Although Troy “Twist” Thompson, founder, owner and operator of the incoming Blue Buddha Sushi Lounge in Big Sky Town Center, has been rolling sushi professionally for over 14 years, he’ll be the first to admit that doesn’t make him a sushi chef—at least as far as the Japanese are concerned.

Now, don’t get it twisted; Thompson makes delicious rolls with skill only a decade and a half of experience provides.

But the practice of making sushi is a time-honored tradition for the people of Japan, extending back into the eighth century A.D. And just like the visual artists-in-waiting of Europe, Japanese sushi chefs underwent a rigorous apprenticeship, dabbling for years in the mundane fundamentals of the craft.  

It’s a tradition that has persisted into the modern era. While Thompson’s training at the Sushi Chef Institute in Los Angeles lasted around eight months, covering everything from the food to business side of the American sushi industry, which grosses $2 billion a year, hopeful Japanese sushi chefs spend a minimum of four years washing rice before they are permitted to handle fish.

Thompson (second from right) and his fellow classmates at the Sushi Chef Institute in Los Angeles. PHOTO COURTESY OF TWIST THOMPSON

This dedication is paramount in Japan, throttling sushi from the realm of cuisine into that of genuine art. Imagine a burger maker spending four years sprinkling sesame seeds on buns; the difference is what makes a burger something merely to devour, and sushi something to savor, both in terms of taste and aesthetics.

Thompson, a native of Golden, Colorado, once dreamed of competing at the highest level of snowboarding, but the aspiration crashed down to earth during a fateful training session in Jackson Hole.

“We were hitting this kicker, and this up-and-comer kid … boosted so much bigger [than me],” Thompson said. “I was probably in the prime of my abilities and he boosted just so much bigger, five times bigger, and he was 10 years younger. I thought, ‘Man, I better do something else.’”

Through his career in the competitive circuit, Thompson was able to travel to ski haunts around the country, including some locations in Europe. He discovered sushi restaurants of all types and realized they served their respective communities the same way a boutique coffee shop might: a place to gather, to unwind and to delight in artisan cuisine.

“[They were a] nice place to wind down at the end of the day, and I met a lot of really cool people there,” he said.

Thompson had been working in the food industry to support his journey as a professional snowboarder, drawing upon culinary arts experience and interest he gained through classes in high school.

But, spurred by his cold-water epiphany, food would become a permanent fixture in his life: Thompson packed his bags and headed to Los Angeles to study under Andy Matsuda, founder of the Sushi Chef Institute and a legend in the American sushi world.

Matsuda, a native of Kobe, Japan, honed his skills in a family restaurant before apprenticing for five years at Osaka’s Genpachi, one of the most famous sushi restaurants in the world. At 25 years old, in 1981, he moved to Los Angeles to capitalize on the wave of Japanophile sentiment sweeping the United States.

Matsuda was promoted to chief sushi chef within a week of arrival—his native skills spoke for themselves.

In 2002, Matsuda founded his institute, which trained Thompson in 2006. Thompson, while lacking in the years of training deemed necessary in Japan, was equipped with the tools and reverence needed to open his first Blue Buddha in Page, Arizona, in 2007.

“We (Thompson and his wife, Jaime) like to bring sushi to small outdoors communities like Big Sky, where people really appreciate life, appreciate the outdoors and their area, and food,” Thompson said. “Those are the markets that I like to live and work in.”

With an appreciation for design and art that extends beyond the food he makes, Thompson and Jaime designed their first Blue Buddha, and now their second, from scratch. Chic and with a pleasant array of color and design elements, such as exposed I-beams and an undulating countertop, the couple is all about curating a memorable experience, the same way a gallery might.

Throughout it all, Thompson has sought to maintain the dignity sushi deserves, so while he mixes in fusion elements, his presentations abstain from gimmick.

“When they started to come out with sushi tacos, and sushi that’s shaped like an airplane, it bothered me,” Thompson said. “Sushi is beautiful by itself, it doesn’t need to be shaped like a tank. … That’s all too gimmicky for me. When you start serving sushi on a shovelhead or a basketball, I think it’s disrespectful. You don’t need all that: It’s a beautiful simple art form.”

His homage for tradition is present in the foundation of each piece he rolls: the sushi, which translates to vinegar rice. Fish, fruit, vegetables—these are add-ons to an already strong base.

“A lot of places will make their sushi zu (vinegar) daily, but we make ours and age it for three months. It’s night and day different … If you start with the rice, then add high quality ingredients, you’re doing good sushi. But you’ve got to start with those basics … for me, it’s 90 percent about the rice,” Thompson said.

With this groundwork, each perfectly cut slab of sashimi, that is raw fish, along with any other additional ingredients, is balanced in both taste and texture.

With an opening slotted for Aug. 5, artisan sushi is right on the horizon for the Big Sky consumer. But it comes with a warning.

“Don’t come here expecting fast food,” Thompson said. “That’s not what we do. We’re crafting an experience, from start to finish. Enjoy yourself.”

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