Anthony Lucero on Making a Movie About a Female Mexican Sushi Chef & Inventing a Poblano Sushi Roll

One of the stand outs at the 2014 Cine+Mas San Francisco Latino Film Fest is a movie about closing cultural and gender gaps that uses food to confront the concept of “authenticity.”

Filmed mostly in Oakland with a majority Bay Area cast, East Side Sushi follows Juana Martinez (Dianna Torres), a single mother struggling to support her aging father and young daughter. After a robbery forces her to give up the family fruit-vending cart in search of a more secure career, Juana lands an entry-level position at a local Japanese restaurant. It is here where her incredible talent and growing passion for sushi go noticed by Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi), the lead sushi chef. With everyone else in her life, however, she is met with discouragement and outright opposition — particularly from the restaurant owner for not meeting the traditional standards expected to work behind the sushi counter.

Winner of the audience Award at San Jose’s Cinequest Film Fest and nominated for a Jury Selection award at the CAAM Fest, East Side Sushi is a touching account of overcoming adversity while opening the dialogue about ethnic and gender lines. We caught up with director Anthony Lucero to discuss his motivation for making East Side Sushi, filming in Oakland, and breaking stereotypes.

One thing that really struck me was the subtlety with which you tackle complex ethnic and gender issues. Where those themes you set out confront?

Honestly, the exercise was a selfish one. Exploring these subjects is often what I find the most enjoyable. I get inspired and research these characters. I have a background in documentary film so it’s almost natural for me to go out there and want to capture their story. I didn’t go out there with the intent of creating a film about racism and sexism — it already exists everywhere around us and it’s apparent in the film. Juana is hindered by the conceptions of tradition and authenticity in Japanese cuisine, but I wasn’t trying to create a film that is trying to change to the culture of sushi or anything like that. I wanted people to look at her struggle and say, “Yeah, that’s interesting.”

About Juana, What inspired you to tell her story?

Have you ever seen the movie The King of Kong? It’s about a guy who wants to get the highest score in Donkey Kong. Sounds boring but watch it! I was inspired by how the director took a very narrow subject matter and made it epic. I wanted to do something like that. I wanted to tell the bigger story. One day, I’m eating at some greasy spoon and the dishwasher catches my eye. I wonder, “What are his aspirations here, even if short term? Does he want to want to be a cook? Where is he trying to go?” I like to write about everyday heroes, so I approached it as a writing exercise. Later, I was at a Japanese restaurant and noticed that there are never any women behind the sushi counter. That’s when it hit me. Rather than tell the story of Juan the dishwasher, I’ll tell the story of Juana — the talented cook who aspires to be a Sushi Chef. That’s a captivating story. The Bay Area is one of them most progressive places on earth. If I were to find a female sushi chef, I think it would be here.

Oakland doesn’t get much love from the big screen. Why did you choose to film in Oakland and what was that experience like?

Oakland is an incredibly diverse place; it’s an immigrant community and it’s no secret that some of the best food is found in immigrant communities. I grew up in Oakland and even though we may live in our respective pockets, food is one of the first things that brings us together, so I thought it would be the perfect place to tell this story. Oakland was awesome to shoot in. I know the city really well and I know what places to avoid.

It’s no secret that some of the best food is found in immigrant communities.

Oakland was also very good to me. I was incredibly lucky to have had so much help from the local community. When we were looking for filming locations we approached Coach Sushi and told them what we were doing. They were really supportive and just gave us their keys to film when they were not open. That helped us film many scenes, but we also needed another location. So, I go down to B Dama on Piedmont and ask them the same thing. “We are shooting a film at Coach Sushi on their days off — Sunday and Monday — do you think I could film in your kitchen on your day off, Tuesday?” and he’s like, “Oh, I know Coach. Yeah, you can film here on the other nights.” I was amazed by how generous everybody was! So, you have Coach Sushi filmed in the front and B Dama filmed in the back.

A lot of attention was paid to the traditions of both Mexican and Japanese cuisine. What type of research and prep did you do for the film?

I had shot a documentary years ago following a fruit cart in Fruitvale where we would spend hours with these vendors. A lot of that stuck with me and many of those details made it into the film. We also had the actors that played Juana and Aki sent to a Sushi training with a master sushi chef named Tomoharu Nakamura. Tomoharu was a huge help. He worked as a consultant on the film and created all the beautiful food you see on screen including Juana’s signature Green Diablo Roll. He even has a cameo in the film!

Yes, the Green Diablo Roll! There are some really innovative combinations of Mexican & Japanese culinary traditions in the film. How did you come up with the idea?

I was trying to think how we could wrap sushi without using the nori. I saw a poblano pepper and thought maybe we can use that. So I wrote it in the screenplay. I didn’t even know if that was possible and was open to changing it. When I gave the screenplay to Tomoharu to look at, I wasn’t sure if he would get it. One day he calls me up and says, “Come to the restaurant, I want to show you the competition food.” So I go to Tomoharu’s restaurant and there’s the Green Diablo Roll! I was like, “Is that a roasted poblano?” I couldn’t believe it. He totally shocked me! Later, he admitted that he considered adding to his menu but it was very difficult to make. To actually get the pepper just flat and straight you have to roast it, peel off the skin, and just roll it perfectly.

What’s the main thing you want people to take away from this film?

I hope the film inspires people to be more like my lead character, Juana. She is someone who wants to break out of the mold of what society thinks she should or should not be. I want them to relate with her and feel inspired… and of course walk away hungry.

East Side Sushi is currently playing in theaters throughout Los Angeles, Orange County, the Bay Area, and other CA cities. Find details here.