East Side Sushi is the culinary journey of a single mother who strives to leave her dead-end jobs and aspires to be a sushi chef. Juana is a Mexican-American who lives with her father and young daughter in inner-city Oakland. Hers is a hard-knock life; overworked and under payed. Yet our heroine has a fierce work ethic: She wakes up everyday before dawn to pick and prep fresh fruit to sell on a street corner with her families fruit-cart. At night Juana works maintenance at a local gym, cleaning bathrooms and gym equipment.
One day, while selling fruit, she is robbed and attacked by two thugs. Disappointed, she tells her father her fruit-cart days are over. While walking in the neighborhood she notices a "help-wanted" sign outside of Osaka, a local sushi restaurant. When she interviews, she is told the position is as an assistant to the cooks, and she will also be mopping floors, doing dishes and bussing tables. The interviewer is doubtful and tells Juana they don't usually hire women for the kitchen, as heavy lifting is involved. But Juana is adamant :"My daughter is 52 pounds and I can carry her for hours. If I can not do it, you can fire me on the spot." She gets the job, and immediately quits the gym.
Juana is excited for the opportunity, but her father is not encouraging. He would rather see his daughter get a job at a taqueria so she can bring home some tacos; but Japanese food? He's not impressed. Juana wants to try something different, she's tired of working at taquerias, as she did in the past, and is hoping Osaka will be an avenue worth taking.
On her first night, she is washing dishes when the restaurant gets slammed. One of the prep cooks is over-whelmed with bento boxes and can't prep the veggies. The lead sushi chef, Aki, grabs her off dishes and shows her how he wants the cabbage cut. Impressed with her knife skills, he orders her to nix the dishes and focus on prep. The next day at family meal, Juana is a fish out of water. While the entire Asian staff is eating lunch, she just stares at the food. Juana is hesitant to eat authentic Japanese food, and has no idea how to use her chopsticks. Aki encourages her to try it. Embarrassed, but hungry, she uses her hands and pops a cut sushi roll in her mouth: Her love affair with Japanese cuisine has begun. That night, she studies the menu and practices using her chopsticks.
As time passes, Juana is intrigued with the skills of the sushi chefs. She watches them with quiet precision and puts to memory the construction and ingredients for each sushi roll. On her days off, she experiments making a hybrid of Japanese rolls mixed with a flair of Mexican flavors, such as cilantro, corn, jalapenos and chili relleno. The result is a beautifully crafted image of a fusion delicacy. Juana is learning quickly and wants her chance to cook at the front of the house, but she faces obstacles that are gender based as well as cultural. When a sushi chef quits unexpectedly, Juana eagerly offers to help. Aki is hesitant, yet gives her a chance to make a hamachi roll in the back kitchen. When she quickly finishes, Aki is pleasantly surprised and entrusts her to handle more orders. At the end of the night, Aki splits his sushi tips with her. Grateful, Juana asks for the opportunity to work up front, behind the sushi counter, as an apprentice. Aki truthfully tells her that it's not a good idea. He knows Mr. Yoshida (the owner) will not let a Latina woman behind the counter because she is not an Asian male; a Latina woman would mess with the authenticity of the business.
The chaste relationship between Aki and Juana progresses to mentor and student. He admires her thirst for knowledge and champions her progression in the kitchen. He is willing to teach her as much as she can master. One day Mr. Yoshida catches her making sushi in the back. He is furious and demands she know her place: Her "place," is in the back prepping. The next day Juana arrives at Osaka to find they are holding interviews for a new sushi chef, the position she covets. Bravely, she asks Mr.Yoshida if she can apply for the position and can he at least, give her a try-out. His misogynistic response is "You work in the kitchen. That's it!" Juana looks to Aki for reinforcement of her skills, and he gives it, but Mr. Yoshida, a staunch traditionalist, will have none of the nonsense they are spewing. He bellows "The Japanese have a tradition. You will respect that tradition!" Juana quickly reminds him he is not in Japan anymore. Enraged, she hastily quits.
Depressed, Juana finds herself at another dead-end job; working at the car wash. In the following weeks to come, Juana receives a letter. A contest called "The Champions of Sushi," that she previously applied for, viewed her entrance video and are inviting her to compete. The first prize is $20,000 dollars, enough money to pay for her little girls tuition for two years. Upon filming the video, Juana was clever. She made a point that the focus should only be on her hands preparing the rolls. She also entered the contest under the abbreviation of J. Martinez. Juana did not want the administrators of the contest to know she is a woman; she didn't want to be judged based on gender. The outcome of the contest is secondary, as Juana finally receives the respect she deserves from her peers at Osaka.
East Side Sushi is the Cinderella narrative that has you rooting for the underdog and her (well-deserved) seat at the table. Diana Elizabeth Torres plays Juana with soft-spoken dignity, and un-assuming charm. The film was a hit on the indie circuit, and won 13 film festival awards. It was voted as one of "The most overlooked films of 2015" by the LA Times. Anthony Lucero's triumphant, directorial debut is a fusion of cultures and cuisine that is not to be missed.