There are 55 branches of Yo! Sushi in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so this is clearly a threat worth paying attention to. Naturally, when Scotland secedes, it may take its Yo! Sushis with it; the alternative – that they be expelled from the country to form a latter-day Antonine Wall of conveyor belts bearing tuna maki – is a strange, though not altogether displeasing, possibility. After all, the resistance of Scotland’s premier to a foreign cuisine, one of whose chief components is a raw version of his near homonym, would be entirely understandable.
Not that there’s anything very Japanese about Yo! Sushi. For a start, I don’t imagine any self-respecting Japanese person has ever said “Yo!” in their lives, as such a fatuous exclamation runs utterly counter to a culture that prides itself in a disciplined and meditative conformity. No, Yo! Sushi is the brainchild of some clever Brit who sold out to a big corporate years ago, and who now enjoys his moneyed reclusion – I imagine – listening to old Steely Dan albums and raising epigones.
Indeed, it’s equally difficult to imagine what cultural nexus Yo! Sushi belongs within as it is to analyse the semiotics of, say, Hey! Cottage Pie or Whoops! Sorghum. The restaurants feature lurid orange paint jobs, curvilinear vinyl booths straight out of 2001 (the movie and the year), functionalist ducts trumpeting down on the diners, and the much-talked-about conveyor belts.
Let me get this straight: I love the conveyor belts at Yo! Sushi, just as I adore any food delivery system that incorporates the automated. To sit at the counter picking colour-coded dish after dish from the cheerful, rattling segments of the conveyor belt, and to watch that belt wend its way past the diners, then loop back into the exposed food preparation area where another dish is added . . . Well, this is some kind of crazy bliss. The first time I visited Yo! Sushi
I said to my companion: “I haven’t had so much fun since my childhood, when I would spend mealtimes at my grandparents’ with my head stuck inside the dumbwaiter.” Nowadays most people would probably call that paedophilia.
I love the conveyor belts at Yo! Sushi – love them rather more, I suspect, than the food they convey. Not that there’s anything bad about the sushi rolls, sushi nigiri, sashimi, etc that they churn out at Yo!, but the sheer fact of it arriving on a conveyor belt sadly militates against the credo of freshness otherwise promoted by having the kitchen in view. It makes the eating experience curiously confusing – there you sit, watching your titbit being assembled right in front of you, yet by the time it’s made its way around the counter you’ve become convinced that because it’s on an assembly line, it must be stale factory food.
Once, in the Yo! Sushi at Paddington Station, I was so discombobulated by these countervailing gastronomic currents that I tried to eat the conveyor belt instead of the food on it. The management immediately called the police, and I was detained. I mean, as a campaigning journalist, one expects to get arrested from time to time in the pursuit of one’s beliefs – but to be banged up for eating a conveyor belt, the shame of it! Still, it hasn’t put me off Yo! and I’m glad of that, because the other evening in Brighton I took Number One Son along to his local branch and we had a rather tasty repast. Why? I think ordering mostly off the hot menu helped, that way avoiding the conflict between preparation and conveyance. I also took full advantage of the Yo! deal whereby if you order green tea or miso you can have unlimited refills. There’s something about a grossly distended belly, like one of those happy pseudo-Buddhas, that makes it impossible to think ill of the world.
There were these factors – and there was my golden boy, first fruit of my loins, a budding historian studying at Asa Briggs’s old university. It was a pleasure to sit with him beside the trundling conveyor belt of bogus futurism and discuss the rumbling tumbrels of the recent past. Golden Boy, being something of a rightist, took the view that the extrajudicial killing of Osama Bin Laden was wholly acceptable; I demurred, pointing out that Bin Laden didn’t pilot any of the 11 September attack planes and that, far from being a hierarchical command structure – like the US army – al-Qaeda was more in the manner of a franchise: you approach them with your death-dealing idea, and they provide funding, expertise and branding.
“Sort of like a restaurant chain,” GB mused, “like al-Sushi . . . or possibly Yo! Qaeda.”