Eating a rainbow roll placed inches away from an orchid-covered and otherwise naked bosom of a strange woman may not be the way some choose to eat sushi, but it’s still a practice that lives on today -- mostly as a party spectacle.
Naked sushi, or nyotaimori (or nantaimori for men) is thought to have started in Japan sometime in the 1800s, although the exact narrative for the origin is unclear. By the ‘90s, it made an appearance in the United States, and even though it’s not a widely accepted way to eat dinner by any means, the practice still lives on. One example of a few body sushi catering companies operating in the U.S. is the Nyotaimori Experience, owned by chef Mark Scharaga and open for business across the country.
“It’s evolved a lot,” said Scharaga, who has been offering the dinner experience for 12 years and has branded it as a form of art. “It's a sensual experience but it's also amazing sushi on top of that.”
The Las Vegas-based sushi chef said they mostly end up in bachelor or bachelorette parties, corporate events, birthday parties and private dinners, mounting up to four to eight events a month.
Ruby, a Los Angeles native, makes a regular appearance at Scharaga’s events in the area as a sushi model. She is one of 15-20 models who work with the sushi chef, and says she is very picky about who she chooses to work with, especially since modeling sushi isn’t her full-time job (she splits the rest of her time working at a theme park as a real-life cartoon character and modeling in other industries).
Her day-of preparations to be a sushi model include: Showering before the event, making sure every part of her body is waxed and shaved and showering on location of the event right before dinner. Cleanliness is obviously key to becoming a human sushi platter, even if the food doesn’t actually touch the body.
“We also make sure that all the leaves [that go in between food and model’s skin] are chilled,” said Scharaga, whose company holds food safety cards in every state that it operates in that requires it, other than a ServSafe certification.
A dinner typically lasts between one to two hours depending on the size of the party. Guests are told to respect the model “as you would your grandmother” and touching the model is strictly off-limits. If you can get over the whole naked factor, it’s actually an exhilarating experience, according to Ruby.
“People usually like to talk to me. They ask me questions sometimes,” she said. Traditionally, sushi models apparently weren’t allowed to talk to guests, but Scharaga’s company encourages conversations. And when guests ask if they can feed her a spicy tuna roll, the answer is always yes.
Dealing with excited and often drunk guests is not always pleasant, but still manageable and within boundaries. Ruby says there was a time a bachelor party got a bit rowdy, in which a guest claimed to be vegetarian and tried to eat the leaves that were covering her nipples. Thankfully, she says, Scharaga is always keeping an eye out for inappropriate guests so not much happened after that.
“I usually meet people who are so great, the guests are amazing. And I have a lot of fun. It makes me happy that I get to have that sort of connection with them. Also, become a part of their memories. How cool is that?” Ruby said.
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