We know what you’re thinking and, no, there was no raw fish involved.

My 3 1/2-year-old son, Gus, has many fine traits—an open personality, a delightful (if slightly twisted) sense of humor, the cutest knuckle dimples in all the land—but his ability to focus could use some serious work. Despite that, thanks to my optimistic tendencies, I decided that taking a sushi class with him at Benihana, the legendary teppanyaki and sushi chain, would be a good idea. 

For $55 a head, Benihana offers 90-minute "Sushi & Me" classes for children between the ages of 3 and 8. The closest location to us was in New York City; the train ride from our home in Yonkers was a hit (because: little boys and trains). The walk to the restaurant was slow, but I plopped Gus on my shoulders and made up the time. 

When we got to the restaurant, we had it all to ourselves. Gus looked, wide-eyed, at the mise en place: tubs of sticky rice, sheets of nori, lots of sliced avocado. "Mama, I don't wike [sic] avocado," he said. A strong start.

Once I distracted him from the offending avocado, we got down to business, with help from our sushi chef instructor, Patrick. Gus mangled some nori while trying to smoosh the sticky rice on top, but he pressed on with the help of patient Patrick. He took a few laps around the room, then came back to his seat to find an assembled California roll ready for the final step: rolling. It was a little squished and wee bit lumpy, but he was pleased. Patrick cut up the roll and plated it.

Credit: Nina Elder

Gus took a look at the all-white roll and walked over to the tub of edamame. He very precisely placed one edamame bean on top of each piece of sushi. I was impressed. Patrick was impressed! "You're right, Gus, that did need some color," Patrick said.

The crispy shrimp roll was next, but we'd maxed out Gus's attention span. (Total time elapsed: approximately 14 minutes.) I took a turn at sushi-making while Gus looked out the window, chatted up the staff, and tried to find his way back to the elevator (#momoftheyear). I was finally able to lure him back for the exciting step of sprinkling those crunchy crumbs on top of the shrimp roll. Then he snagged the tub of crunchies from me and started shoving them in his face—and spreading them all over the floor.

I nibbled on sushi, Gus tried somewhat successfully to squeeze edamame beans into his mouth, and we visited with Patrick. Gus's paper sushi chef hat slipped down over his face. We all laughed. It was fun to see Gus in the context of other adults. He was a little shy and fairly goofy, but he was holding his own. I listened to how Patrick instructed Gus and took some mental notes. Maybe I could learn a thing or two from this guy who was used to teaching an entire soccer team how to make sushi.

Just as Gus was fading, out came the thing that he'll likely remember for a very long time: candy sushi! His eyes lit up as he lashed a Swedish fish to rectangles of Rice Krispies treats with strips of fruit leather.

candy sushi, beauty
Credit: Photo courtesy of Nina Elder

As we headed back to the train with Gus perched on my shoulders, I realized that I'd learned more than I'd expected. Sure, I had slightly improved my sushi-making skills, but more importantly, I'd watched Gus acclimate to a new place and new people and for a few precious moments, he really did focus. Plus, I'm now counting on the residuals from the new edamame-topped California roll (aka The Gus) that I'm sure will appear on a Benihana menu near you to pay for Gus's college.

Benihana offers Sushi & Me classes throughout the year for children ages 3-8. The 90-minute class costs $55 per person. Dojo Sushi classes for kids ages 13-17 cost $45 per person. Check availability here.