Ali Howell is a massage therapist and a college student. But on Saturday night, the 26-year-old brunette was a human sushi platter.
Naked under two roses and a large daisy placed you-know-where, she lay still for more than an hour as people plucked raw fish off her body at Temple, the downtown Minneapolis restaurant that held its inaugural naked sushi party this weekend.
Her nerves? Forged in steel. She went sky-diving on Christmas Eve. And she enjoyed every minute of this.
"You only live once," she said.
About 200 other Minnesotans thought the same, forking over $75 apiece to partake in this rare culinary adventure. You might expect a drooling crowd of male hedonists, but the diners -- evenly split between men and women, and ranging in age from 20s to 50s -- were calm and curious, though they did mingle about with ear-to-ear smiles, as if each had just won the Powerball.
While some people call it "naked sushi," its proprietors prefer the term body sushi, because the models aren't nude -- they're wearing flowers (and raw fish, of course). In Japan, it's called nyotaimori, meaning "female body presentation."
For Temple's owner, Thom Pham, bringing body sushi to Minnesota is all about raising our foodie profile. "It's an art," he repeated throughout the night, citing body sushi's tradition in Japan's old geisha culture.
Only a handful of U.S. restaurants -- in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago -- have adopted the custom on a regular basis. Minneapolis' health and licensing officials signed off on Pham's venture after witnessing a mock trial, he said. A Seattle restaurant tried it in 2003 but was met with a minor uproar from feminist groups.
Pham's version encompassed the style and sophistication you'd expect from a superstar restaurateur. But he did veer from tradition in one key area.
Namely: dudes. Half the models were men. "It's only fair for the ladies," Pham said.
One of these brave studs was Colin Jaworski, 23, of Brooklyn Park. While he's never been a model -- he builds hot tubs for his family's business -- he's no stranger to nudity.
"I grew up going to nudist resorts," he said.
He didn't mind going totally hairless either, which was a requirement for each model (they were paid $100 an hour, plus tips). The whole thing seemed like a walk in the park for the soft-spoken Jaworski.
"It's not a big deal," he said. "Although, I've never had anybody eat off me before."
But eat they did. Upon entering Temple that night, every diner was issued one pair of fine wooden chopsticks. They were also given a list of rules: Don't speak to the models, don't touch the models and don't say anything inappropriate. You might be eating raw fish off a semi-naked person, but please don't treat them like strippers.
As the sold-out crowd poured into Temple's main dining room, Howell, Jaworski and two other models were lying on tables scattered throughout the restaurant. But there was a peculiar hesitation. Like true Minnesotans, nobody wanted to go first. Soon, though, the tables were as crowded as the crab-leg platter at a Chinese buffet.
Chopsticks in hand, Lily Crooks, 25, stood with a group of friends just feet from one of the male models. After watching someone else make the first move, she rallied her group: "OK, now we better move in."
Her roommate Ellie Blades, 27, went straight for the male model's chest. Crooks, the right thigh.
When asked about the sushi's quality, Blades smiled and said:
"It was the best piece of salmon I've ever had in my life."
Temple's sushi chefs tried their best to keep up, but as soon they'd replace the eaten sushi, the new stuff would disappear.
One couple, Steve Chicilo of Lake Elmo and Carrie Sharp of Stillwater, were particularly quick on the draw. However, while nabbing the last two pieces of one batch, Chicilo fumbled his chopsticks, resorting to a quick hand grab right off the guy's chest. A relative newbie, Chicilo was introduced to sushi by Sharp just in the past year.
"I was more of a meat and potatoes guy," the home builder said.
The two were having fun, but said they would prefer to sit around a table with the model in front of them. In fact, that is exactly how Temple plans to offer body sushi in the future. Instead of buffet-style parties like this, it will be a private affair for groups of six or more (for $150 a person). Pham said he already has a dozen dinners lined up through April.
And how did the models fare? After her 75 minutes in the spotlight, Howell headed downstairs, where another model was getting ready to go on -- makeup artists spent about an hour on each of the models to make their skin look as pristine as possible.
Howell said she didn't cramp up, but "I was kind of nervous that someone might drop sushi on my face." Even with that mild fear, she kept her eyes open most of the night and "got to know the chandelier really well."
Jaworski soon followed her downstairs. He looked exhausted. But after putting on a pair of jeans and a button-down shirt to return upstairs and experience the night from the other side of the chopsticks, he summed up his job as any nudist veteran would:
"Piece of cake."
Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909