By MATT CRANE
Starkville native Marisa Baggett is on a mission to bring the art of sushi-making into the average home with her new book, "Sushi Secrets: Easy Recipes for the Home Cook."
A graduate of Starkville High School, Baggett began her culinary career at the age of 22 when she opened The Chocolate Giraffe, a restaurant and catering company.
Baggett said opening her own restaurant in her hometown was an amazing beginning to her career in the culinary arts.
"It was incredible," she said. "I was so young then and it was just a dream come true."
After experimenting with making sushi at the request of a client, Baggett said she became fascinated by the art.
"It's such a beautiful cuisine," she said. "I think it's very true of the Japanese proverb that you eat first with your eyes."
Baggett said she made the decision to close down her restaurant to pursue her passion for sushi by attending the three-month sushi chef program at the California Sushi Academy.
"We hit the ground running on that first day and I wasn't really sure what to expect," she said. "From the appearance of our uniforms to how we held the knives, everything was very strict and regimented."
Baggett said she loves making sushi because of its wonderful flavor combinations and the hands-on approach to the art form.
"It's a beautiful thing, but it tastes wonderful too because you've got everything rolled into one," she said. "It's all very hands-on and it's almost like you're crafting your own food, and there's a big sense of pride that comes with that."
Since graduating, Baggett said she has toured the country performing sushi demonstrations for amateur chefs.
"People feel intimidated when trying to make sushi, so I always wanted to be accessible and answer questions," she said. "I love that people feel comfortable asking that of me and trusting me enough."
Baggett said she believes in creating seafood sustainability with her sushi by using local ingredients and infusing her creations with a signature Southern flair.
"Traditionally in Japanese cuisine, they use pickled ingredients, so I use pickled okra a lot which is one of my signature Southern dishes," she said. "I also love using crawfish and catfish because in the South, we have access to some of the best of it, so why not use it."
Baggett said her book strives to include recipes for all types of palates and dietary needs.
"I offer up recipes of sushi for different lifestyles such as vegetarians or people with certain allergies," she said. "I don't think a lot of attention has been paid to those people."
Baggett said her one piece of advice for amateur or home chefs when it comes to trying out sushi-making for the first time is to just go for it.
"People want it to be perfect the first time, and it doesn't have to be," she said. "The roll is still going to be delicious."
Above all, Baggett said it is her love for teaching and sharing the principles of making sushi that continues to drive her career.
"What really spoke to me was bringing sushi to people in their homes," she said. "I really had a passion for teaching sushi classes, especially to those who lived in areas, like Mississippi, with no sushi bars or access to asian markets."
Baggett's book "Sushi Secrets: Easy Recipes for the Home Cook" will be available in late October.
For more information, visit http://www.marisabaggett.com .