Becoming truly good at something isn’t easy. For most, it takes years of study and/or training with an already accomplished professional just to become competent. Traditional restaurant kitchens are built on this model of slow, incremental progress under ever-more-expert mentors. It can take decades to become great. A friend who studies restaurant apprenticeships used to say, “Chefs are the best teachers. They are also the slowest teachers. Learning just one new technique might take a year. Maybe more.”

It’s rare to encounter an excellent chef who has bypassed this system. Someone diligent enough to teach him- or herself thousands upon thousands of skills, as well as how to put them all together. Such a person has more in common with recent Top 10 tennis player Paradorn Srichaphan, who famously taught himself tennis by watching VHS tapes of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, then mimicking their strokes on court with his father. Or David Bowie, who – entirely on his own – learned to play piano, guitar, drums and even the harmonica before tacking on songwriting for good measure.

Keiko Suzuki Steinberger’s story isn’t very different. She came to Rockland after college in Sendai, Japan, and worked briefly in a small Japanese restaurant run by her cousin, where she learned “next to nothing about sushi.” Then came a summer gig cooking in Camden that made her impatient. She decided to throw caution to the wind and return to Rockland to open her own sushi restaurant in a Main Street building that was once a coffee shop and, before that, a bank.

But she knew enough to understand that her skills needed another boost, so she returned to Japan and enrolled in the Tokyo Sushi Academy. In just four weeks, she patched the remaining holes in her repertoire and headed back to Maine. That was 12 years ago.

“I’m basically self-taught,” she said. “Maybe it’s because I’m from Japan and have a Zen philosophy and am very focused on what I am doing in this moment. But I try to improve every day and do my best. If I do a good job at the restaurant, people will like it and want to come back. I believe in word of mouth.”

And people are indeed talking about Suzuki’s Sushi Bar. This year marks the second in a row that Suzuki Steinberger was nominated for the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Northeast award.

Locals seem conflicted about the recent attention, as one regular said to his server as he finished his meal, “This was always my secret little place, but now I have to work hard just to get a table in the summer.” “Winter,” his server replied, giving him a little wink. “Wait for the winter.”

But no, don’t wait for winter. Suzuki’s Sushi Bar scaffolds its menu on an ever-changing framework of seasonality. Visit in the summer or early autumn and you’ll find cucumber-and-wakame seaweed sunomono ($9), a crunchy, chewy salad fortified by fresh-picked Maine crabmeat and a remarkably lemony “amazu” sauce. Not to mention house-cured oshinko (Japanese pickles, $6) like nubbly, baby yellow cucumbers with dill heads, tender hakurei turnips with borage flowers, and pleasingly brusque ramp bulbs – the last remainders of this year’s supply – all pickled in salt, sake and seasoned rice vinegar.

You’ll also catch the end of the local mackerel season, which Suzuki Steinberger celebrates by making saba nigiri (part of the omakase, or chef’s choice, assortment, $34): a single slice of fish the color of faded rosé champagne, topped with a dot of grated ginger and laid gently atop a thumb-sized portion of excellent sushi rice.

Now is also the perfect time to order the scallop-cake donburi ($24), one of the restaurant’s “hot dinner entrees” showcasing a rainbow of seasonal vegetables. You’ll find soy-and-dashi-drizzled staves of barely steamed yellow squash and zucchini, green and wax beans, along with asparagus and poker chip-sized discs of purple daikon. On one recent visit, the squash and the rice were a little undercooked, but the pan-seared scallop cakes, with their sharp, oniony punch and disarming sweetness, won me over completely.

Even the omakase assortment includes tiny treats and flourishes that change with the seasons. There’s the strip of purple shiso leaf that Suzuki Steinberger dabs onto rice before overlaying it with translucent squid flesh and topping with tobiko. The grassy, mint-adjacent flavor of shiso makes the squid nigiri taste almost buttery.

Or a half-dozen slices of marbled toro (bluefin tuna belly) sashimi, each meant to be eaten in a single bite along with mandolin-shaved discs of summery yellow cucumber and sprigs of forest-green samphire (sea beans) that give every mouthful a delicate, saline crunch. It’s easy to see why Suzuki Steinberger says that toro is her second-favorite food.

Her first is natto, fermented soybeans linked together by a network of threads that get puffier and stickier as you stir them. Imagine tossing a jar of baked beans into a spider web, and you’ve got the idea. Quite a hard sell for most Americans, and not a dish normally found in a sushi restaurant, but Keiko doesn’t care; it’s her favorite, and her restaurant, so natto is on the menu ($6), captioned drolly as “an acquired taste.”

Breaking rules is part of what makes autodidacts so fascinating. They take risks, are rarely hidebound, and their experimentation can be dazzling to witness. At the same time, things don’t always work out perfectly, and that’s part of the bargain. It’s true at Suzuki’s Sushi Bar as well. Take the halibut nigiri with a thin sliver of lemon (rind and all) that overwhelms nuance and subtlety in the flavor of the fish. Or steamed ebi (shrimp) nigiri sprinkled with marigold flowers that bring to mind potpourri with each bite.

Tobiko and quail egg nigiri. Photo courtesy of David Alley

Fortunately, such wobbles are rarities. Most dishes are tiny revelations, like Suzuki Steinberger’s extraordinary lobster sashimi: sweet tail meat lightly cured in lemon and lime juices, ginger, and plated inside the shell. “It’s a ceviche,” she told me with a laugh.

Better still are her experiments with lesser-used ingredients, like raw, wrinkled little whelks – jolie laide by-catch from local fishermen – that Suzuki Steinberger steams and marinates briefly with her oshinko pickle juice before plating with dill fronds and purple daikon.

She also uses the tiny, test-run harvest of Maine sweet coldwater prawns to prepare local “ama ebi” shumai. She chops the shrimp with ginger and soy, then adds panko and green onions to create a marvelously rich dumpling filling. “For the last two years, the government allowed fishermen to fish for them only on certain days. So I bought a whole bunch and processed them and just froze the dumplings,” Suzuki Steinberger said. “But they sell quite well, so they don’t stay in the freezer. We have to keep making them when we can.”

Lobster ceviche served with fresh local dill and local pickled gherkins. Photo courtesy of David Alley

Impressively, servers seem to know the backstory of nearly every dish. Ours told us all about the unusual dumplings and whelks, only steering us wrong once, when she lied about the housemade ice cream choices. When I asked about a neighboring table spooning scoops of both nutty black sesame and bright, candied ginger ice cream, she demurred and admitted, “The black sesame is extra-hard, and I didn’t tell you about it because I don’t want to have to scoop it.” When she checked again and found it had softened, she returned with a bowl and an apology.

Suzuki Steinberger told me that her front-of-house staff doesn’t come to her with their thorough knowledge of sushi. “They learn on the job and pick it up,” she explained. In so doing, they train the old-fashioned way, by a slow accretion of knowledge under the careful guidance of an expert. Suzuki Steinberger herself may have been a self-taught phenom, but she is also clearly a very good teacher.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

andrewross.maine@gmail.com

Twitter: @AndrewRossME