THE RAW DEAL

FORT LEE, N.J. -- The two sushi chefs bent over the cutting board studiously slicing yellowfin tuna and wrapping seaweed around California rolls are hard at work -- far from the confines of an upscale Japanese restaurant -- behind the full-service seafood counter at the Food Emporium here.Judging from the boisterous crowd gathered around the sushi counter and numerous excited exclamations of "Oh sushi,

FORT LEE, N.J. -- The two sushi chefs bent over the cutting board studiously slicing yellowfin tuna and wrapping seaweed around California rolls are hard at work -- far from the confines of an upscale Japanese restaurant -- behind the full-service seafood counter at the Food Emporium here.

Judging from the boisterous crowd gathered around the sushi counter and numerous excited exclamations of "Oh sushi, my favorite," overhead the day SN visited, the sushi section seemed to be off to a roaring start in this new Food Emporium location opened at the end of April.

"Since we opened, we have had a minimum of two full-time sushi chefs and we usually have four. The station accommodates three; we didn't think there would be a need for four," explained Thomas Fallacaro, Food Emporium's director of seafood sales and merchandising.

White trays of salmon, octopus, crab sticks and shrimp line the clear glass case of ingredients that separates the chefs from their clamoring customers. As eager hands depleted the supplies, the chefs steadily filled the refrigerated case in front of them with sleek black boxes of assorted rolls and elaborate mixed platters.

The overflow from the full-service case goes into a 4-foot section of the 24-foot self-service case in the center of the seafood department. Next to the boxes of sushi are individually wrapped packages of tuna, fluke and other sushi fixings available for adventurous chefs who want to make their own at home.

Pale blue sheets, displayed in front of the sushi case, list the menu offerings. And for customers who are not satisfied with what they see or want to try something new, the chefs fill orders on request for old favorites or new creations, according to Fallacaro.

Prices start at $1 a roll and climb to around $13.95 for multiroll assortments.

The sushi program is not yet in Food Emporium's 35 other locations, according to Fallacaro, but its success here could lead to the opening of sushi bars in other stores in the near future.

"It's trendy, it's upscale and it's tasty," noted Fallacaro of sushi's selling points. "And there's obviously a demand for it."

The seafood department's Japanese offerings even extend beyond sushi into imported frozen products, like seafood dumplings, squid cakes, fish balls, codfish roe and imported shrimp and crab displayed in their own 6-foot Japanese seafood section of the frozen self-service case.

More Japanese flavors, in the form of entrees like salmon teriyaki, spill over into prepackaged entrees in the self-service case and are also part of Food Emporium's new Outgoing Chef HMR program.

Eight feet of the full-service seafood case is devoted to the new program, which turns out such entrees as crab cakes with Creole mustard, salmon with sesame crust, Cajun tuna with mango and grilled swordfish with red peppers.

The recipes are tested in the kitchen of the Food Emporium's pilot Eastchester store, in Westchester, N.Y., before being standardized in writing for future use in other stores, according to Fallacaro. The program's head chef is a graduate of the renown Culinary Institute of America.

Launched about nine months ago in roughly half a dozen stores, the Outgoing Chef program's goal is to provide Food Emporium's customers with restaurant-quality meals, according to Fallacaro.

Before diving into the current program "we had value-added items such as raw stuffed fillets, but we weren't doing much in the way of cooking, yet we were always into further merchandising the items to expand their value."

Fallacaro added that his customers can also buy raw seafood, chosen from a selection of 132 seasonally-rotating species, that can be grilled, broiled, sauteed or cooked with any other method of their choice while they shop.

"We have taste testing available to customers and they tell us what's marketable," noted Fallacaro when asked how Food Emporium chooses its recipes.

Items from the Outgoing Chef program are also cross marketed with sauces near the deli and regularly featured in the store circular.

Other meal-solution ideas at the full-service case include a large variety of seafood sausages. Made without preservatives, according to Fallacaro, these herb-flecked curls of sausage range in color from pale yellow to bright orange and come in Italian, hot Italian and lemon pepper flavors.

Fallacaro noted that these varieties, unlike many seafood sausages, were made from chunks of seafood that have never been ground. "All three are made with whole pieces of Ecuador shrimp, small scallops, farm-raised salmon and cod fillet with a blend of seasonings," he explained.

In the case alongside the sausages is another unusual seafood-based meat replacement: a mound of bright-orange ground salmon. Fallacaro suggested that it could be used in a burger or a loaf and Frank Milillo, a meat and seafood merchandiser, said that sales had been so good he wagered that the department could have turned inventory on the salmon 100 times in four days.

The availability of such a wide selection of seafood meal solutions has helped boost Food Emporium's full-service seafood sales up to what Fallacaro estimates to be 75% to 80% of the store's total seafood sales.