People who know sushi know Keiji Nakazawa. His name rarely figures on high-profile star-ranking systems, but he is probably the most influential sushi chef working in Japan today – and Sushisho is more than just his restaurant. To his growing band of protégées, it is an academy; to devotees of his cuisine, it is Mecca. Nakazawa’s philosophy falls within the broad church of Edomae sushi, or ‘sushi in the style of Edo’ (the old name for Tokyo), which in its purest form is the combination of sliced raw seafood on top of vinegared rice. For inspiration, Nakazawa reached back in time to the earliest traditions of Edomae sushi, while at the same time evolving the cuisine in directions that are both innovative and stunning to behold. For example, modern sushi norms dictate that the fish must be as fresh as possible, yet before refrigeration technology it was commonly treated to make it last longer. Nakazawa resurrected this tradition by ageing, marinating, simmering or searing his seafood to achieve maximum flavour. He is also fastidious about rice, and uses two different grains depending on the seafood they’re cushioning: simple white rice for simple, delicate fish; and less common red rice for fattier, fuller flavoured species. He varies the seasoning – vinegar, salt or soy – to balance the taste, and famously serves his rice warmer than is customary. The fixed omakase course service at Sushisho can begin with a delicate slice of cooked squid stuffed with rice and dotted in three places with concentrated soy sauce. It may include a pocket of aji (horse mackerel) filled with threads of ginger, shiso and cucumber. It will certainly include slithers of tuna, yellowtail or squid laden with taste from being aged for days or even weeks. And extras such as monkfish liver lying back-to-back with pickled baby watermelon on a bed of red rice would be a crime to miss. Nakazawa set his sights set on becoming a shokunin (artisan) of sushi when he was just 15 years old. His journey began on a delivery bicycle, weaving the crowded streets of Tokyo with boxes of sushi piled high on his shoulder. Later, he travelled the country “like a nomad” honing his skills and learning regional traditions and techniques. The sushi world became his family: he lived with the other apprentices, ate and drank with his teachers, and learned to enjoy interacting with customers. In January 2016, Nakazawa upped sticks and moved to Hawaii for his next adventure, opening a branch of Sushisho in Waikiki. But his spirit lives on at his former restaurant and in the talents of those he schooled in the Sushisho way. “You can’t run a restaurant alone,” Nakazawa says. “More than skill, teamwork and communication are most important.” He is mentor to several of Tokyo’s most highly regarded young sushi chefs. To them, he is always – even in his absence – called oyakata, a term that combines respect with endearment, marking him out as akin to an honorary … Read More
When Masakatsu Oka decided he wanted to become a sushi chef, he knew there was something he needed to fix. Lacking neither passion nor commitment, it was in a sense his body that looked set to let him down. “It’s because, truth be told, I’m left-handed,” confesses Oka, a trait that even today is considered undignified by some Japanese. Not wanting this perceived weakness to ruin his culinary ambitions, Oka could be found nightly practising cutting cabbage into thin strips with his right hand until, in his words, “I no longer feared the knife.” It clearly worked. He moves the blade with swift, deft strokes, lightly scoring a slice of squid with dozens of fine, diagonal cuts. He angles his knife to the right, and repeats the action in the other direction to make a crisscross pattern so that when the flesh touches one’s tongue, it feels like it’s melting. But Oka credits his skills less to his late-night cabbage training and more to his mentor, Keiji Nakazawa of Sushisho (p.XX). “Nakazawa-san is the person I respect most,” Oka says. “If I hadn’t met him, this restaurant wouldn’t exist.” Sushisho Masa, the name of Oka’s restaurant, is testament to that. The practice is known as noren-wake, or ‘dividing the noren’ – the noren being the curtain above the door that bears a restaurant’s name. By permitting him to use the Sushisho name, the mentor gives a public blessing to his acolyte’s new venture, indicating that the young man is equipped to safeguard his legacy. An honour of that level must be earned, and Oka is no stranger to hard work. He says that losing his mother at an early age taught him to be independent. And that the punishing schedule of his early years learning the sushi trade – starting work at 7.30am, and ending around midnight – was a lesson in endurance. “Find out how far you can push yourself and then push even further,” he says, sounding more marathon runner than chef. Indeed, as he works behind Sushisho Masa’s cosy seven-seat counter, Oka controls every movement and every breath. As the cuts of his knife create a staccato rhythm, his words meet the beat, becoming almost meditative as he describes each dish: aji (horse mackerel) is served with a dab of acidic hacchomiso, a deeply flavoured dark miso from Western Japan; rectangles of katsuo (bonito) come sandwiching paper-thin slices of garlic marinated in soy sauce to mellow the taste; and his decadent signature dish of three succulent slices of o-toro lightly layered with wasabi to create what he calls the ‘Masa-feuille’. Oka’s eyes twinkle as he presents rare ingredients such as grilled anago liver, or octopus eggs simmered in dashi – all likely to surprise even the most dedicated lover of sushi. “I always keep my eyes open for new ideas. That’s what I try to teach my guys,” he says, gesturing towards his staff of three young apprentices. “I want them to become the kind of people … Read More
A few steps from one of Shibuya’s main thoroughfares is not exactly where one might expect to find a farmhouse-style restaurant, and yet that’s exactly what Mamma Luisa’s Table is. Opened by chef Pietro Androsoni in 2014, the restaurant was inspired by his childhood growing up on his grandparents’ farm in Florence. “My grandmother made all the food for all the family. Every weekend there were like 15 to 20 people in my house,” Androsoni says. “So I grew up in this environment, with the ingredients from the farm, the animals, the poultry. And I think this is why I am fascinated by this work.” Androsoni started his career at a Michelin-starred restaurant in his native city, before he did a stint at an Italian restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. Disillusioned by what he says was not the America of his dreams and yet still harbouring a travel bug, when he got a call from his former boss asking him to help open a new location in Tokyo, he decided to take a chance. “I said, I’ll come to Japan, but I don’t want to stay longer than six months. And I came here and fell in love with the city,” he says. “Food-wise, I think it’s the best city in the world. You can experience all the cuisines, the styles—there is so much culture about food in this city.” Mamma Luisa’s Table is named after Androsoni’s own mother, and the restaurant has a relaxed, home-style feeling. Black and white photos of the chef’s family hang on the walls, and at the centre of the dining room is a large, eight-seat table. Warm lighting, distressed wood furniture, mismatched rugs and an open kitchen complete the inviting atmosphere. “The thing I love the most about having my own restaurant is the relationships I can cultivate with customers,” Androsoni says. “I feel I am at home, and the guests are also a part of my home.” Androsoni’s food is creative yet comforting, incorporating ingredients from Japan and around the Mediterranean. The menu changes slightly from day to day depending on the vegetables he finds at the markets. “I use really seasonal ingredients, because that’s one thing we’re losing these days,” he says. “People have gotten used to using asparagus 365 days a year. But for me, we have seasons and I want to respect them. Also because I grew up in a farmhouse, and I think this background is something I bring with me. I used to love to go into the backyard and get the zucchini, and then go inside, wash it and cook the pasta. In 30 minutes you go from the ground to the plate.” Cooking according to the seasons also results in more variety, which keeps Androsoni stimulated. Even first-time visitors to Mamma Luisa’s Table will quickly recognise his passion for his work. “Food is so versatile. Once you understand the ingredients, you can create anything. Food for me is life,” he says. “Food is also my way of … Read More
Hajime Suzuki knows the difference between a good Japanese restaurant and a great one. “You must engage the senses,” explains the owner of Fuku, a beloved west-Tokyo yakitori place, “the view of the chefs at work, the aroma of the chicken fizzling on the grill, and of course the taste of the food.” Yakitori, meaning literally grilled (‘yaki’) chicken (‘tori’), are skewers of chicken cooked over white-hot charcoal. From neck to tail, Fuku’s menu lists various parts of the bird, including the familiar (breast, wings, mincemeat) and the ambitious (heart, giblets, cartilage). Around the turn of the millennium, Suzuki, who was then working in the fashion business, began dreaming of opening a restaurant. “The image in my mind was of a warm place with a diverse, international clientele all enjoying themselves, as relaxed as if they were at home,” he says. In Yoyogi Uehara, a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood still lacking good dining options, he found a promising location – “just far enough away from the station” – and the ideal landlord, who offered to knock down his existing building and build a new one to Suzuki’s specifications. He designed a space with high ceilings – rare for Tokyo – a counter with 16 seats, and several tables around the edge. The simple white uniforms of the chefs, the plain teahouse-colour walls, and the earthy ceramics were also part of his plan. “Everything we do should be understated so as not to disturb the customers,” he says. “Their enjoyment creates the atmosphere.” At the heart of the restaurant is the charcoal grill, manned by a chef who – battling through waves of heat and smoke – staggers the various orders and ingredients with the tempo of an orchestra conductor. The cleanliness and cut of the meat are critical to achieving an even cook. The charcoal – always from Wakayama, a prefecture in western Japan famous for it – is just as important. Regulars know to order plenty of the vegetable skewers and other non-chicken dishes that make up about half the menu, including succulent shiitake mushrooms, cuts of aubergine, and the ‘danshaku’ potato topped with a slice of melting butter. The green peppers wrapped in bacon and stuffed with cheese should be requested early, before they sell out. When he’s not at the grill himself, Suzuki can often be seen standing quietly at the back, discreetly paying attention to every detail. “If I listen carefully,” he says, “I can hear when the grill needs new charcoal, or when a chicken skewer is fizzling and ready to be served.”
Looking for the best rice to serve at his new restaurant, Hideki Ohnishi knew exactly who to talk to: Mr. Okazaki, a farmer in his hometown whose rice is so good he keeps it only for friends and family. Persuaded by the chef’s sincere attitude, he agreed to make him his only outside customer. “Later we found out his son and I were at school together,” says Ohnishi. “People around there need to know you to trust you.” Ohnishi’s restaurant in Tokyo, Kisaiya Hide, specializes in the cuisine of his hometown, Uwajima, a fishing port on the island of Shikoku in western Japan. The city belongs to a region known for its exacting farmers, and the chef spent years diligently researching from whom to buy his produce. Moving to Tokyo was Ohnishi’s childhood dream – although the boy intended to be a rock star, not a cook. Needing money for the journey, he took a job in the kitchen of the best restaurant in town famous for its ‘tai meshi’, a dish of snapper sashimi mixed with rice, broth, seaweed and scallions that is Uwajima’s signature food. The business closed many years ago and its chef passed away. But Ohnishi continues to serve a faithful version of the famous ‘tai meishi’ at his own restaurant. “It’s my way of giving back to the man who first believed in me,” he says. Another person who believed in him was his wife. She encouraged him to go solo after 15 years working in other chefs’ kitchens. After a long search for the perfect location, they settled on Kagurazaka, a wealthy neighborhood north of the Imperial Palace once famous for its geisha culture. “People around here love food and love talking about food,” says Ohnishi, recalling how his early customers discovered Kisaiya Hide. “The locals would come and eat, and then go to a bar and tell everyone about it.” Onishi recommends the ‘shika’ (venison), marinated for one day and hung for a second before being grilled and served with wasabi and soy sauce; the seasonal fish tempura – normally ‘kasago’ (scorpion fish) – every part of which can be eaten, including the bones; and ‘mizunasu’, a variety of eggplant that can be eaten raw, which comes served in salad-like arrangement with other greens, ginger and garlic, plus a smattering of broth and a dash of hot sesame oil. Considering Uwajima’s reputation for seafood, Ohnishi knew he would be judged on the quality of his sashimi. For that reason he bypasses Tokyo’s renowned fish market and instead buys from Mr. Yamada, a local fishmonger in Uwajima who sends him text messages every morning with photos of the different species being iced, boxed, and sent by overnight courier to the capital. A delivery of octopus is always welcome. “Octopus from the ocean there is unlike any other – sweeter, more fragrant,” he says. Every summer, when Ohnishi, his wife and their two young children go back to Ehime, he visits Mr. Yamada in person … Read More
Daisuke Shimazaki cradles in his hands two giant shrimps, just boiled and ready to serve. “Yesterday they were swimming in the ocean,” he says, his voice hushed, poised to reveal a secret. “Fresh from northern Japan. The best in the world… maybe.” That phrase is heard frequently at Sushi Yuu, Shimazaki’s family-run restaurant. His sea urchin and his fatty tuna are also “the best in the world… maybe” – although his confident tone of voice infers that there is, in fact, no ‘maybe’ about it. Shimazaki’s late father, Shojiro, opened Sushi Yuu in 1972 in a distant suburb, later moving his shop to central Tokyo. His wife – Shimazaki’s mother – still helps from behind the scenes, bottling her annual batch of plum wine, or helping to pickle the ‘gari’ ginger so adored by regulars. The son was initially reluctant to follow in his father’s footsteps. The family’s restaurant was close to the bars and nightclubs of Roppongi – a neon-lit playground for high-rolling businessmen. Young Daisuke wanted a life on the other side of the counter. “But it turned out I was a terrible businessman,” he says. Within a year, he was in the kitchen, watching his father work. “He rarely spoke – it was a case of look and learn. That was the way back then.” Shimazaki knows that a chef is only as good as his ingredients. To get his hands on the best fish, he depends on a network of traders, each of them a specialist – in tuna, squid, or sea urchin. He visits them at the fish market every morning. “If there’s something special coming in, they’ll call to give me a head’s up,” he says. “But I still need to see things with my own eyes.” Shimazaki’s sushi reflects his personality: it is uncomplicated and generous. His preparations are simple, his cuts are large, and his rice has bite. A giant Hokkaido oyster is his recommended starter when they are in season. Always on the menu is his father’s signature ‘himono’ –mackerel, rigorously salted, dried in the open air, and grilled until its buttery juices begin to ooze. In place of dessert, expect a slice of ‘tamagoyaki’ omelette – sweet, and with a hint of citrus. Shimazaki balances his dedication to his craft with other passions outside the kitchen – fast cars, fine whiskeys, and the occasional round of golf. A confident English speaker, he converses with his customers from all over the world as dexterously as he creates their meals. “If people want to stay here talking and drinking until the small hours, they’re very welcome,” he says. And with only one sitting per evening, at Sushi Yuu there is no need to watch the clock.