People 3 minutes 13 December 2022

The Middle East’s First One-Star Sushi Restaurant and the Japanese Hospitality of Masahiro Sugiyama

Eight thousand kilometres from Japan in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, you can taste the flavour of true Japanese sushi. Hōseki, listed as a one-star restaurant in the MICHELIN Guide Dubai 2022, brings the ‘made-in-Japan’ sushi of Masahiro Sugiyama to the Middle East.

In Dubai, where temperatures exceed 50°C in summer, many locals find temporary reprieve by living in other countries.
‘Nothing makes me happier than to hear people who have lived overseas come back to Dubai and say, “I’ve tasted sushi all over the world, but yours is the best”. Thanks to the MICHELIN Guide listing, lots of tourists visited us even in the summer this year. Maybe this is my chance to give back to all the customers, staff and producers, and of course to the hotel, who have all supported us over the years.’

The speaker is Masahiro Sugiyama, head chef of Hōseki in Bulgari Resort Dubai . Chef Sugiyama sat down with us to talk about pursuing his passion as a sushi craftsman in far-off Dubai.

ⒸBvlgari Resort Dubai
ⒸBvlgari Resort Dubai

Born into a Sushi Family

Masahiro Sugiyama is the son of a sushi chef, owner of a long-established restaurant founded in 1865. His paternal and maternal grandparents all owned sushi restaurants as well. Yet as a young boy, Sugiyama recalls, he did not see himself continuing that family tradition. Both parents worked from morning to evening, and even on days off they always answered the phone if it rang. Not for a single day could work and home life be separated. Seeing at first hand the grinding hardship of running one’s own business, Masahiro simply didn’t see becoming a sushi chef as an option.
‘My packed lunch on sports days was always the same: roll sushi’, Sugiyama recalls. ‘But kids want different things, like fried chicken or hamburger steak. I was so happy when my friends let me trade lunches with them’.

Sugiyama liked to eat and was interested in cooking, however, and as a student he worked part-time at a restaurant. One day, Sugiyama had the opportunity to serve a customer a dish he’d prepared himself. When he saw the customer smile upon tasting his cooking, Sugiyama knew that this was what he wanted to do. Seeing the moment when a customer smiles on eating his food is the true thrill of counter service, he realised. It wasn’t long before Sugiyama reconnected with sushi.

Later, after working at a series of sushi shops in Tokyo, Sugiyama began his apprenticeship at a branch of Sushi Kanesaka . Then in 2017, when a Bulgari Resort opened in Dubai, Sugiyama received an enthusiastic offer: he could have his own restaurant in the hotel, with full authority over its concept, operation, foodstuffs, everything. Sugiyama set off for Dubai.

ⒸMasahiro Sugiyama/ Hōseki
ⒸMasahiro Sugiyama/ Hōseki

The Secret of the Hōseki Box

Drawing on the association of the Bulgari name with dazzling jewellery, and on the beauty, elegance and good taste for which sushi is admired, the restaurant was named ‘Hōseki’, the Japanese word for ‘jewel’. Hōseki opened as a sushi restaurant run strictly on an omakase basis—everything left up to the chef.

When Sugiyama talks about Hōseki, a phrase that comes up over and over is ‘made in Japan’. Sugiyama goes to great lengths to ensure that everything at Hōseki is made in Japan, from the fish, vegetables and salt to the tableware. Fresh foodstuffs are flown in from Japan several times a week.

‘I get in touch with my food broker every day, so it’s just like visiting Tokyo’s Toyosu Market’, Sugiyama explains. ‘Dubai is five hours behind Japan. When the restaurant closes at midnight, it’s five o’clock, early morning, in Japan. That’s just when the market is taking a breather, so it’s an easy time for us to talk. Dubai’s location is perfect’, the chef says with a smile.

Inquiring further, we find that Chef Sugiyama has all the details down cold. The nori seaweed is sourced from a specific nori gatherer, the wasabi from a wasabi farm. All the producers are personal contacts from his years working in Japan, people who work with him because they know and trust him. When the carefully selected ingredients are gathered from all over Japan, they are loaded onto containers headed for Hōseki. This is the ‘Hōseki box’, the box of gems. The ingredients inside are like uncut diamonds, waiting to be cut by Sugiyama into sparkling culinary gems.

‘Please Entrust Your Precious Time to Us’

Hōseki offers omakase in three ways. The reason for offering only fixed set menus, Sugiyama says, is, ‘we want you to enjoy the Japanese seasons, so please leave the menu to us’. Not only the food, but the service and the ambience are omakase too, Sugiyama explains. The Japanese staff serve guests with a spirit of wa, harmony. The chef constantly reminds his staff that service must be in the Japanese style precisely because they are not in Japan. Dinner at Hōseki is a once-in-a-lifetime encounter, tailored to the customer and the season. Sugiyama guides his staff in thinking for themselves and putting their hearts and souls into their service.

'The sight of customers delighted with the experience we offer reverberates with our staff like nothing else’, Sugiyama says. ‘It’s far more motivating to them than any praise coming from me.’

From the moment guests set foot in Hōseki to the moment they take their leave, Sugiyama and his staff make them feel like they are truly in Japan. For example, the hotel originally requested that guests be addressed en masse across the counter to inform them that the show was about to start. Sugiyama refused, saying that in Japan each customer must be greeted individually and with sincerity, looking them in the eye. Japanese-style service, with heartfelt consideration, thoughtfulness and attention to detail, is to be followed at all times.

‘Our sincere demeanour says, “Welcome to Japan. Entrust your precious time to us”’, Sugiyama explains: ‘Addressing customers in this way conveys our appreciation that they are placing their valuable time into our hands.’

ⒸBvlgari Resort Dubai
ⒸBvlgari Resort Dubai

Endless Journey

The United Arab Emirates is a country that observes the strictures of halal. For Hōseki, this basically means that sake and mirin rice wine, both containing alcohol, are not used. Conveying the right experience without these components is up to the skill of the restaurant. A range of other measures are taken to adjust to the conditions of the region: the local drinking water is rather hard, for example, so staff boil it once to soften it. Never satisfied with things as they are, Hōseki constantly tinkers, always searching through trial and error for a better version of itself.

‘Whether I’m in Tokyo or in Dubai, I’m always apprenticing. For a sushi artisan there is no final destination’, asserts Sugiyama. When we ask what motivates him to keep moving forward, the chef replies with his true feelings, simply and shily: ‘I guess it’s because I like sushi’. As he speaks his face is shining. Like a jewel.


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