“I used to think that sushi was cold,” admits Takashi Saito, chef-owner of Sushi Saito, the youngest sushi chef to head a three Michelin-starred restaurant.
It was up until after high school when he was working part-time at a fishmonger’s and the owner brought him for a celebratory meal at a proper sushi restaurant—that was the first time Saito had a formal sushi course seated at the counter.
“The God of Sushi” laughs, “Before, I’d only eaten sushi that was delivered to the doorstep.”
There is another precious memory of sushi he holds dear: the time when he had his first bite of Edomae-style sushi.
“I come from Chiba, where the shari (sushi rice) has sugar added to it and is less refined. But after coming to Tokyo, I ate sushi that was seasoned with red vinegar or just salt. The difference in the taste of the shari touched me.” He pauses in recollection: “The rice was warm. Initially I was a little surprised that the rice was warm.”
And so these memories etched into his palate, are the ones that define the edo-style sushi and dining experience in his three Michelin-starred restaurant.
The only rule
“Surely in this world, sushi is the only kind of food which is ‘pressed’ in front of you, and then eaten directly in that manner. Right in front of you, made by the hands of another person and eaten in front of that person… I really have not seen anything in this world that's eaten like this.”
He muses: “The rules of the past haven't changed. And I don't think they will change in the future either—the rule of sushi is to eat it as soon as it's prepared. That's the only rule of sushi.”
Even as the burgeoning art of sushi is winning fans everywhere in the world, Saito does not think this is a cuisine that packs surprises into a meal or makes people go wow.
He explains that this is because sushi can only find its expression according to the seasons and this presents to chefs the difficulty of working out something different within those limits. The same fish in spring, summer, autumn and winter, will taste different from season to season.
The onus is then on the chef to put in the necessary effort and right techniques to work the ingredients so that the differences in each season, brought on by climate and the external environment, can be minimized.
He is quick to assert that the idea of cooking a particular ingredient into dishes is “the job of a restaurant chef”. Whereas for sushi chefs, their mission is to take the ingredients they have and present them to be eaten in the original state as far as possible.
“That's sushi”, he says in a thoughtful manner. And the art of sushi, has to be a personal interpretation. According to Saito, the forming of sushi has to be considered and executed by oneself.
“It's not that I won't teach it, but the way I do it cannot be done by others. Isn't that what sushi is? There's no recipe for the forming of the sushi. It cannot be written down. With regard to nigiri (the forming of the sushi), it's something you have to do based on your own senses and sensitivity.“
Ask him to describe how he does it, and he says softly: “I use a light touch to form sushi… So whether I hold it by hand or chopsticks, it doesn't fall apart. But when sushi gets into the mouth, the rice is ‘scattered’. This is the perfect form to me.”
French top chef Joel Robuchon has proclaimed Sushi Saito to be the best sushi restaurant in the world, this elegant modest space is divided into two dining rooms, with just eight seats. When the MICHELIN guide Digital team was there late February, we found that Sushi Saito has been booked through the year already.
Opening up more outlets in Japan is clearly not Saito's priority either. Rather, he would prefer to spend each day presenting the best the season has to offer for his guests.
Central to Sushi Saito’s success is the age-old Japanese tradition of omotenashi—this has been his guiding principle through the years. He does not think that creativity nor technique is sufficient to build a restaurant to three-star quality.
“Well, ultimately, isn't the customer the one who decides what is delicious? What we feel is delicious may not necessarily be delicious to the customers, until the customer delivers (the food) into his or her mouth,” he says. “When customers eat and go ‘Ahh’... in that moment, I'm really really really happy. ”
He affirms that giving one’s best is important, so is technique and sensitivity but questions how relevant these can be if a chef does not “have the feeling of wanting the customer to enjoy something delicious. ”
A hard road to success
The training young Saito received in the early days was traditional and rigorous. He started working as a sushi chef when he was 18 years old with the renowned Sushi Kyubey and went on to work with Shinji Kanesaka for 10 years, earning his stripes there.
Describing those days as “tough”, he lets on that he did not even get the chance to touch fish at all for a few years. Cleaning was what he did most of the time. Looking back though, he thinks this is a pathway best not to bypass. Indeed, he suggests young chefs abide and “walk that path properly”.
“I think the first three years are the most important, which shop you choose, the type of practice and training in those three years. In the next five years, the next 10 years, the difference will emerge. ”
He finally got to serve at the sushi counter when he was 25 years old and he decided to strike out on his own in 2004, opening his eponymous restaurant when he was 33.
Sweet returnsSushi Saito received its first Michelin star in 2007, and its second the next year before clinching its third in 2009, and has kept those accolades since.
Though low-key and media-shy, Saito is held in extremely high regard in Japan and is the only Japanese sushi chef considered to be a match for the legendary Sukiyabashi Jiro. Easily the world’s top sushi master now, but still extremely humble and down to earth, the man who insists on visiting Tsukiji every morning and fetching back his own produce has this to say: sushi is what has made him stronger and helped him understand people better.
“To put it simply... it's about welcoming the customer.. that feeling. To welcome the customer, we must make preparations. For example in our appearance, our techniques and in our heart as well.”
Guests come from all over the world, even members from the Japanese Imperial family, but for him, serving his parents on the other side of the counter was most difficult, emotionally speaking.
“They've known me since I was a baby. My hands shook the most while I was forming the sushi, my mother cried. As for my dad, well... he didn't say anything but even as we talk about it now, I can feel the tears coming on. It was the best way to repay my parents... while I was forming the sushi. Even now I feel moved within me.”
No rest for the weary
Asked how he disciplines himself and keeps in top form, Saito remarks matter-of-factly, that he does not do much other than keeping healthy and never allowing himself to fall ill.
“I'm not that stoic... but I must never catch a cold. Even if I don't feel so well, up till now I've never taken a rest day ever. For me, whether I'm in a good mood or a low mood, once I put on my cap and fasten the front of my uniform, there'll be no problem.”
Success is yet to come
Despite his achievements, he does not consider himself to be successful yet. “10 years or 20 years later, when I'm about 60, if Sushi Saito is still around, maybe I'd have succeeded a little,” he says.
He hopes that in time to come, Saito will be a name synonymous with sushi. And he has started investing efforts into creating a shop like that from now.
He also has plans to run a school, not like current vocational schools, but an operational sushi shop that will allow young apprentices to put their learning into practice. He currently has ten young chefs under his wing in Sushi Saito and his vision is to have Saito graduates “get their own shop one after another”.
One such protege is Ikuya Kobayashi who has set himself apart with his skill, and was handpicked by Saito to man the fort in his Hong Kong outpost.
Ask him about setting up outposts overseas and he feels strongly that his influence overseas has been carried by the strong messaging of the MICHELIN Guide. His Edo-style sushi will be prepared to the exacting standards that propelled his restaurant to stardom.
He will personally select the cuts of fish every morning from Tsukiji and these will be flown into Hong Kong in time for lunch service the same day. From the soy sauce to the rice, to his signature mild red vinegar, the ingredients will be identical to what is served in his Tokyo establishment.