Who inspired you to become a chef?
I grew up around my family’s traditional restaurant, immersed in a world of sushi. As a child, I would accompany my grandfather to the fish market and observe the masterful cutting techniques and artful pressing of nigiri. But it was my mother who had the most significant influence on me during my formative years. She approached the art of sushi in an expansive way. Instead of playing baseball with my friends, she encouraged me to take up the martial art of Judo for the physical, mental and moral teaching and philosophy. I practised Ikebana, the art of flower arranging, to help develop ideas around expressive creativity through shape, line and form with an understanding of seasons and the concept of balance. I attended Chado tea classes, instilling an appreciation for the significance of ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha. I learned the traditional practice of Nihon-buyo, a dance technique over four centuries old and that still features within Kabuki theatre. And finally, I was a student of Shodo, the form of artistic calligraphy of the Japanese language. This all-encompassing education instilled a deep personal and social awareness, cultural respect for my heritage and the importance of balance in all things, laying the groundwork for my future as a sushi chef.
Where did you gain your most formative experience in cooking, and what skills/memories/knowledge from here really stuck with you?
It is not traditional to work for your family restaurant without experience at other restaurants, so first, I joined the team at one of Tokyo’s top omakase restaurants. For four years, I immersed myself in the technique of edomae – a style of sushi invented in Tokyo 200 years ago. The more I understood, the more I realised that sushi would be my life’s journey.
After a year back at my family’s restaurant, I looked to expand my knowledge beyond edomae. I took on a position at the restaurant NARITA in Nagoya City, 340km west of Tokyo and home to one of Japan’s most revered sushi masters Akitoshi Ohno, a protégé of Jiro Ono. I spent two years there honing my craft.
In 2006 I was approached by the London-based restaurant Zuma regarding the position of Head Sushi Chef. I was curious about the idea of moving to the UK and, after a few weeks in Spain, I arrived in London to meet Chef Rainer Becker, the creator and founder of Zuma, Roka and Shochu Lounge. I discovered that Rainer had a deep understanding and profound respect for Japanese culture. We shared a vision of a more modern approach to traditional Japanese food with an uncompromising desire for quality.
In 2007 I took up residence in London. At Zuma, I learnt how to grow my style and tailor it to specific nationalities and tastes. Rainer was a great boss, but Rose Gray from the River Cafe was my mentor. Rose was a regular at my Zuma sushi counter, and she invited me to her restaurant one day. Showing me around the kitchen, I was in awe of her respect for suppliers and her unwavering dedication to the season. From that day, I returned to work as her apprentice each Sunday on my day off for an entire year.
Is there a ‘wow’ moment(s) in your career that stands out for you? Tell us more…
The most significant ‘wow’ moment was opening my first restaurant, Endo, at the Rotunda in London. It had been a dream of mine, and I finally knew after 24 years I was ready. The produce in Britain is outstanding. Mackerel and spider crab from Cornwall are particularly impressive. I think mackerel should be the national fish of Britain! Of course, winning a Michelin star was very special too.
Tell us about some of your main food principles and cooking philosophies and where they stem from? How are they realised in your dishes?
My philosophy is to keep things simple but consider every tiny detail. The ingredients are always king. We cook with precision, knowledge and experience but without ego. For example, both the fish and rice must be served at the perfect temperature. These principles stem from all my past experiences. We also always listen to the guest.
What inspires you most when cooking and thinking of dishes, and how do you remain continually creative/dedicated?
When creating a dish, I look to nature. What is in the garden? What is in the forest and the mountains? I do not look at passing trends or what’s on social media. The produce comes first. I smell it, taste it, then decide how it will be served. It’s as if the ingredients speak to me.
Communication with our suppliers is integral to what we do. The seasons and weather can affect the quality and type of seafood that makes its way to the restaurant. Once we receive the fish we must taste it and consider how to prepare it, for example, some fish should be dry-aged, rather than eaten fresh. When considering vegetables, nothing on our dishes is superfluous; everything has a place on the plate and is there for a reason. I also love and am inspired by music. Unfortunately, playing the guitar is not suitable for a sushi chef’s hands.
What are some of your favourite ingredients to use and why? Tell us about the stories behind these products and where you source them from.
We import our rice and water from Yamagata prefecture and cook it in water from the same area. This ensures the rice is in harmony with the water and is cooked at the perfect pH. We get our Mazuma Wasabi from near Mount Fuji, and it is the best you can get. Our soy sauce is a blend of two; both are organic and aged for five years. We have one from Fukuoka, which is sweeter, while the other from Ehime Prefecture contains more umami; this provides the perfect balance for me. The recipe for our vinegar was my grandfather’s, so that is an ingredient that is very close to my heart.
Tell us more about the current menu and its highlights? What dishes can diners expect?
Our 20-course Omakase style menu changes daily depending on the produce. These might include Tokyo Style ‘Tsukekomi’ Oyster Nigiri, where the oyster is gently poached. We serve mackerel tempura with Cornish sweet onion and potato, a beautiful celebration of the region. In our current Wagyu dish, we serve Miyazaki A4 sirloin with Kobe white miso, cavalo nero and sauce of fresh sansho peppercorns. The fresh peppercorns are very hard to find fresh in the UK and really make the dish come alive, with a subtle numbing sensation.
Can you give details on the art of ‘Omotenashi’ service, its significance and how this factors into the restaurant experience?
Our service is inspired by the Japanese spirit of Omotenashi – the art of hospitality rooted in empathy towards one’s guest. More than a style of service, it is a state of mind. You must showcase the genuineness of who you are, the best you, without hiding anything. It’s important to note how we speak and present ourselves to guests. Every detail should be considered, from music to our scent-free sanitiser. Do everything you can to create an immersive, multi-sensory dining experience. We cook from the heart, and the guest always comes first in everything we do. The Japanese concept of ‘ichi-go ichi- e’ is treasuring the unrepeatable nature of a moment. We want our guests to experience a once in a lifetime experience, even if they return. To summarise, it’s a pure, honest and sincere version of hospitality.
The pandemic has, of course, seriously impacted restaurants. Tell us about your and the restaurant’s experience during this time?
Shortly after restaurants closed in March 2020, I realised I had a skill set that could help others. A doctor friend of mine who worked on the frontline at a local hospital explained the escalating stressful conditions inside. Staff worked such long hours and were so exhausted they had little or no time to buy and prepare food. With restaurants and cafes closed, many were missing meal times altogether. So we began creating sushi boxes to be donated to the staff working in the emergency services and within the hospitals. Each box contained four generous sized sushi rolls, enough to provide a filling meal for people who never knew when they would next eat. We began in April 2020 at a hotel in Knightsbridge, where a drive-through service pit had been organised for police and ambulance staff and then started to deliver to hospitals directly. We provided roughly 9000 boxes by the end of June 2020, which I’m incredibly proud of.
During this time, we also became aware of the situation with our suppliers (some of whom produced exclusively for us) as their businesses had dried up with the closure of restaurants. At the same time, many of our guests who were furloughed or working from home had been cooking every day for three months and had already reached out asking for takeaway. We decided to link both and created a not-for-profit bento box using our usual suppliers and restaurant level quality, with 15% on top of each sale given to The Felix Project.
What do you think are the key elements are that have led to the success of Endo at the Rotunda?
Dedication, time and training. I opened The Rotunda when I felt ready after over two decades of experience. Another element is that the guest always comes first, as I mentioned before, with the spirit of Omotenashi. Of course, the incredible team surrounding me is essential; they believe in our philosophy and work tirelessly to deliver it every day. Our suppliers and producers are integral to what we do, and we are closely intertwined with them. I’m sure the setting on top of the old BBC Television Centre looking over West London has helped; the venue was beautifully designed personally by Kengo Kuma. Finally, don’t take yourself too seriously; there has to be an element of fun.
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