The master of sushi: an interview with Rei Masuda

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

By Nancy Singleton Hachisu

There’s so much more to sushi than raw fish. A true sushi master will have a discerning eye and a deft hand, doing everything from dry ageing to salt massaging (shiomomi), kelp-wicking (kobujime), vinegaring (sujime), scalding (yubiki) and searing (yakishimo).

Rei spent nine years training with Jiro Ono (widely regarded as the greatest living sushi craftsman) before opening Sushi Masuda, in Tokyo. Jiro — whose restaurant career spans 86 years — doesn’t give compliments lightly, but has said Rei’s sushi is the closest to his own of any former apprentice at his three-Michelin-starred Tokyo restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro.

Sushi Masuda received two Michelin stars of its own in 2015, within a year of opening, and has kept hold of them. Rei devises a new menu each week, featuring some of the most creative and delicious sushi you’ll ever taste. He’s proud to pass on his knowledge to a new generation, but rather than offering traditional, lengthy apprenticeships, Rei is spreading his expertise via sister restaurants, such as the recently opened Sushi Wakon in The Peninsula Tokyo hotel, overseen by him and manned by chefs he’s trained.

Why did you choose to work with sushi, and why Sukiyabashi Jiro?
I had decided to pursue a career in food, and was drawn to sushi as it’s one of the top foods I enjoyed eating. I began visiting sushi shops to sample the different styles of sushi masters in Tokyo and, of the many I tried, Sukiyabashi Jiro clearly stood out as the best. I asked Jiro-san if he would accept me as an apprentice but at the time there was no open spot. A few months went by before I got the call that someone had quit, and that Jiro-san was willing to take a chance on me. This was almost 15 years ago.

It takes years to master the art of sushi-making — how long did you spend with Jiro?
I worked for Jiro-san for nine years. Sukiyabashi Jiro is a small shop, so everyone participates in prep work. And the apprentices clean, of course. In our spare time, we also practised on our own with cheap rice and scrap fish, so as not to waste precious resources. If an apprentice could finally master a certain fish preparation, then Jiro-san allowed us to do that job for the shop.

How do you see your role as mentor?
Many of my new apprentices are serious in their approach to sushi, but some lack an essential element of concern for their work and their actions. They, perhaps, will not succeed. Also, when my workers visit other sushi shops they often pick them apart, pointing out discrepancies or failings. I tell them: “It’s better to find the good points than focus on the bad.” The current climate of sushi has changed — rather than keeping my apprentices over long periods, I want to pass on my power and expertise to them so they can stand on their own.

Some traditional restaurants are reluctant to accept non-Japanese speakers due to potential linguistic and cultural misunderstandings. What are your thoughts?
Foreign customers show positive reactions to the sushi I serve them and this, in turn, gives me positive energy. I love the process of making sushi and when I see the smiling, happy faces of my customers I’m revitalised. Foreign customers are respectful and knowledgeable about sushi — often more so than the Japanese. And I appreciate that they’ve taken the time to study or research the customs surrounding sushi. But mostly I’m happy if they just enjoy themselves and the food; and to that end, we develop the menu so that it goes well with both sake and wine.

What are your thoughts on the sustainability of fish stocks?
The world’s fish reserves are shrinking, so it’s our responsibility as sushi chefs not to waste it. In my shop, we operate on a no-waste philosophy, so the menu is meticulously planned with that in mind.

Published in the September issue of National Geographic Traveller Food, out 1 August. 

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