MOB Meets… Masaki Sugisaki
As the executive chef of Dinings SW3, Masaki Sugisaki is one of the brightest talents in the London dining scene. Masaki’s merging of Japanese culinary traditions with more modern European techniques and produce might go somewhat against the grain of the austere image of a sushi master promoted in documentaries like Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but the end result for diners is something truly delicious and totally unique. I once ate a piece of sushi made by Masaki during an omakase dinner that genuinely made me tear up. It was that good.
Music composition is another one of Masaki's passions, and the things he can do on the electric bass are almost on par with what he can do with sea bass. Well, almost. Masaki passed on a music career to pursue a life in professional kitchens and considering how he’s worked all over the world at some truly top restaurants – the culinary equivalent of a sold-out world tour – I’d say that he made the right decision.
I was lucky enough to spend some time with Masaki discussing his approach to Japanese cuisine and the stark contrast between the kitchen cultures in his native Japan and his adopted home here in the UK. Here’s what happened when MOB met Masaki Sugisaki.
You worked in your parents’ restaurant growing up. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
My parents owned a traditional kaiseki restaurant next to Tokyo in a city called Saitama. I was born and raised in Japan and the traditional Japanese way is that the oldest son always has to take over the family business. So, when I entered junior high, my parents forced me to work in the restaurant. I used to absolutely hate it, to be honest. All of my friends after school were out playing and having fun and I was stuck in a small corner of a kitchen washing dishes or peeling potatoes. I was also really into music at that time, and I wanted to be a musician, so I was always fighting against my parents and traditions.
When did you first know that you actually wanted to be a chef then?
I think it was after about five years of restaurant experience, when I was just about to graduate from high school, that I started to feel like, "okay, hang on a second, this is actually quite fascinating". I started seeing the deeper side of cooking and the beauty of the Japanese classic traditions and the philosophy behind it. I started to get more interested in it day by day. Another key turning point was that when I was 18, one of my parents’ restaurant set on fire and they lost everything. My family was suffering a lot financially because of that and they asked me to help. I gave up on my dream of going to uni the States and I started working in the family business properly after I graduated high school. That's how I entered the profession properly.
Do you think if you had more of a choice, or if you were the second-born son, that you wouldn't have gone into it at all?
I might. Maybe. I don't know and I guess I’ll never know. All my life, I’ve wanted to create something and that was the issue I had with my parent's business. It was a really traditional style of cooking where all I had to do was follow the traditions. In Japan, we tend to chase seasonal produce and there's a belief that those specific ingredients need to be cooked in a specific way every single time. You're told, “these ingredients go with these seasonings,” and that's that. That style of cooking gave me no sense of freedom and never gave me a chance to be truly creative.
Documentaries like ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ seem to portray the sushi chef as this obsessive figure who only lives for their job. Would you say that’s accurate?
I think that’s actually a good example of what Japanese culture is like. There’s a belief that you just need to pursue something for your whole life and each time you do that task, you will get slightly better at it and achieve something new. Which is true. To an extent. If you’re constantly repeating a process, and constantly pursuing perfection all the time, you will develop your skills to the next level. But there's also not much creativity or originality within that traditional category. It's difficult to showcase that if you're always doing the same thing. You’ve obviously got to be good at adapting those traditions and presenting them to the plate and I like that as well but creativity has always been my main concern. With that in mind, I decided to leave my parents' place and started working in a few other restaurants in Japan but they also had similar kind of restrictions.
Then, when I was 22, I had the opportunity to come over to London because of the music I was making and the food I was cooking. Those two elements really pushed me to come out from Japan and to come to London for the first time. I settled down in Ladbroke Grove and that area, back in the early '90s, was a very exciting place to be. Lots of musicians were living around that area and, obviously, there was a large Caribbean community and they were really into music as well. It was a dream kind of situation and I was keeping up both the music and cooking because I couldn't decide which way to go.
What was the Japanese food scene like in the UK back then?
It was shocking. I'd never ever seen that kind of situation in Japan. First of all, the sourcing of ingredients – and I'm talking basic ingredients like soy sauce or bonito flakes, the key staple ingredients of Japanese cooking – was appalling. They just didn't have them. We barely had fresh fish. The customers also didn't know much about Japanese cuisine and I was shocked at the way they ate the Japanese food. Take sushi, for example. Even now you can sometimes find people who’ll dunk the sushi in the soy dish and just smash everything together. That’s just going to be salty and taste like nothing apart from soy sauce. That was just the way it was back then and a lot of small Japanese restaurants run by Japanese chefs were taking advantage of those customers. They knew it was becoming kind of fashionable and healthy so they could charge a lot for their products without putting in much effort. I didn't like that at all and I bounced around at a few restaurants like that before I got to Nobu Park Lane. Arriving in the kitchen at Nobu was the first time I got shocked in a good way. It was there, and in Dinings afterwards, that I finally found the style and outlet for creativity that I was looking for.
Is the kitchen culture in Japan different to how it is over here?
Completely. In Japan, I worked at a new opening of a giant 200-seat sushi restaurant in the middle of Tokyo for a period because I wanted to see how a big player like that was operating. I spent one and a half, maybe two, years as the head chef there but it was too much. Working in a big, busy restaurant like that in Tokyo you have no personal life at all. I was there 6 days a week, at least, and sometimes I even had to sleep there. Even though I was only living about 15 minutes away by bike. After one and a half year's of that, I completely crashed. The mental situation was too stressful and my physical condition was pushed to a point where I simply couldn't take it any further. Then I had the opportunity to join the opening of Nobu Berkeley Street in London and that changed my life. That was a dream time. I was working like a slave in Tokyo but in Nobu, we had two days off and we'd work, maybe, 48 hours per week which is nothing compared to Tokyo. I even had a holiday! Which I've never, ever experienced until then. It was as if there was sunlight suddenly and I could see a lot of creative potentials.
At Dinings SW3, that creative potential finds itself coming to fruition in the heightened dining experience, right?
That's exactly the concept. We can never compete with big-game players like Nobu or Zuma or SUSHISAMBA but our strength, and the advantage we have is that we're small and nimble we can change to go in whatever direction we want to go. We can be more aggressive in terms of creativity and in terms of our concept because of that and we try to maximise that advantage which we have. Back when we were fully open we’d have a blackboard hanging and, as you enter, you could see the menu that changes on a daily basis. We're all about creation. You'd get some guests who would come in and wouldn't even look at the menu. They'd just ask me to make them something like they'd like with no consideration for price or anything. A lot of our signature dishes today were actually created under that pressure.
What’s the one dish that you think everyone should be able to cook?
To be honest, any dish is possible if you set your mind to it. People think sushi, for example, is a very complicated thing and if you want to become like a Jiro-esque chef then: okay, good luck. But every dish can be simple or extremely difficult depending on how you look at it. Even pasta, if you're trying to make it into something that’s Michelin star quality, is not going to be easy. But if you love cooking – if you truly love it – then you will be able to make good food. It doesn't need to be awarded a Michelin star or be recognised by the World's 50 Best or anything. You just need to focus on who you are serving this dish to and be aware of their preferences and your own preferences. Effort and passion are the key. If you have that passion then even putting something as simple as a pinch of salt will make you question how much you should be putting in the dish and get you thinking about the flavours of whatever it is you're making. That's the beginning of good cooking.
What’s an ingredient that you think people need to use more in their kitchens?
Local fish. Definitely. Nowadays it's a lot better but British people still tend to go for meat, and lots of meat like beef and chicken far too often. Fish and seafood is actually this country's greatest strength when it comes to local produce because it’s surrounded by the beautiful sea, just like Japan. That's why Japanese food culture is based on fish and seafood products and, y'know, the Japanese tend to live longer because of that. What we need to realise, especially after Brexit, is that there are lots of beautiful products right on our doorstep here. If you search on the internet nowadays you can actually purchase the daily catch and get it delivered to your door the next day. That’s amazing, isn't it? I personally love being able to connect with the fishermen here. As a Japanese chef, fish is very key to everything I cook so that’s why I'll go to an area like Cornwall and personally introduce myself to the fishermen there to make sure I get the best deal possible. We don't need to import from the European mainland and pay a lot of taxes on not very fresh fish anymore. If it's come fresh from the British sea then you can catch it and it'll be on the table the very next day.
What’s your ultimate comfort food?
It has to be Japanese food, obviously, and, for me, it's a Japanese breakfast. A typical breakfast that we have in Japan is a much bigger and heavier meal than a European breakfast. We'll have something like a bowl of cooked steamed rice, freshly made miso soup, pickled vegetables, grilled fish and fermented soybeans and nori sheets. Maybe sometimes even a raw egg, too. That kind of full Japanese breakfast always makes me feel like I'm home and it makes me happy.
What’s your favourite song to listen to while you’re cooking?
My ultimate mentor when it comes to music is the Japenese musician called Ryuichi Sakamoto. He plays beautiful piano tracks and I especially love his song called ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’, which is the theme of an old film. It's amazing. On iTunes, you can track how many times you've played a song and I think I've played that one almost 10,000 times. That is without a doubt my favourite track of all-time.