For the love of food
Umu is considered to be the very best Japanese restaurant in London and amongst the best in Europe. Despite the fact that sushi restaurants hardly ever achieve Michelin stars, Umu, situated in Mayfair, has two. The stars where mostly down to the excellence and perfectionist approach of top, superstar chef, Yoshinori Ishii.
Apart from being one of the leading Kaiseki chefs, Ishii also gained experience at some of the very best restaurants in the world, including Kitcho in Kyoto, considered one of the ultimate experiences. He then moved to NYC, to work with celebrity chef Morimoto, before taking London by storm. We caught up with this master in an attempt to understand what makes him strive for perfection
What is the exact meaning of the greeting that we received on entering Umu?
Basically, ‘Ashira shy ma say’, is a typical welcome that is used a lot back home in Japan. There, however, it’s just the person greeting you that says it, whilst here in Europe, it has become trendy for everyone – from waiters, right up to the head chef, to shout it out. This is even more common in Asian fusion restaurants, and not just purely sushi ones. They believe that shouting it adds to the experience, even though it seems to surprise some customers.
You are a very prominent Kaiseki chef. Can you explain to us what makes this so unique?
This is a 400 year old tradition and technique derived from green tea. Not tea as we know it today, but the masters, used it in its pure form, or as is now known, Matcha. This was the most common tea, and is extremely strong in its natural form, like an espresso. Europeans often eat something sweet before a strong coffee. Us Japanese, do the same, before our green tea. Kaiseki is that sweet. It was originally chestnuts which were very seasonal, and were used to line the stomach. As generations passed, this became a delicacy and approx 80 to 100 years ago, an entire new cuisine was created based on this Kaiseki . It started in one restaurant but spread very quickly throughout the country amongst high end restaurants. I myself learnt it though masters in japan and now im trying to promote it here in London.
How do Tokoyo and London compare on the restaurant scene?
I have just returned from 10 days back home in Japan, where I dedicated my trip to studying from masters. I spent the entire time at a three-Michelin-star restaurant, having lunch and dinner, day after day, observing and learning all the differences and techniques compared to my own. What I have learnt is that Japan, especially Tokyo and Kyoto, are at least one level above anything in Europe. No comparison really so I feel it is my responsibility to raise the level here in London and especially at Umu.
What makes Japan so unique compared to Europe, is that everything in Japan is based on perfection and punctuality. For example, take a train, would never arrive even a minute late. If it was late, it would make headlines in the news, with it being such a rarity.
Another example is, when ordering live fish. In Japan, I often order from Kyushu island, and if I want, for example, red snapper delivered from there to Tokyo, I can call, and it will be delivered by the next morning. Alive. Usually in around 12 hours. It’s never late, there’s never a mistake. Perfection every time. Guaranteed. Those standards are almost impossible to mach in Europe. Standards are not only kept or achieved in the kitchen, but numerous things that are not in the chefs control.
We know that you are an avid fisherman. When fishing, do you only think about having fun or are you thinking up new recipes?
Definitely a combination of the two. When I head out fishing as a sport, I go specifically for only one type of fish – such as salmon. If I’m going for salmon, I’m not interested in any other type of fish, so I use the perfect rod, the perfect line, and the perfect bait, to catch that salmon. That way, I’m only thinking about nature and salmon. To me, that is sport fishing. On the other hand, I sometimes take fishermans’ friends boats out, in Cornwall or Portugal, and we head out just for fun. I show them the correct way to handle the fish, since we plan on eating our catch. Once I know what we are catching, my mind is racing and planning the meals and recipes ahead, often discovering and creating new dishes along the way.
We know you cook and grill using infra red and fanning, can you please explain this?
Not many restaurants use charcoal here in Europe, and the way it is used to cook in Japan is completely different. The European way, is simply add the charcoal to the grill, and keep grilling. Back home, we try to control the light and the heat. The more air you give the charcoal, the redder it gets and therefor hotter. The red light it gives off, is better for cooking fish from the inside. At the same time, we need to control the cooking of the outside of the fish, so that is when we fan the heat for maximum control and sending the air in the direction we need, for perfection. By fanning, the heat isn’t directly hitting the fish. We have mastered the proper way of fanning, and directing both the heat and the light, that the grill gives off. This is ideal for searing, when you need very intense heat for a very short period of time. At this point we fan very, very fast and sear for maybe 20 seconds.
What makes Umu unique?
This technique, I believe, is unique to Umu, as far as Europe goes. Outside Umu, I have only heard of this in Japan, and even back home, not many chefs actually know how to use this type of cooking.
Something else that makes Umu unique is the way the fish is handled, and delivered to the restaurant. We use overnight shipping that takes no longer than 15 hours to get here or we send the fish back. That way every morning we receive the freshest possible fish for the day ahead. Many fisherman from cold countries, including England, don’t see the need to add ice. We insist on it, and we refuse anything that is not 100% perfect. Anything other than perfection can be a big problem for me, later on in the kitchen. The fisherman would not see the difference, between fresh and perfect, whilst I definitely would. For this reason, I don’t use fish suppliers anymore, and only buy from a few, very trusted fisherman. I can guarantee you that we use the absolute best fish in England.
Do you have any other hobbies?
Pottery! All the plates and bowls in the restaurant, I have handmade myself, as I am recently getting a lot more practice in. Every weekend, I lock myself away and enjoy this new hobby. I even dug my own clay recently! The negative side to this hobby, is that my apartment has lots of space for pottery, and looks like a proper workshop, however, there is now no space to lay down and relax!
Following all your travels and experiences, what is next for you? Will you be staying in London for a while?
Even though Umu probably has the best fish in Europe, I still want to improve. Every time I dine in Japan, I realise I can’t relax, and feel the need to keep pushing. It makes me aware of how behind Europe is, and I have so much more work to do. So my need to discover more of everything never stops. It’s not only about the fish and the cooking, but also the local herbs, seasonal vegetables, meats, everything. Every area can be improved on. Just like with my pottery, which started seven years ago, you never stop learning. Actually, thinking about it – chef pauses and smiles- pottery is also at a much higher standard in Japan! Slowly slowly, I would love to introduce all types of Japanese cultures to Europe, whilst at the same time, becoming more skilled myself.
As long as I think London is behind, I will always think there is potential. Hopefully, I am the one that can help fulfill this potential.
Thanks for your time chef, we will surely be back