|“Sharing Japanese food culture to the world.” The series of interviews feature the vision of Pocket Concierge. We will interview the chefs of the leading restaurants in Japan and introduce their thoughts on the restaurant and their way of thinking as a “top” chef.|
“Nihonbashi Kakigaracho Sugita” Mr. Takaaki Sugita
Known as one of the most difficult sushi restaurants to reserve, “Nihonbashi Kakigaracho Sugita” is not only famous for its excellent quality of *tsumami and sushi, but also for the chef Mr. Takaaki Sugita’s character and hospitality. In the Michelin Guide 2017, it was awarded Michelin 1 star and since then it has been attracting even more attentions worldwide. This time, Mr. Sugita talked about how the restaurant grew from its early days to today’s popularity as one of the most hard-to-book restaurants in Japan.
Aspiration to become a sushi chef since high school days. A fatal encounter with an attractive sushi master after high school graduation
— When did you start to think you were going to be a sushi craftsman?
When I was in junior high school, I watched a TV series made by NHK- “Ikinoiiyatsu” (a nice guy), which was very popular at that time. It was a story about a man who once was apprenticed to a sushi restaurant, became a great sushi chef later. After seeing that, I thought that becoming a sushi chef was so cool and was deeply attracted by their strong sense of morality and beautiful works. Then I entered high school, and found one of my friend worked as a part time worker at a sushi restaurant in Chiba, my hometown. He wanted to leave the job but was told by the restaurant that he had to find another one to replace him, and then I became the one. Since I had been longing for a job at sushi restaurant from junior high school, it was a quite fun experience for me. From then on, I started to think about becoming a sushi chef as my career for the whole life.
— After graduating from high school, did you get a job at a sushi restaurant right away?
Yes. By then, I thought that Tokyo would be a better place for learning at sushi restaurant than Chiba. And one day I unexpectedly saw several job offerings in my high school for sushi chefs. I picked some up and left for Tokyo. Among them, there were many famous restaurants such as “Kyubey”, but I decided to be trained at “Miyakozushi” where I firstly got interviewed.
— Why did you choose ‘Miyakozushi’ among so many others?
During the interview, he had me eat his sushi, which was totally different from those I had in my countryside hometown. It was fatally delicious. The master was a great person with very charming character. I immediately decided to work there and started my 12-year training life there from that day until I became independent to open my restaurant.
— Which part of the master do you think was appealing?
His personality; diligent and conscientious. He was always kind and patient to apprentices. Even today he does really care about the town Nihonbashi Kakigaracho and thinks deeply about the future of the sushi industry. Now he is the president of the “Federation of the National Sushi Commerce and Sanitary Association” (one of the largest sushi craftsman unions in Japan). His sincere attitude is the most attractive part of him, I believe.
12-year training life. With continuous endeavors over the years, his own sushi restaurant finally opened.
— How was your life in the beginning of the 12-year training?
Miyakozushi is a so-called “sushi restaurant for locals”, covering everything including catering and course menu. There were only 8 counter seats, but table seats were much more with the place where you can have a banquet on its 2nd floor. In such kind of restaurant, at first you wouldn’t be given a chance to cook easily. So all I could do was sushi delivery. I didn’t hold even a knife in the first year. Though it was a little bit frustrating, I always said to myself “I want to get the first prize by delivering sushi delivery now. I know all about this town!” I thought that way in the first year of my training life. I wanted to be the one who knows everywhere of the street, and could deliver things to the accurate place without using even maps.
— So when did you actually start the training?
About from the second year, I gradually became able to help some simple preparation, such as cutting the heads of Kohada, removing the scales, and other small things. In the third year, I was able to handle white fish, and sometimes bigger fish, in the fourth year I became able to make *makimono and Anago, and it was in the fifth year that I could finish all the preparation work. Then I was allowed to make*nigiri sushi little by little. Later, I was allowed to take charge of the take-out sushi and banquet course. I really appreciate the opportunity because it gave me the chance to drill my skills. It was from the 8th year that I was actually able to stand alone in front of the preparation table.
*makimono: a kind of sushi made by rolling fish and vegetable inside rice.
*nigiri: hand-shaped sushi
— It seems like you started you own restaurant by setting a branch of “Miyakozushi”, what made you decide to do so?
At the age of 28, wondering if this was the life I wanted by keeping my life as it was, I guessed that there was a greater world. At that time, I sometimes went out with the master participating in the meetings of the above mentioned Sushi Association, there I had a chance to contact other sushi chefs. By exchanging information with them, I started to think about changing my training place once. After so many wondering days until I rushed into my thirties, I was finally told to open a new branch by the master.
— Is that “Nihonbashi Tachibanacho Miyakozushi”?
To say precisely, it was in the same place but called “Higashi Nihonbashi Miyakozushi”. It was started by my senior who became independent roughly 2 years after I started training at “Miyakozushi”. However, it was closed 7 years later. Then, another senior who was elder than me but younger than that senior took over the restaurant, this time it only lasted for three and a half years. Then they tried to sell it, but no one would buy the sushi restaurant which has been failed twice.
That year, I was 30 years old, wondering if I should change my workplace. On December 31 that year, the master told me ” I can’t give you more money to open a new restaurant, but I could sell you Higashi Nihonbashi Miyakozushi, at a reasonable price if you want. Please decide in 2-3 days at most”. To tell you the truth, I was so confused and talked with my family, and finally decided to run the restaurant later.
— So you changed its name and reopened it.
Yes. At first, I was told by many that, “It is better to give up the name of Miyakozushi”, and I agreed. However, one day I heard the master suddenly saying ” I am so sad if it will no longer be ‘Miyakozushi’ anymore”. I had been learning many lessons and receiving so much help from the master for 12 years, and really did not want to see him so sad. I also believed this was my fate, so I started it using the same name adding the place “Nihonbashi Tachibana Cho”(old name of the town) after it, instead of “Higashi Nihonbashi”.
After three-year hard time with nearly no customer visiting, a turning point suddenly came, bringing it to today’s most difficult-to-book restaurant.
— How busy was your restaurant at the time?
Since 2004 when it just opened, for almost 3 years, there were nearly no customer coming. But since there were many fabric shops gathering together, in the daytime there were many people coming and going. So, people came for lunch. We provided Chirashizushi (colorfully scattered sushi) at an affordable price, 900 yen. On the other hand, the number of customers decreased at night, so there were nearly none to come.
I can’t imagine that from the success of today, but when did it start to get better?
Around 2007, as 30-34 year old young chefs increased, a small sushi boom occurred. There was a special magazine collection, gathering stories of several young sushi craftsmen who were popular at that time. Luckily I was one of them. From then on, I received 25 interviews in a year and my business started to go well. But the period of “hard-to-book restaurant” was still yet to come.
— From then, I think you moved and opened “Nihonbashi Kakigaracho Sugita” in 2015, what was the trigger for that?
The building was a bit old, so I thought that we should rebuild or relocate it someday. The property in Nihonbashi Kakigaracho Sugita was the restaurant which was once run by my wife’s parents in the past, and my wife also worked there. This is also the restaurant that in the Miyakozushi period, the master brought me to dinner for the first time and we later went there quite often. And in 2015, the restaurant was closed, and the property became empty. This property has witnessed the history of my wife and also many of my memories. Though it was not a property designed for a sushi restaurant, I decided to rebuild and open it.
— Have you changed the style of making sushi from the time you studied in “Miyakozushi”?
Well, I inherited the way of seasoning *Kanpyo from Miyakozushi as it was, but others have all been changed. I had a lot of things I want to do in my own ways, so I tried and failed a lot in the 1~2 years from the opening. I tried to boil the rice harder or made it taste more sour, but was told by the customers, “Oh chef, I don’t believe one could eat this!”. Now I would laugh every time when I think of this. Now the seasoning sushi rice is made by the blend of amber vinegar made from rice and sake lees and the red vinegar made from sake lees. It was around 2010 or 2011 that it became to this style and it was also from this time it became to today’s so-called “difficult-to-book restaurant”.
*Kanpyo: dried gourd strips
— I know that ” Chef’s selection” is the main course menu, but is there any must-eat in it?
Tsumami is something you must try. Nori Rolls with Hikarimono such as mackerel and sardine inside, sweet monkfish liver are my recommendations, too. Also, certain kind of pickles seasoned for a whole year won’t disappoint you. As for sushi, it is Kohada. When you order nigiri sushi (hand-formed sushi), Kohada is always the first one to come. For our customers, there may be impression that “Nihonbashi Kakigaracho Sugita is the best for Kohada”.
*Hikarimono: shiny fishes
“Nori roll of mackerel”
— As one of the reasons for the popularity of “Nihonbashi Kakigaracho Sugita”, I often heard that staffs and chef pay very close attention to each customer when providing tsumami or sushi. Is this something you always keep in mind?
I have been enjoying making people laugh since I was a child. So I have been longing to work in the service industry for a long time. I somehow thought I am the one for this kind of job. The feeling of making people happy is always in deep side of my heart. I do not feel that I am doing it for work at all. Perhaps just because of my unconscious hospitality I received such popularity from customers. I also teach our young staffs how I think of service in every details.
— We know that the personality of chef also has a strong impact on the restaurant’s atmosphere, is there any influence from your master?
To say about myself, before I started training at “Miyakozushi”, I was an irresponsible person. It was my master who taught me that “people should be sincere, that’s the way a people in the society should be”, my personality was formed there. Now I often received praise from customers saying that my words are polite and elegant, but those should all thank to the master’s teaching. As a sushi craftsman, not only the techniques, but also the way of carrying craftsmanship is very important. I appreciate so much that he formed my personality which is the treasure in my life.
— I have been told that it’s difficult to reserve a seat, could you please tell us the mechanism of the reservation system?
As for the counter seats, basically at the beginning of a month, next month’s reservations are acceptable. However, since customers who have visited once might reserve for the next time when they come to the restaurant, thus some seats might be already filled at this stage. At the beginning of each month, telephone reservation service is available from 9 o’clock to 15 o’clock, but usually all the seats would be filled in the first hour. There is one private room for four people, for which we begin to accept reservations from one week before. Unlike counter seats that give you a feeling of live, private room provides space for 3~4 customers to talk freely. For the menu, chef’s selection course is mainly made up of a small dish, 7 tsumami, 11 nigiri ” main. From Tuesday to Saturday, two turnovers at night; on Sunday: two turnovers in the day and one at night.
— Last, would mind telling us your future prospects?
Currently, we are not considering opening many chain restaurants. However, I hope our apprentices become independent and have their own restaurants, and even their apprentices also become independent to open their restaurants. I wish “Nihonbashi Kakigaracho Sugita” is prospering in this way. For this perspective, I always make every effort to keep my own restaurant even better than the apprentices’ restaurants.
<A greeting from the chef to Pocket Concierge’s customers>
With many supports from our customers, “Nihonbashi Kakigaracho Sugita” has been running and growing since our opening on 27th October 2015. Recently (December 2016), overseas customers become gradually increasing since we hired one staff who can speak English. In the future, we will continue every effort to provide better sushi for everyone to enjoy their experience here. Thank you very much.
※”Sugita”is currently a difficult-to-book sushi restaurant, but if you register as a member of Pocket Concierge you will be able to receive update information of various restaurants.
【Photos (Chef, Restaurant)】 Nihonbashi Kakigaracho Sugita
【Photos (location)】 Pocket Concierge Editorial Department
[ Access to Nihonbashi Kakigaracho Sugita ]
Tokyo Metro “Suitengu” station, 2~3 minutes walk from exit 4.
|Restaurant name：||“Nihonbashi Kakigaracho Sugita”|
|Address：||B1F of Tokyo View Heights Nihonbashi, 1-33-6 Nihonbashi Kakigaracho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo|
|Open hours：||Lunch (Sunday) 11: 00 ~, 13: 30 ~,
Dinner (Tuesday to Friday) 17: 30 ~, 20: 30 ~ (Saturday) 17: 00 ~, 20: 00 ~ (Sunday) 18: 00 ~