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Yoshi tezuka - sushi

For  those who have never traveled to Japan, it’s reasonable to assume that Tokyo has sushi restaurants everywhere. The ¥125 per-piece sushi restaurant or even the revolving sushi bar you spot next to the train station might seem like a novel place to satisfy your appetite. Maybe it’s the trendy sushi bars featured in the popular lifestyle magazines that caught your attention. But say you’re searching for something beyond Tokyo’s bright neon lights, the culinary nouveau, or an elbow-to-elbow dining adventure. Strolling down the backstreets of the city’s Shinagawa Ward, you might see the sign “Matsunozushi” next to the austere wooden entryway. Passing through the noren cloth partition, you’ll find the fading sounds of the street ushering you into a different world—the domain of master sushi chef Yoshi Tezuka.

Stepping over the stone path through a luscious green garden, we met Tezuka at the entryway as he welcomed us into his restaurant for an interview with a warm smile and open arms. Yoshi Tezuka is the fourth generation in a family of sushi chefs that specializes in one of the oldest styles of sushi from the Edo period, nigirizushi.

He recalled his elementary school days when he wrote about continuing the family tradition like his father and grandfathers before him. His time spent next to the sushi counter watching his father interact directly with customers provided invaluable first-hand knowledge, giving him skills that felt natural to him when it came time for him to learn the family trade.

It can be said that sushi goes beyond a mere gustatory experience and rather resembles a performing art, with the sushi chef entertaining guests with movement, cuisine, and conversation. This art of conversation is nothing foreign to Tezuka, as he grew up watching his father simultaneously satisfy a customer’s mind with stimulating conversation as well as their empty stomach with exquisite delicacies. This verbal communication might seem commonplace, but the effortless amalgamation of conversation, masterful culinary skills, and Japanese hospitality is something that takes years of practice and cultivation.

Many customers look forward to and expect stimulating conversation while enjoying their sushi, Tezuka explained. “In other types of Japanese restaurants, food is typically made in the back and there isn’t much communication between the chef and the customers.” In order to maintain a flowing conversation, it’s important to sustain a wealth of information about a variety of topics. This direct communication between the sushi chef and the guest, however, allows Tezuka to explain what he’s doing, elaborate on the quality of the ingredients, and also learn about the customer’s desires or preferences so he can better tailor the dining experience to the customer’s liking.

“Although sushi has become an internationally recognized dish, people have different conceptions of what sushi is—and I think that’s great.” When Tezuka spent time in California, he tried the California roll—a rolled sushi filled with cucumber, imitation crab, and avocado. “I actually think it’s quite delicious!”

He elaborated that each country has its unique supply of available ingredients as well as established systems to obtain them. Because of these differing systems and variety of ingredients, different types of sushi are born. The perception of sushi might vary from country to country, but Tezuka hopes that guests of Matsunozushi will realize that sushi is much more than just “fish and rice.”

“Each region has different species of fish and different ways of catching them. Thus, they have different flavors and different ways of fermenting them. ” In Japan, sushi is often the final product at the end of a long established supply chain that is comprised of a market and a system of routes.

He laid it out plainly, “You have professional fisherman, known as ryoushi, a wholesaler who chooses which fish to sell, known as a nakagai, and finally at the very end you have the sushi chef.” These are connections that can often be traced back for generations, and they are unwavering, backed by a trust that resembles the bonds between family members. Tezuka has inherited a position within this system, which has provided his family business with only the best ingredients for generations.

“Of course, I go to Tsukiji everyday. Even if I don’t intend on buying anything, I often gain valuable information from the wholesalers, such as fishing conditions and the effects of the weather.” There are other connections that go beyond the fish market, though.

Rice. It’s an indispensable element in the sushi-making process, and the rice used at Matsunozushi isn’t just any kind of rice. It’s a variety of rice called koshihikari, imported from an area in Toyama Prefecture called Imizu. “Rice is different depending on the location, as each region has different conditions.” Tezuka explained that the flavor and texture of the rice is determined by factors such as water quality, soil, and cultivation methods.

But why Imizu’s rice? Tezuka elaborated that besides making sushi to be consumed shortly after it is made, he often makes sushi for a variety of occasions—including sushi that guests can take home with them after a meal. “Thus, we need rice that doesn’t get hard over time, as well as a rice that goes well with our vinegar… Imizu’s rice is delicious all-around.” 

Chef Tezuka demonstrated how he grates a fresh stalk of wasabi. ©TOKI

Chef Tezuka demonstrated how he grates a fresh stalk of wasabi. ©TOKI

Wasabi. Real wasabi, of course. Grated horseradish that has been dyed green is often used as a substitute for wasabi, and it can be found sold as “wasabi paste" in a green tube. This substitute exists because the real wasabi plant is finicky and quite difficult to grow, requiring extremely clean water and specific growing conditions. Tezuka explained that the wasabi used at Matsunozushi comes from three specific wasabi growers in the Gotenba area of Shizuoka Prefecture, and are nourished by the natural spring water of Mt. Fuji.

“The fields are terraced, and they descend in levels. At the very top is where the water comes out, and there is an abundance of water there. Thus, the growth of the wasabi at the top levels is completely different when compared to plants at the bottom levels.”

Tezuka continued, saying that the plants grown towards the top are very delicious—and those are the ones that he has specifically sent to Matsunozushi. On top of using the crème de la crème of wasabi, Tezuka further explained that he goes just as far to discern which part of the wasabi he pairs with certain fish.

He pulled out a fresh stalk of wasabi, briskly trimmed the edge, and began to grate it into a paste using a traditional shark-skin grater. He explained that the part of the wasabi that we eat is actually the stalk of the plant, which is grated into a paste. Grating the upper part of the stalk (closest to the leaves) produces a bright green paste, while grating the lower part of the stalk (closer to the root) yields a slightly darker, earthy shade of green. Presenting us with the two different pastes, he explained that they are slightly different in taste. Utilizing this variance, he is able to add a different shade of wasabi flavor and change the overall flavor of the sushi.

Throughout the interview, Tezuka emphasized the deep ties that sushi has with the seasons. “Pigs, cows, and chickens—they’re domesticated and bred in captivity for consumption. Thus, they are available year-round. But seafood is typically only available for harvest naturally. There are often fish that you can only find during certain times in specific regions.” It’s the job of the sushi chef to go out and find these ingredients. Keeping the seasonal specialties in mind, Tezuka is constantly searching for the highest quality fish that he can present to his guests.

“When you go to Tsukiji, one will often run into other chefs from sushi and tempura restaurants.” Besides that, though, there aren’t many other chefs that he runs into on an everyday basis. “[For sushi chefs], the flavor of the fish is directly what our guests will eat.” Thus, it is of utmost importance to not only be able to choose the right fish, but also taste the fish and search for a “deeper” flavor. Tezuka emphasized that by hand-selecting the fish that he wants to present his guests with, he is able to decide on the exact flavor that he wants for Matsunozushi.

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In the world of tea, every aspect including the tea bowls, the decorative scroll and flowers displayed in the alcove, is carefully chosen by the tea master. They are meant to reflect things such as seasonal motifs, the occasion for which the guest is visiting, and that particular day. As a practitioner of the Japanese tea ceremony himself, Tezuka explained that he is familiar with this, and similarly he aims to individually tailor every aspect of his guests’ meals to their liking. “It’s the small things that make a difference… Whether it’s presenting the guest with a small present for their birthday or another special occasion, or changing the presentation of the food so it’s in a celebratory fashion.” Tezuka goes above and beyond to make each guest’s dining experience “ichi-go ichi-e,” or a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

For Tezuka, it’s all about the customer. Much of his painstaking attention to detail, however, may go unnoticed—which is exactly what he intends. This idea of the “unspoken” is a main component of Japanese hospitality, omotenashi, and on a larger scale, a fundamental concept in Japanese culture. This unspoken hospitality differentiates itself from Western concepts of customer service in several ways.

Omotenashi involves serving a guest without expectation of anything in return; it shouldn’t feel like a “service” for the customer, and the interaction between the host and the guest should feel natural; the host should be anticipating what the guest needs or desires and provide them with it before they ask for it.

Tezuka revealed some of the many questions he ponders when interacting with a customer. “What will satisfy this person? Are they more interested in the flavor nuances? Do they crave information about seafood? Are they interested in the atmosphere of the restaurant?” As he interacts with his new guest, Tezuka is constantly observing and learning so that he can provide a better experience for them.

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Tezuka will adjust how he cuts the fish and the direction he lays the sushi in front of the customer, changing the angle of the sushi to better suit the guest’s dominant hand. “If I think a person likes the fattier part of the fish, I’ll specifically cut them the fattier portions. Although I might serve squid one way for most people, I will slice the inside and outside of the meat for an elderly person so that it’s easier for him or her to eat.”

He explained that he makes adjustments to the portions of the food as well. “If they’re older guests, I will adjust the amount of the servings or change ingredients, but if they are on the younger side, I’ll use a larger amount of food in order to satisfy their appetites. This goes, of course, without extra charge.” Caring for a guest without them realizing the amount of thought and care going into it becomes an unspoken art form.

Tezuka went further to say that professional sushi chefs will often go through the same amount of preparation time and scrutiny that Western culinary chefs do in order to execute an excellent meal; however much of it goes unsaid. “[I think] it’s like a father making food for a child,” he said. “He needs to think about the customer the entire time. The preparation, the choosing of ingredients, and finally preparing the food—everything needs to be tailored to that individual.”

On top of being a professional sushi chef, Tezuka is also a sommelier. He recalled his time living in Europe, visiting numerous wineries and witnessing first hand the important role that wine plays in the food culture there. “In Japan when we think of alcohol, we automatically think of nihonshu (sake), but internationally, most people might think of wine.” Thus, Tezuka encourages guests in his restaurant to enjoy their choice of beverage. “They shouldn’t feel like they have to drink nihonshu.” Tezuka mentioned that as a professional, he should be able to accommodate a large range of tastes. If the guest orders wine, Tezuka will make adjustments to the ingredients in order to suit the flavor of that wine.

When asked about the best aspects of his work, Tezuka responded, “With my own hands, I can directly express omotenashi to my guests. I can see their reaction, and I can respond to that immediately.”

With his experiences living abroad, Tezuka has become quite fond of introducing Japanese cuisine culture to people visiting Japan. He reckoned that guiding TOKI’s guests through the Tsukiji Market and leading them step-by-step to make sushi with their own hands allows him to explain to visitors about sushi, Japanese cuisine culture, and hospitality, and then provide them with the chance to experience it for themselves.

Tezuka shared his thoughts about TOKI guests and their experiences making sushi with him. “Just eating the sushi, there are so many factors that you don’t realize or understand. However if you actually try making your own sushi, your perspective will change completely. You will forever look at sushi from a different point of view. This is what I want.”

He explained that each individual will discover things and overcome challenges during the sushi making process, and this is what makes it so fun. “These people are coming all the way to Japan, and I get the chance to receive their precious time… This might be their only chance to visit Japan, and I get to receive their time…” Tezuka emphasized that it is his responsibility to take his guests’ time and provide them with an experience that they will never forget.

“I’m not only receiving their time, but I’m at the end of a long process of gathering the ingredients.” As the sushi chef, Tezuka lies at the convergence point of the customer and the carefully selected ingredients.

In his head, the calculations are complete. The thickness of the fish, the angle of the cut, the amount of rice, and the location of the wasabi stalk. Swiftly taking a slab of maguro (tuna) in one hand, Tezuka deftly slices off a piece of the fish. Taking a handful of rice, he effortlessly molds the grains into a bite-sized base, adding a small amount of fresh wasabi, and rests the tuna on top. With a few quick movements of the hand, he finalizes the shape and gently rests the finished sushi on the plate. Complete.

Tezuka wants his guests from abroad to be able to see beyond him and this single piece of sushi and see the line of connections that allow him to make sushi; the fishermen out at sea, the wholesalers in Tsukiji, the rice farmers in Toyama, and the wasabi cultivators in Shizuoka. With his hands, he combines the blessings of nature into a culinary work of art. And with one bite, it’s gone but not forgotten.


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