To achieve mastery in the cooking world, it takes years of training, years of practice, and the ability to work under intense pressure. In Japan, mastery isn’t just about achieving a goal, it’s a way of life that consumes the very essence of being.
The book, Sushi Shokunin: Japan’s Culinary Masters by Andrea Fazzari, published by Assouline, delves into the world of Japan’s (and beyond) best sushi shokunin, what makes them tick, how they strive for perfection, and what it takes to reach the highest level of culinary excellence.
A shokunin has no direct translation in English, but the word can be used to describe a master of one’s craft. For the 20 shokunin in Fazzari’s book, mastery almost isn’t a strong enough word. We wanted to get a little more insight from the author, so follow along and take a peek inside this insular world of sushi shokunin.
Image courtesy of Andrea Fazzari
Tell us about the book.
The book is about 20 of Japan's top-tier shokunin or artisan craftsmen and their personal perspectives on what it means to be a shokunin, including their life philosophies and life experiences. My book is a very humanistic, personal take on the sushi world and how it conveys Japanese culture.
Why did you want to write it?
I moved to Tokyo in 2015, and my first reintroduction [to the world of sushi] was through its aesthetics: yes, the appearance of sushi, but more so the restaurants themselves, the architecture and facades, which I would notice just walking around the city. Nine out of 10 times, a restaurant I would admire from the outside was a sushi restaurant.
One of the reasons why I decided to create Sushi Shokunin: Japan’s Culinary Masters (write, photograph, and co-design) was my deeply meaningful experience with sushi shokuninTakaaki Sugita. As one of the very top shokunin of any type in Japan, Sugita was the first person to reintroduce me to sushi. When I met him for the first time – not to eat, just to speak – it was a lovely, fascinating experience. Upon leaving, I made a reservation, but subsequently became so nervous as the reservation approached that I actually cancelled it. I was anxious about consuming sushi again after so many years.
[Fazzari contracted a tropical disease many years ago and had been advised by doctors not to eat raw fish]
I had been unnecessarily worried about a relapse, but Sugita was kind and understanding. I made another reservation for a few months into the future, and I said to myself, ‘okay, you can't make a bad impression, and there's no way you can cancel on this incredible master again’. So, I went and had the most poetic, lyrical, spiritual dining experience. The hospitality, the attention to detail, the anticipation of every need, the warmth, the graciousness and the sense of culture and authenticity of something that really exists to its nth degree – distinctly Japanese. To dine in this way – at the pinnacle of the sushi world – touched me so. After about three hours, when it was time to leave, Sugita came running out just to say goodbye. I remember turning around to thank him profusely and I don't know what happened – but I became so overcome, my eyes began to water, and I started to cry. Sugita reacted graciously, and after that our friendship began.
That experience was really the basis for the book. I wanted to get to know more shokunin and to find the reasons why I found the whole experience to be so intense and touching.
Image courtesy of Andrea Fazzari
For people who might not understand what it takes to achieve this level of mastery, can you speak to the time and energy these chefs put in to get to that level?
The dedication is remarkable because it's essentially a way of life. The shokunin are focusing on this from morning till night. Being a shokunin means having a very strong sense of purpose, and a very strong sense of devotion on a spiritual level. All their waking hours are dedicated to honing skills, improving, and moving toward perfection that they know they will never reach; but it's the moving toward [perfection] and trying to attain it, that is important.
You talk about it on a spiritual level. What does being a shokunin mean to these men?
It's not only all the hours [they put in], but it's also how they think about honouring those shokunin in their discipline who have come before them, doing right by them, making them proud. These 20 shokunin are celebrating their place in their country, their culture, their place in history – all as the ultimate expression of Japan itself. They apply history-tested skills passed down from generations, and in so doing, express their identity.
At the end of the day, sushi is absolutely identity. And without it – and this is something I heard regularly with many of the shokunin in the book – if they did not have sushi in their lives, their lives would be meaningless. Sushi is like oxygen [to them].
Can you speak to the level of detail and knowledge these shokunin display?
Deeply ingrained in them is the ethos to do their best in hospitality, service, and preparation: celebrating and showcasing the quality of the ingredients, preparing them in the best way possible, while getting to their essence. Like the essence of that squid, the essence of that maguro, the essence of that particular uni from that small patch of water from a particular district. It’s all so specific. The shokunin were all able to tell me that a particular fish came from this place, and this fisherman caught it, and it was at this time, and this is how it feels, and this is how it tastes, and this is why I wanted it, and this is why this vinegar goes well with it. It's an incredible amount of knowledge.
There’s a concept called ikigai, which essentially means a reason for being or why you get up in the morning. These shokunin live by this notion, this feeling – it fills them with meaning. So, being a shokunin is incredibly special, because it brings together many aspects of one’s culture into one form of expression. And that’s to say, ‘here's who I am. What does this nigiri I'm putting in front of you tell you?’ It tells you about sense of place, it tells you about the water, it tells you about the climate, it tells you about the fisherman, it tells you about colour, it tells you about the season. It also tells you why this restaurant is designed this way, why these colours were chosen and what they reflect and convey. Everything is intentional in order to communicate to the world during their lifetimes. The shokunin are saying, ‘this is my creation, and I want to share it with you’.
Image courtesy of Andrea Fazzari
Japan has this reputation for conformity. How do these shokunin express themselves in ways that buck that stereotype and how does that manifest in the dining experience?
Firstly, personality differences are defined. Even though the shokunin share a mentality, they don't share a common personality. They all have different characteristics, as they're individuals at the end of the day. They do share a certain way of thinking regarding their respect for the mantle they have chosen. Of course, they all have differing life stories, and were influenced by their early childhoods like all of us, to some degree.
As for their dining experiences, each is very personal. The shokunin is right there behind the counter and in front of the diner, so their personalities are conveyed immediately. Some are more extroverted, some are more introverted, some are more quiet, some are more talkative, some laugh more, some are more serious. But, you also see the variations in the preparation, the different cutting techniques, the varied vinegar choices, the numerous types of rice chosen. And each shokunin has very distinct reasons for doing everything; nothing is left to chance, even the kind of water that's used to make the rice is carefully selected.
It's like looking at two paintings of the same person by two different artists. If it’s a Van Gogh it’s going to look a certain way; if it’s a Caravaggio it will look a certain way. However, they are both paintings. Both artists had the same goal, but the way they arrived at that goal is unique to each of them. So, in the same way, the differences in dining experience comes through in a million ways depending on each shokunin.
Image courtesy of Andrea Fazzari
These shokunin are constantly striving for perfection. Do they ever feel like they’ve reached the peak?
No, they never do.
That elusive perfection is always in the distance. It is the moving toward perfection, the trying to attain it while knowing that you never will – that is the key.
There are moments of perceived perfection, but not applicable to the shokunin themselves. In the Nobuhiro Sakanishi chapter, he talks about how excited he feels when he sees what he calls the perfect fish. He describes it as a female fish, when it's particularly fat in the right season, and when it's about to lay eggs. To him, that is a perfect fish because he knows it will be incredibly flavourful.
I visited markets with many of the shokunin, and they are all capable of spotting something special without touch or smell; purely by sight, even from a distance. You're dealing with experts here, artisans who have been doing this every day for many, many years.
From 28-30 October, join Fine Dining Lovers for a celebration of young culinary talent, when 12 global finalists will battle it out in Milan for the title of best young chef in the world - plus, join our first edition of Brain Food forum. See what's on.
Fine Dining Lovers teams up with the Culinary Institute of America, James Beard Foundation and Black Food Folks on the Better Business project to build stronger, more sustainable business practices for the industry.