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Wicky Priyan: The Sri Lankan Sushi Master

Wicky Priyan: The Sri Lankan Sushi Master

Meet Wicky Priyan, one of the only foreigners to ever be welcomed into the exclusive, closed-door, world of high-end Japanese sushi.

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Before he became a Chef and the owner of the Milanese restaurant Wicuisine, Wicky Priyan dedicated his life to understanding different cultures and cuisines. Unexpectedly, this genuine curiosity led him behind the closed doors of some of the most safely guarded traditions of Japanese sushi.

Born into wealth, the child of Sri Lankan diplomats, Wicky could have easily settled for a less adventurous life – but as he says: "my dissonance would not allow it".

Wicky was many things before he found his true path: a karate master, a diver, a criminologist, a martial arts expert and a freelance food taster - he has seen most of the world, but one place changed the course of his entire life: Tokyo.

As he explains: "I started to travel between Sri Lanka and Japan and one day, I don't remember how old I was, it was raining a lot and I entered the airport and was taken straight to Tokyo.

"It was so rainy but it seemed so beautiful and on this day I thought 'ok this is the country I must live in'. Maybe I was 17 and I had been visiting for many years but it's on this day I realized I must live there."

And that's what he did. For ten years he absorbed Japanese culture, Japanese traditions and food. He learned to speak fluent Japanese and fell in love with their spirit. At the time, he was a criminal research professor at one of the best Universities in Tokyo, and had a reputation as someone who liked to learn in the field.

At just 20, working at the Univeristy of Sri Jayawardene Pura, he chose to live on the streets of Madras for seven months as part of his research into the way homeless and criminal networks communicate. Later he worked as a “freelance food taster”, the man who would bite the bullet first if meals for foreign diplomats were poisoned. A young Sri Lankan with the opportunity to sample some of the world's finest foods. 

Yet, the dissonance that plays a huge part in his life struck again, as he reveals: "For four years I worked closely with Japanese chefs just as a hobby. After this I asked a friend of my family if they could help me connect with the real world of Japanese cuisine. "I knew I couldn't smell real traditional cuisine in a low class way and I was desperate to experience the high level Japanese cookery world. This is not so easy, Japanese people can't even enter this world, it's very closed and very protected. Without my family connection it would not have been possible. Real Japanese food is inside the blood, culture, history and tradition. They protect this very well."

It was his diplomatic connection that opened the door to Kikuchi Kan, one of the real sushi masters of Japan, a man Wicky describes as: "a master of the real, true Kaiseki cuisine". Sushi from the Edo period of Japan, a cuisine that has been protected and past on from generation to generation.

Although connected, master Kan was still skeptical of his foreign visitor, giving Wiky just two hours to prove his worth. Not as a chef but as a human being, someone who could understand, learn and eventually help to protect their traditions. A rare opportunity that Wiky deeply appreciates: "I entered the real Japanese cookery world. Japanese people can't even enter this scene, I think I'm the only foreigner to ever be accepted into this world.

"The first lesson was not to wash dishes but to start making sushi straight away. He was polite after my first attempt and didn't say 'this is not sushi' - but he started to teach me that my movement was wrong, my positioning, how I stood - he held two knives behind my back as he showed me exactly how to stand, using them to push me into the correct posture.

"After the first day we became a big family and we still are today. He is always waiting for me at his restaurant - he is like my father."

For four years Wicky arrived at the fish markets of Tokyo at 6:30 am - looking to buy only the best ingredients, no salmon, just the best tuna. Tuna that cost around $2,000 for just 1 kilo. He worked until midnight everyday, slowly honing his skills and quickly starting to understand the significance of sushi in Japanese culture. An understanding that sets him apart from the majority of Japanese people.

As he explains: "One time I asked my master how many sushi ranks there are in Japan and he said, 'believe me Wicky 98 % of Japanese people do not know what real sushi is'. This added to what was already a very heavy responsibility for me, I knew I must work to protect this culture, to show the world real sushi.”

"After my second year training my teacher said, 'you can go now wherever you want, no shame, you can go.' I said no, I want to learn more but he told me, 'Wiky you have the real spirit', he felt this inside me.

"Japan made me - It's not my country and my heart is in Sri Lanka but my body and soul is made in Japan," confesses Wiky, now a chef but once a man who spent years sleeping on just two hours a day, too busy "working and learning".

His fascinating journey eventually brought him to Italy where he opened his own sushi restaurant in Milan. All because he felt Italy was a place with a real respect for ingredients.

Wicky is proud that he can help spread the work of his master, something that is evident when you notice the light sparkling in his eyes, just before he looks away to say: "Many people think that Japanese food is tempura or sushi or shabu-shabu: no way! Japanese foods comes with Buddhism, real art, culture, tradition - something that is inside the blood.”

Whether it's the dissonance that sparked his constant search for the new, his constant learning, or the discipline he acquired from years of Martial Arts - the results are distinct. He has been lucky to sample the cultures of the world and now he wants to mix them on the plate. A chef who takes the freshest, most distinct, Italian ingredients and uses them to garnish a food foundation that remains firmly in Japan.

Dishes that see truffles, ripe tomatoes and pork from Sicily brought to life along side the freshest fish, perfectly cooked rice and second-seared beef. A cultural mixing of cuisine done with the utmost respect for every facet on the plate - a respect and discipline he will protect until he dies.

But that's just our description. In true humble style Wicky sums it up much simpler: "I'm just a cook who knows the taste of garbage and the world's best food. This is me, this is the real story."

A unique story of a man who worked as one of the top criminologists in war torn countries like Rwanda and Bosnia, a man who spent 7 months living as a homeless person in India just for research, and a foreigner who was eventually accepted into the top echelons of sushi society.

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