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Interview with Chef Hisayoshi Iwa

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Meet Hisayoshi Iwa: Sushi Master and owner of Ginza Iwa, the prestigious one star Sushi restaurant in Tokyo. Iwa-san has over 20 years of experience in sushi making and currently owns 3 restaurants.

Let's jump right into it! Why did you decide to be a Sushi Master?

It sounds kind of random now when I talk about the reasons to become a sushi chef. Back when I was little, probably when I was 6, me and my cousins talked about opening a sushi restaurant. That's why I decided to go to a vocational school and learn how to cook. After graduating from school, I worked in Kyubey for about 3 years and Kanesaka (both famous sushi restaurants) for about 12 years before opening my own sushi restaurant. It's funny too because I'm the only one who actually opened a sushi restaurant.

Chef Hiyoshi Iwa explaining about the foundation of skills

Who has inspired your work?

I'd say my Senpai in Kyubey. Rather than inspiration, it's more like he influenced me when I first started. I was always told to wash everything thoroughly, like knives, utilities, basically everything in the kitchen. He always reminds me to clean everything properly, even the things that are not put in front of the customers. He used to tell me to have everything absolutely clean if it's used in the process of cooking because the food will eventually go into the customers' mouth. He used to always stress the importance of not overlooking the simple tasks.

Iwa-san, what do you think is your biggest challenge in your sushi career?

I find the biggest challenge for me is to carry out conversations with my customers (note: the sushi restaurant Iwan-san has been working at are small restaurants with counter seats). I believe that we all get along with certain people; of course for those that you get along with there's no problem making small talk with them, but not every customer that steps into my restaurant is someone that I feel comfortable having a conversation with and I can't turn them away or make them feel less welcome based on these personal reasons. I need to make sure each and every customer is being accommodated, even if I find it difficult to chat with them casually. That's still the biggest challenge I face today.

Is it true that in order to be a Sushi Master, it requires years of training? If so, how long do you need to become a Sushi Master like you?

That's a difficult question because learning to be a sushi master is not like going to school. It's not like you've done a certain amount of years and receive a certificate for it; but we usually say 10 years is one set period. So how do you distinguish between a 3rd class and a 2nd class sushi chefs, and a 2nd class and a 1st class sushi chef? It's almost impossible to put a label on them just by how many years they've been doing it. I'd say the main factor to determine how good a sushi chef is, is whether they can notice the small details. I'll take Syari (sushi rice) as an example; if the rice is not firmly pressed and it breaks, you can't put the other parts together. To make delicious sushi, Syari is the key because depending on that, we choose what to put on top. I don't think there are that many sushi chefs out there who notice this detail.

Is there a formula for making a good Syari?

Hm, I know what good Syari is when I taste it but I don't know if I can describe that in words (sorry). There's no set recipe for making good Syari. It mostly comes with experience and I can tell based on the feeling of grasping the rice. Depending on the chef, the final 'base' is different even if we use the same Syari.

Using the most expensive fish does not mean that the sushi would taste better. It comes down to how skillful you are to fillet a fish

Apart from Syari, what other factors make a perfect sushi, like using expensive fish?

There is actually no difference when it comes to preparing fish that is cheaper or more expensive. The preparation process is the same: take out the head, guts and bones. Using more expensive fish doesn't mean the sushi tastes better: it all comes down to how skillful you are at filleting a fish. The only differences between a cheaper fish and a more expensive fish are price and quality. It doesn't matter if you use a more expensive fish if you can't pay detailed attention to the basic preparation steps.

What do you think makes sushi such a special dish compare to other Japanese dishes?

Back in the day, sushi wasn't a special dish. It used to be served at Yatai (Japanese traditional food trucks) in front of Sento (public baths). It was almost considered as fast food back then. Over time, it has evolved into a special dish for occasions that are worth celebrating like the first day of school, graduations, birthdays. Sushi's a tradition that's been passed on from generation to generation, without much alteration, which is what I think makes it so special.

Do you think it's hard to take the originality of sushi from Japan to other places in the world?

We all know that sushi is popular within and outside of Japan. I've been going abroad to teach lessons on sushi. To maintain the authenticity of sushi, I'd say the best way is to go to those countries and teach those who are interested in learning. The only problem is the language barrier. I want to teach them everything but there are limitations for me due to my inability to speak the local languages. Most of the skills come from my senses and feelings which is hard to explain without the right vocabulary. As a result, the students ended up understanding none of the key points. That's why I think it'd be hard to bring and keep the originality of sushi outside of Japan. Also, given that each country has their own preferences, sushi is often adjusted to those local preferences which makes it even harder to maintain the truthful taste.

What is your biggest concern regarding the food industry?

I think similar to the Western countries, Japan's food industry faces the same problems like chefs being underpaid, mental health issues, etc. I don't know that much about the restaurant industry in the West, however, in terms of working overtime, I think Japanese kitchen workers view it differently; they stay behind not necessary because there is more work to do but because they want to improve on their skills. Say everyone worked the same amount of time a day: there will be people who are better and more skillful than others. In order to catch up with the more skillful ones, others choose to invest extra hours to practice and that's why they spend more hours in the kitchen.

What about the Japanese food industry? What do you think is the biggest problem for them?

It's definitely food waste. For sushi restaurants, we rarely ever use up the whole fish. There are only a few people who make use of the whole fish and also there are only a countable number of people who can do that. When making sushi, we only use the fish's body, so what do you do with the leftovers, like head, guts and bones? Would you eat all of it? I'm guessing the answer is no for most people. That's why it's hard to make use of every single bit of the fish. It's a sad truth but we do end up throwing out the other body parts. It's a tricky problem to solve because first and foremost, you'd probably need someone with the knowledge and specialty to do that. On average in Japan, each person every day produces food waste that is equivalent of an onigiri. That's a lot for a small country.

Last question! If you were a sushi, what sushi would he be and why?

Maybe Anago or Tamago because they're sweet and I'm sweet person (haha).

Fancy sampling some of Iwa-san's masterful sushi for yourself? Book your table at Ginza Iwa here!

About the Author

“You need to keep tasting things if you haven't found your thing” - Gary Vaynerchuk

Seeking Ikigai.

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