After conquering Tokyo and London, master sushi chef Mitsuhiro Araki lands in Tsim Sha Tsui—where he’s not afraid to explore the unknown
You may not believe that omelettes and hamburger steaks are the two defining dishes of one of the top sushi masters in the world, but they are for Mitsuhiro Araki—the 53-year-old veteran chef who has just opened The Araki in House 1881 after a wildly successful five years in London.
Growing up in the Kyushu countryside in southern Japan, the young Araki was exposed to these western dishes—or, rather, the Japanese take on them—by his grandfather, a chef whose deft hand in the kitchen taught Araki all about the flavours of foreign lands. While opportunities to taste his grandfather’s cooking were few and far between, Araki treasured each and every family gathering, when his taste buds would be ignited by new, exciting flavours.
When he left high school, Araki set out to become a chef of Western cuisine, but he struggled to convince employers of his worth. It was the ’80s, and there wasn’t a huge demand for such a specialism. Instead, Araki settled—he learned to cook Japanese cuisine and trained as a sushi chef. But he still wasn’t convinced, so moved to Australia to find work. There, his limited English meant a white-collar job was out of reach, so Araki continued to hone his skills in the kitchen.
In Sydney’s Zeami restaurant, he fell back in love with the profession thanks to daily trips to the fish market. It was in Zeami that Araki read an article about the legendary Izumi restaurant in Tokyo—a story that prompted him to return to Japan after only a year abroad.
“I went to Izumi right after I arrived back in Japan and was totally impressed,” he recalls. “I phoned them the next day to ask if I could work at their restaurant.” He spent close to nine years at Izumi before opening his own sushi bar in Tokyo’s Setagaya district in 2000.
See also: 25 Hong Kong Restaurants Featured On La Liste 2020, A Ranking Of The 1000 Best Restaurants Around The World
Claim to fame
Today, Araki is one of the most revered sushi chefs in the world. In 2010, after moving his restaurant from sleepy Setagaya to glitzy Ginza, Araki stunned the country by immediately winning three Michelin stars. Just three years later, he made the unorthodox decision to close and head to London to open a sushi bar—essentially starting over again. He said that once one conquers Mount Fuji, he must set his sights on an even taller mountain. With the new environment came a vastly different array of produce at his disposal, inspiring Araki to set himself the challenge of using almost exclusively local ingredients.
“Through my life journey, my way of thinking about flavours has changed dramatically,” he says. “Each country has its own history and culture—then, of course, its approach towards eating is different. Going to the UK was perfectly timed, forcing me to realise that I must change, too.”
The Araki in London quickly gained notoriety for its pricing—it launched as one of the capital’s most expensive restaurants with its £310 omakase menu—and for parlaying the characteristics of catches from British waters into a new kind of sushi. Nigiri topped with Cornish squid and langoustine were created, and chefs were encouraged to experiment to get the best out of Britain’s bounty. His brigade, too, attracted attention because not a single worker was Japanese—his apprentice, British-born-Chinese Marty Lau, became head chef when Araki left in March 2019.
A new holistic approach
Araki’s support of non-Japanese chefs pursuing sushi was influenced by his experiences as a young man desperately trying to become a chef of Western cuisine. Living in different times now, he has taken it upon himself to open the doors to anyone who shows dedication to the art. “We must help individuals who are seriously eager to learn,” he insists. “In my London restaurant, there are no Japanese people working.
However, each of them demonstrated excellent personality, hospitality, passion and sincerity, all striving for his or her best.” By refusing to be restricted by the old dogmas of sushi—those that prescribe a singular, almost nationalistic, approach to ingredients and craftsmanship—Araki believes he is able to change the cuisine for the better. “I want my generation to be the last one to say that you need to be Japanese to be able to make good sushi,” he says.
See also: Restaurant Review: At Associazione Chianti, Steak Is The Star
In Hong Kong, Araki’s sushi bar seats just 12 guests each night, who are treated to an omakase experience that spotlights Hong Kong’s finest seafood as well as some select gems from Japan—including sustainably-caught bluefin tuna from Nagasaki, which is sourced specially for Araki. The team visit the markets first thing every morning. “Going to a market gives me a feeling of revival. It is like being born again every day,” says Araki, smiling.
At Hong Kong’s markets, Araki and his team have sourced ingredients including young sea bream (“kasugo” in Japanese), sweet mantis shrimp (more often seen on Cantonese menus wok-fried with garlic and chilli), garoupa, tiger prawns and abalone.
Through my life journey, my way of thinking about flavours has changed dramatically – Mutsuhiro Araki
Presenting freshest local catches
The sheer array of seafood around the world is what most excites Araki. “All fish are captured in one ocean, though there are different currents. That makes a difference in, for example, the quantity of fats contained in each fish,” explains Araki. In London, he used a stronger soy sauce to complement fattier European fish; in Hong Kong, he finds a sweeter soy sauce matches more delicate local catches. “Being in different locations makes me think more about such things. That’s what sushi is—real sushi is to use what is local, fresh and good.” The challenge is changing the perception of customers, but Araki is primed and ready.
“I feel I’ve been given a chance to make sushi using local ingredients in a place full of passion, sincerity and love,” he says of his new chapter in Hong Kong. “When I went to the market today, old men and women, young people and children, all sorts of people were walking around—it gave me a strong sense of living. I want to live such a life again and again. I want to keep weaving my life from these experiences.”
See also: Ring In 2020: Where To Eat And Drink On New Year's Eve