The most important thing in the kitchen is not skill or talent, but kokoro – ‘heart’

SUSHI GINZA ONODERA NEWYORK
Masaki Saito
SUSHI GINZA ONODERA NEWYORK Masaki Saito

SUSHI GINZA ONODERA NEWYORK Masaki Saito

The key is how determined you are when there is something you want to achieve.

You are originally from the city of Date. Tell me about your hometown, and what you remember.

Saito:
Date City is in Hokkaido, in northern Japan. It overlooks Uchiura Bay, which is famous for fresh seafood, especially scallops. It’s a popular lifestyle destination for retired people because it’s a pleasant city and not too snowy in winter.

I grew up enjoying a lot of fresh seafood, especially since my grandparents on my mother’s side were fisher-people from Hakodate City in Hokkaido. People could just dive freely for abalone and sea urchins, although that’s banned now. That’s one of my best memories of childhood.

Because I began living alone at a young age while enrolled at a fishery high school, away from home, I don’t remember much about home cooking. I do remember that anything my mother made was delicious, especially her miso ramen packed with vegetables, such as sautéed cabbage and bean sprouts. It was rich in flavor and full of umami – so good.

I had taken lessons including calligraphy, piano, swimming, soccer and ice skating, and when I won a tournament and got an award, my parents took me to a sushi restaurant to celebrate. At the time, I only liked things like natto rolls and kappa rolls, but I eventually came to eat any kind of sushi.

After graduating from high school, you worked at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo for five years. You then returned to Hokkaido and worked at an another sushi restaurant in Sapporo City. What was the most important thing you learned during this apprenticeship?

Saito:
I learned about kiai(※1), or ‘spirit’. Kiai is the most important thing to have, especially if you are young and not yet experienced in the sushi business. In the traditional world of being a sushi chef in Japan, while you are an apprentice or amateur chef you will not be recognized for your brilliant talent or any high-level skill.

Think of a pyramid diagram. The professional chefs already in the upper layers can compete with each other, but the apprentices still in the lower layers of the pyramid cannot compete with anyone in that more senior level. It’s like when committees select representatives for an international sports competition – you won’t see Olympic-level players pitted against elementary school kids. However, if you have kiai in the sushi world, then the door is open for you to progress to the top level. This is a personal philosophy I developed during my time as an apprentice.

※1:Kiai is a Japanese martial arts term that refers to making the spirit stable and strong.

How did you learn this?

Saito:
I actually learned it through physical punishment. I’m talking about the traditional Japanese punishment culture I had experienced since my time at the fishery high school, so it didn’t shock me. I didn’t even question this culture, because when I want to achieve something, all I’m thinking is how to get there.

Do you still see this in the modern-day sushi world?

Saito:
To a certain extent, especially in Japan, but I think it is on the decline.

SUSHI GINZA ONODERA NEWYORK Masaki Saito

How do you train younger chefs at the New York restaurant?

Saito:
At first, I held the same beliefs as those I had learned. I’ve been doing it this way throughout my career. I’m not just talking about my training, but also my beliefs on Japanese hospitality, called omotenashi, and my spirit or ‘kokoro’ (pointing to his chest).

For example, in a sushi house we always see off our customers at the entrance. I will send someone to clean the restroom every time a customer uses it. I try not to make a noise when closing the door or putting the kitchen knife on the board. There is a lot more. Those are all things that I learned during my career, and I want to teach this to the chefs here.

However, since moving here my colleagues have started saying things like, “That doesn’t matter in New York” or “Your training style is useless.” It’s been two years since I arrived here, and I’ve stopped teaching the chefs everything that I learned. At the moment, we don’t know exactly what style of training style is right. It will take time to see what works and what doesn’t. I still hold true to my beliefs and philosophy, but in New York I feel some barriers to using the approaches that I originally learned.

SUSHI GINZA ONODERA NEWYORK Masaki Saito

People here in New York show me the warmest respect for Japanese craftsmanship.

You started working at Onodera Tokyo in 2013 and moved to their Hong Kong branch the following year. Tell us about this change.

Saito:
One of my former colleagues from a sushi restaurant in Hokkaido, and who is now the general head chef of Onodera, invited me to work with him again. Because Onodera is a global restaurant, and I always wanted to work overseas, I took the offer.

After my experiences in Tokyo and Hong Kong, I moved to New York City in 2016. Through working overseas, I came to feel that people abroad understand real sushi better than the Japanese people do. My customers in Hong Kong and New York often eat out in world-class, high-end restaurants.

I honestly can tell if customers understand real sushi or not when I observe their manner as they enter the restaurant, sit at the table, order sushi, eat, drink and more. Even billionaires show me the kindest and warmest respect for my craftsmanship. They try to make conversation with me and enjoy their dining experience, even though my English is not that good. When I make a poor joke with limited vocabulary, they always smile. That kindness has made a strong impression on me in New York.

I think the culture here is different to Japan in a good way. New York is a great city with a lot of entertainment and culture, from Broadway musicals to comedy shows. I feel like people enjoy these entertainments from their hearts, and always show their respect to the entertainer. Also, in any industry here, I feel there is a passion for entertaining people. My customers here are also easygoing and up for anything.

Did you always aim to move to New York?

Saito:
Not really (laughs). I came to New York initially because my company wanted me here, and to be honest, I’m not sure I love the city just yet. I do like new experiences, and was looking at working somewhere outside of Japan. Any city would be great. Maybe I just get bored easily…  I just keep looking for somewhere even better. I’ve never been satisfied with my current environment; I always feel the urge to move on.

What are some good things about moving to a new city?

Saito:
I love being in a new environment. Working in a new place is always somehow inspiring, and motivates me to do my work. If your work and life is boring, you lose the drive to try anything hard.

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SUSHI GINZA ONODERA NEWYORK

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