Standing out from the crowd can feel like a burden, yet this is what Masaki Sugisaki, executive chef of Japanese fusion restaurant Dinings in London, has done all his life, though not always comfortably. He does not appear to be a man to whom swimming against the tide comes naturally.
His world has been one of contrasts – his upbringing in Japanese society and growing into adulthood in the UK. Stuck between two cultures, he has grappled with issues of belonging and identity most of his life.
This year, the Covid lockdown has afforded him the time to reflect on this and his journey from being a young chef faced with racism and hostility in 1990s London to his position today as a successful restaurateur with a strong sense of his place in British society.
Born in Saitama, near Tokyo, Sugisaki made his restaurant debut early as he started working in his parents’ traditional kaiseki restaurant aged 15. “When all my friends were playing around after school, I was working as a slave,” he says, you suspect, only partly in jest.
Making it as a chef in Japan is all about mentality, he explains, and many enter the kitchen at a young age to start learning. “It’s not about the skill on its own in the kitchen, it is a test to see if this person has the strength to go through the training over the next 10 or 20 years,” he says. “The Japanese kitchen is extremely strict, it’s like the army. You need to follow instructions from your senior and they are not going to tell you twice,” he says.
Sugisaki did not harbor any cheffing ambitions in those days. “I always wanted to do something else,” he says.
That something else was music. “I wanted to go in that direction, but my parents were obviously against it so we were always fighting. When I turned 20 our relationship became complicated because I was working in a kitchen as a chef already, but my heart was not in it,” he says.
His musical ambitions were suspended for a while, but eventually he decided to follow his idol Gota Yashiki, a Japanese musician who had achieved success in London, to the British capital. He arrived in 1994 in search of two ambitions: to be a musician and to find something “wow” in the food culture.
The first dream came true shortly after arriving when he signed a contract with a small record company; for the next few years he played acid jazz and ambient music while working in small Japanese restaurants around the capital.
As for the second hope, it was not quite as immediate. Anyone who was in the UK in the early 1990s will know that its food scene did not provide the “wow” he was after; the city was a long way from becoming the internationally known vibrant restaurant destination it is today.
Sugisaki arrived in London before big name restaurants made Japanese cuisine mainstream and the dining public was ignorant of the cuisine of his home country; sushi and sashimi, so widespread in our vocabulary – and our high street – today, were yet to enter the vocabulary. “People would come into the restaurant and mix up Japanese with Chinese. They’d ask for Peking duck or fried rice,” he recalls.
He spent five years on the circuit of Japanese restaurants; then his visa expired. The timing coincided with a plea from his family to return home to help out with the family business – the country had been through a devastating recession and the economy suffered. “My parents asked for help and I thought, ‘OK, let’s go, this is the time to give up music and start taking this chef industry seriously’.”
By that time, the family had debts and had to close some restaurants while Sugisaki focused his efforts on the principal restaurant. “I worked six and a half days a week for two years, with no holidays,” he says. The hard work paid off, the family settled the majority of the debts and could relax a bit.
Another pivotal moment came when his parents proposed that he take over the restaurant. It was the moment of truth, he says. “Was I going to take over this business and grow it to the next level? To be honest, I was exhausted and I just couldn’t feel any ‘wow’ from it.”
There was something else nagging at the back of his mind. Before leaving London, he’d visited the newly opened Nobu, the Japanese fusion restaurant that was making waves on the culinary scene. The “sensational dinner” stuck with him. “In a way it wasn’t Japanese, but from the chef’s point of view all the dishes are built on traditional Japanese philosophy,” he says of the singular experience that had intrigued him.
In the end he persuaded his parents to sell their restaurant building and suggested they at last pursue their dream of moving to the countryside. “I made myself free, basically,” he says.
He had his freedom and no firm plans, but moved back to Tokyo where he focused on an ambition to take on a more operational role outside the kitchen and joined sushi restaurant Hyakumangoku.
Determined to learn about the business side of restaurants, he didn’t tell his new employer about his background as a chef, but it didn’t take long before he was made the head chef. In the kitchen, his attention was drawn to a highly skilled colleague, Masaru Ishikura, who became his mentor. They spent one and half years working side by side until one day Nobu in London finally came calling.
An apprenticeship in fusion
Offered the chance to join the opening team of the new Berkeley Street restaurant, he soon headed back to the UK. It was a “lifechanging incident,” he says.
“I had no experience of being creative and I didn’t have much knowledge of European cuisine. In fusion cuisine you need to mix it up with something, but I lacked that part, I was purely trained in the traditional side of Japanese cuisine,” he says. “To be honest, the first year was just a time of confusion.”
A methodical and studious approach to learning this way of cooking saw him filling his house with books covering basic Spanish, Italian and French cooking. All he cooked at home was European food. “I studied everything in those books and I discovered that the ingredients and techniques are different but the structure of the flavor is the same,” he says.
He found a shape in his head, identifying ingredients that European cuisines would use to replicate flavors from the Japanese cuisine he knew better. Tomatoes would replace kelp and chicken or veal bone was used instead of bonito flakes. “It’s all about these combinations with the same umami asset,” he explains.”
He points to one of his signature dishes in Dinings today as an example of what he learnt along the way: the seabass carpaccio with truffle features classic Japanese fish craft with truffle added from his European playbook. Truffle was used a lot in the Nobu kitchen. “I had tasted it but never used it, so I studied how the French and the Italians use it. I put all the information together and analyzed it,” he says.
He was having the time of his life – having started as one of the Nobu sushi chefs he soon found himself overseeing the VIP customers. At the time this was the dining destination of choice for models and Hollywood stars; the Berkeley Street branch was the busiest branch of Nobu in the world. “It was a dream. Nobu had 250 seats, we did 600 or 700 covers each night and with many VIPs who made crazy requests,” he says.
The moment to move on from Nobu came in 2008 when he left for Dinings, which he launched with colleague Tomonari Chiba who became co-owner of the new venture. They hit it off from the start when they met in the Nobu kitchens.
“We got on well from the minute we met and this was the dream; to set up the company together,” he says. “That was the best time for me as a chef; I had so much passion, energy and physical ability. “It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to be independent.”
Sugisaki committed to helping his friend with the project while he continued at Nobu. “I was still gaining so much experience and I appreciated the opportunity to work there and being granted my visa as part of the experience,” he says. “I needed to pay maximum respect, so I gave them a year’s notice and asked for permission to work on Dinings on my days off and holidays.”
A new adventure
Though he wanted to pay Nobu due respect, there was never any doubt that he would move on. “The minute we started this [Dinings] to settle on the project concept, my hat was already there,” he says.
Sugisaki settled into the first Dinings restaurant, a 28-seat room with an ever-changing blackboard menu, offering what he calls a “rustic, simple concept”.
He spent seven or eight years there finding his feet running the menu and the kitchen on his own. “In that time I built the confidence to confirm my basic frame of constructing the dish or understanding the ingredients,” he says. “It was a very valuable experience for me.”
Nearly 10 years after the first Dinings opening, he was ready to grow. “Over time I had so many business offers; people would say: ‘Chef, you have the product, I have the money let’s do business,’ but that was not my concept so for the first 10 years I said no,” he says. But there came a point when he started considering how he would be able to continue to push the restaurant. “It was getting to the point where we couldn’t push any further.”
So, he asked the team, why don’t we start something new? “The minute I opened the door to new offers, one guy, Jonathan Lourie, got in touch,” he says.
This was 2015 and Lourie had a dream to open a hotel in Tel Aviv to honor his father’s heritage. He asked Sugisaki to head the restaurant in the hotel. “I didn’t know anything about Israel or Tel Aviv but I liked his passion and the project was something exceptional, really wow. It was beautiful and sophisticated,” he says.
The two started to speak seriously of opening another bigger restaurant back in London and it wasn’t long before Lourie got in touch to discuss a prospective site. “Jonathan called me and asked me to meet him at the restaurant, he later met with the owner and then he called to say it was ours.”
His dream for the second, larger, restaurant – Dinings SW3 – was to be more approachable for the public. The original site had become known as a foodie destination; he wanted to attract a broader crowd.
This open approach is not restricted to the dining room; in the kitchen he has thrown himself into shaping the young European chefs. “I want to train them and I want to let them know how to be friendlier to the environment, for example,” he says. “I see a lot of European experienced chefs are so aggressive towards the ingredients, they don’t pay much attention to wastage, it is painful for me to watch.”
Responsible behavior comes up frequently over the course of a conversation with Sugisaki. For some time now he has been working with fishermen in Cornwall sourcing local seafood for the restaurant and supporting a local community that needs it badly.
This, more than a business relationship, is a partnership between the restaurant and local suppliers. “They support their local communities, they have sustainable fishermen, they care about the condition of the seabeds and the fish population in their seas,” he says.
“As a Japanese restaurant, yes, we import a lot of things from Japan because it is made in Japan and a higher quality, but just think about the carbon footprint and think about the freshness,” he says. Where possible today he sources locally; a drive that has led him to serving wasabi grown in Dorset in England.
A destination to belong
There’s a deeper purpose to this move to engage with local communities. After feeling like an outsider for so long, his decision to engage in a partnership with a local community in Cornwall, has at last made him feel like he belongs in the UK. “I always felt at a disadvantage to be Japanese in this city and in this country. I love London and the UK but I always felt isolated,” he says.
In the 1990s when he first worked in the Japanese restaurants of London he experienced the hostility towards foreign workers. “It was racism every day, arriving at the restaurant in the morning to find ‘Japs go home’ spray-painted in yellow on the window. Or somebody had gathered all the rubbish bags to pile them up in
front of the entrance to the restaurant.”
The thought that his daughter might suffer the same discrimination caused him to think more deeply about it. “I am a person from a foreign country who has lived here for more than 20 years, so why don’t I commit something to this community? Regardless of how people act towards Asian people, this is my city now. I might hold a Japanese passport, but it doesn’t matter, this is where I live.”
Complicated feelings of inadequacy whenever he returned to Japan did not help in this quest to find his place in the world. The responsibility to represent Japanese food abroad weighs heavily. “I always had this trauma that I worked in Japanese cuisine, but if I go back to Japan I wouldn’t call myself a Japanese chef because I have been away from the Japanese kitchen for so long,” he says.
A fusion-style restaurant is not going to have success in the eyes of Japanese chefs, he says. Japanese restaurants tend to specialize in a focused part of the cuisine, say sushi or tempura, in a quest for purity and perfection.
This year’s period of lockdown caused him to stop thinking about this as his disadvantage. At last he has had the space to process these complicated emotions of belonging and identity. “Until the lockdown I was too busy to properly consider these things, but during these times every single element came together,” he says.
So more than two decades after first leaving his home country and embarking on his career and adult life in the UK, he has reached a destination of sorts.
“In Japanese society from childhood you are taught that it is all about the group, you have to make yourself fit in to a group and follow the other people, that is the mentality. But outside of Japan is completely different; I was trying to keep the Japanese mentality, but I didn’t know who to follow. That was part of the confusion,” he says. “I have my own strengths – it literally took me 20 years to figure this out.”