Japanese chef Yosuke Imada inherited a Tokuo sushiya, Ginza Kyubey, from his father – and turned it into an empire.
Words Tiffany Chan Photos Samantha Sin
*Featured in Crave’s Issue 85, May 2017
Sushi chef Yosuke Imada is a man of few words. Granted, the 72-year-old owner of Japan’s hallowed sushi restaurant, Ginza Kyubey, has been up since dawn. He is preparing for his first Hong Kong pop-up, a 10-day stint at the Chef’s Table at The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong, which we are here to sample. “Hello, how are you?” he manages, with a slight, stiff bow. “How are you? How are you?”
The meal begins with a single cube of yam tofu sitting in cold dark dashing. It is perfect. Next is seared marinated bonito, sandwiching soy-doused spring onion and served with a cucumber flower. And so to the much-anticipated sushi: served on a platter, then six, including marinated sillanginidae, chutoro, otoro.
Imada-san remains quiet throughout the meal, retreating behind the chef’s table and deftly orchestrating his chefs. But he becomes visibly impassioned when a table is wheeled to the other end of the room. “Uni,” he says, indicating the creamy, pale-orange dunes of Hokkaido sea urchin in a plastic container. He scoops out the uni like ice cream and delicately pats it dry on a paper towel (“to remove the water,” he explains). He plots each spoonful onto a bed of rice and wraps it in a strip of crisp nori with such care, it is as if he’s handling a baby animal.
“No photos. No time. Eat now,” he instructs. “Now.”
Someone reaches for a camera to try to sneak in a photograph but Imada forbids it. “No,” he says, making a cross with his arms. “No time.” Defeated, the man slides the uni gunkanmanki into his mouth. His face lights up, and, for just a moment, he seems to have forgotten about his photo.
Uni gunkanmaki is especially important to Imada because his father invented it, just after the war. His father opened his five-storey Ginza Kyubey, an Edo-style sushiya, in 1935, when there were few sushiyas about. “At the time, sushi served at a chef’s counter was rare and not very popular,” Imada says. “Before that, people never had the experience of having sushi at the counter.”
Imada joined the family business at age 30, in 1965, and took over 20 years later after his father passed away. In the past three decades, he’s moved rapidly, expanding the institution to encompass seven restaurants in the Tokyo area. He never thought we would build an empire, but he’d wanted to be a sushi chef, like his father, for as long as he could remember.
“When I was in primary school, the teacher asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wrote that I would love to be a sushi chef,” he says. “I was born during the war. At the time, it was common for the son to inherit his father’s profession. I have an elder sister, but it is difficult for women to inherit the position. So I had a great determination to follow in my father’s footsteps, because if I didn’t, no one would.”
Imada grew up observing his father at the restaurant, though he wasn’t allowed to help in the kitchen until he was older. “I only started to work part-time at the restaurant when I was in high school, as a dishwasher. My father didn’t teach me – I learned everything by observation..”
That includes how to sharpen a knife properly. “It is one of the most important skills. I practiced every day, 30 to 40 minutes a day, until I mastered it,” he says.
To further hone his skills, his father sent Imada to Kobe to gain experience at a small sushi shop before he returned to Tokyo to help with the family business. One of his tasks was to set up shop at Hotel Okura in Tokyo. While Imada expanded quickly (there is talk of opening in Dubai next year), he has never lost control of the quality and reputation of his brand, as most do.
In 2012, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare of Japan officially named him a Contemporary Master Craftsman, in recognition his 50-year commitment to his culinary craft. Over the years, he has served celebrities and politicians alike, including US presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. Yet, for Imada, every guest is equal, famous or not, Japanese or not. The key to maintaining a good restaurant, he says, is to treat everyone well, employees and guests alike.
“For a restaurant to be successful, it’s 50-50; 50 per cent employee and 50 per cent guest. Treasure how many years [employees] work with you. The longer they are here, the more experienced and loyal they are. The same goes for customers, since you can’t buy them at the supermarket, hence you must treat them well, one by one, so they return.”
He shuts his eyes for a moment and announces he must rest. First thought, he asks for his staff.
“Make sure they eat,” he instructs, opening the lids of the wonton noodle soup to see if it’s still warm. “My mission always is to treat my employees and customers just like this. To treat everyone well.”
|My Favourite Things with
1. What makes a good sushi chef?
Hard work, consideration of the guests and team members and respecting older colleagues.
2. Describe yourself in one word.
3. What are the most important milestones in your career?
Serving world-famous celebrities, such as Bill Clinton.
4. How has the restaurant evolved since you took over from your father?
I bought land and buildings worth 45 billion yen, and expanded the sushi empire from two branches to seven.
5. Your favourite fish to work with?
I use about 30 types of fish throughout the year, but tuna is probably most frequently used. I don’t have a favourite as I think the best way to enjoy sushi is to sample the diversity of seafood including tuna, white fish, shellfish, etc.
6. What is the mot expensive fish you’ve bought?
A 200kg tuna worth 200,000 yen.
7. Best meal you’ve ever had?
It was a recent private party at which I enjoyed vintage wines, great food and caviar with good friends.
8. Your favourite cuisine, besides Japanese?
I like many cuisines, such as Chinese and Italian.
9. If you could cook dinner for one person in the world, who would it be?
My grandson, Masamichi, who is 11 years old.
10. If you had one last meal, what would it be?
Sushi, of course.