The esteemed Hideki Hiwatashi has been stunning London with his delicious culinary skills at Sake no Hana in the heart of Mayfair. Having set up Sake no Hana, Hideki is now the executive chef of the restaurant, showcasing his spectacular menu choices and incredible cooking. His fascinating past sheds light on his decision to stick to Japanese cuisine and how it has influenced Sake no Hana.
You were born in Tomakomai in Japan; were you influenced by the mesmerising Japanese cuisine from a young age?
I was born and brought up in Hokkaido, which is the northernmost island in Japan, famous within Japan for its fresh seafood. In Hokkaido, the food is all about fresh tasty seasonal ingredients with little seasoning and very little use of sauces. I mostly grew up fishing, crabbing, diving for shellfish and foraging for mountain vegetables with my father. So, I guess you could say I was influenced by the very basics of Japanese cuisine: seasonality, appreciating and enhancing the individual tastes of good ingredients.
How did travelling the world and experiencing America and Australia influence your choice of cooking and the food you are interested in?
Travelling in Australia and America by myself as a young man was a life-changing experience for me. I worked in several Japanese food shops and a market. I could see that the Japanese food that was being sold was not the same as the food that I had grown up with. I really wanted to introduce real Japanese food that I loved, but I knew that I didn’t have the right skills. I guess the biggest influence travelling had on me was to show me that I needed to go home and learn how to cook properly. This was not a small decision, as learning to be a chef in Japan is a long and hard training process.
You have a fugu license; what was it like training to work with the pufferfish?
As you know, pufferfish has poisonous parts which can kill you, so of course, this training is very strict. There is a practical test and a theory test. They only take place once a year, so if you fail, you have to wait a year to retake them. Pufferfish is only available in winter, so you have to do the practical training in winter. I had to go to the market around dawn to get the fish and then practice cutting the fish with a pufferfish master before the start of my restaurant shift. You need to learn to cut exactly, just a one millimetre mistake can be dangerous. But you also need to be able to cut and serve pufferfish safely in the time-pressured environment of a commercial kitchen, so the test is on a 20-minute time limit. Three judges watch you as you cut the fish; you cannot take the time to be careful, but if you make any, even very slight, marks on any other part of the fish to the line that you are cutting, then you fail. It is a very strict exam, but it needs to be, and of course, the Fugu dishes that you can create once you have the license are worth the hard training. It is very delicious!
Japanese cuisine often features a wide variety of fish. How did you switch from fishing and diving for the delicacy to serving fine-dining fish dishes?
I think, like everything in the food chain, it is all connected. When I was young and diving for shellfish, I was always looking at the habitat of the seafood: where they came from, what they eat, where they live, what is around them. Now as a fisherman new to UK sea fishing, I am always observing the environment, the habitat, the ways of the other fishermen. Every real fisherman knows that you need to understand and know all about the fish you want to catch in order to be able to catch them. After catching them, I always prepare them very simply, so when I eat them, I know what makes up each of their unique flavours and taste. When it comes to developing new dishes, I think back to all I know about fish that I am working with and use this as inspiration for my food.
Having worked many years in Japan, you were taught how to talk to customers as you cooked and served their dishes. How hard was this for you to learn, and how long did it take you to perfect?
Of course, I am not perfect at this. It is about people and food: there is always something to learn when it comes to people and food. In Kaiseki, the role of the chef is to provide the food that will best please and speak to their customer’s heart as well as nourish them. Of course, manners and politeness, treating the customer with respect are what we learn first. In Japanese, there are different levels of polite speech, the highest being Keigo, which isn’t used in daily life by most people. So, we quite literally have to learn to comfortably use a whole different language of polite speaking. Also, as chefs at the counter, we learn to speak directly to the customer to find out their likes and dislikes, the things that makes them happy, their memories and nostalgia, all the things that help us to develop the food that best suits them.
What do you think about the Japanese cuisine in London (other than yours)?
It is definitely getting better, but there is so much more that can come. There are so many different levels and styles of regional Japanese food, and there are so many places chefs can go with Japanese food by mixing the traditional principles of Japanese food with the new ideas and energies of London. I think we can expect a very exciting future for Japanese cuisine in London.
How does working at Sake no Hana differ from working in a traditional restaurant in Japan?
The biggest difference for me is the international aspect of working in Sake no Hana. In Japan, I worked mostly with Japanese people, creating food to serve to mostly Japanese customers. In Sake no Hana, I work with a wide range of people from different backgrounds and serve food to a wide range of international customers. The challenge is adapting my training and background to create food that will be enjoyed here in London.
Your sakura menu is heavily influenced by the cherry blossom in Japan; how can we see this influence in the food you have created?
First, the bento box. In Sakura season in Japan, it is usual to make your own bento box at home and then take the food to a cherry blossom viewing site for a picnic. Also, I tried to emulate the variety of different foods present at a cherry blossom viewing picnic in Japan. There, usually, everyone shares their bento boxes, so there is a very varied menu. In the Sakura bento, I have tried to include a similar variety.
What are your own personal experiences of sakura in Japan?
When I was young in Hokkaido, we used to take bento boxes to the mountain cherry blossoms and spend the day river fishing and playing in the river near the cherry blossoms.
If you were to be offered one last meal, what would you choose as your starter, main course, dessert and accompanying drink?
For starter, I would have white miso soup. For main, grilled fish and white rice. I would drink soft water with it. And finish with seasonal fruits.