When chef Hajime Sato decided to turn his restaurant and sushi bar Mashiko into a fully sustainable sushi bar, he faced resistance from customers, and even members of his own staff. As other restaurants around town spoke the language of seasonal, organic, and sustainable, Sato felt that sushi should be no different. He made the change, permanently 86-ing a list of well-loved sushi favorites for underrated bottom feeders, in a matter of three short months.
Photo provided by Mashiko
The headstrong Sato also opened Katsu Burger last year, but his attention has not wavered from addressing the issue of seafood sustainability. Three years after the big change, Sato reflects on the difficult journey of pushing for sustainable sushi.
With documentaries on sustainable sushi and books on sustainable fish on the rise in recent years, do you still face customers coming in who are confused by the sustainable sushi concept, or have they largely come around since then?
Yes and yes, meaning that there are still some people who are really confused. Like three or four days ago, this guy came in and he was really confused by it. He was even offended that I taught him some things. Some people are just like that. When you think about what people are interested in, if they aren't paying attention, they cannot pay attention for a long time.
Overall, I don't have to explain too much about it compared to three years ago. It's definitely an improvement that some people have come in because they've heard of us through sustainability [efforts]. That's a really good sign. But if you ask me if there are some people who still get confused or offended, yes, on a weekly basis.
What are some underrated sustainable fish that you feature at Mashiko and would like to share with people?
Any kind of small fish -- herring, sardines, smelt. Most people say, "Oh, small fish. It's bait." That's kind of a sad thing to hear people say, "Bigger the better" and then laugh about how [in terms of sustainability,] size doesn't matter. It does. So many people eat things, and there's this kind of macho effect. It's the same thing with sports fishing where it's like, "Yo, I caught this 50 pound tuna or 200 pound halibut. Bwahah!" It doesn't mean anything. It's a lot of machismo, but so what?
Every year, with the first Bluefin [tuna] of the year, they're going to spend probably like at least $200,000 on the first [one of the year]. It'll be on the news and people will talk about, "Oh, who's going to eat it?" It's not even the best fish. It's just a novelty and people love that, kind of like beluga caviar and truffles from France. People just like them because there's that name, but do they really like it? Sometimes I doubt it.
Do you face Japanese or other diners who resent your departure from traditional Japanese cuisine?
Not even just the Japanese, but also the sushi bar and fishing community sometimes. They still have a resistance like, "Why are you doing this?" But again, to the Japanese or fishing and sushi bar community, I will say the same thing: I am saving our asses. I am saving our culture and preserving it. I don't know why they're not getting it. But of course, it's all about today, today, today.
Sure, we can eat it today, but five years from now, it could all be gone. Nobody talks about that. It's always about today. It's sad because humans are one of the only species that can think about facts, analyze it, and foresee things. That's one of our abilities as humans and we don't use it. It's kind of sad.
Do you struggle with not being able to eat certain fish or seafood that you once enjoyed?
I don't hang onto things in my life. I think a lot of people think I have a problem, and think that I should hang onto things more. If anybody comes through Mashiko, we have way more fish variety than before [we went sustainable]. Everybody thinks it's like a restriction, like, "Oh my God, you don't have unagi, you don't have hamachi, blah blah blah," and they complain about it. Or, they can say, "Oh my God, I haven't seen this fish in a sushi bar before, or this, or this, or this." We have so many different things. You can feel sad about what you cannot have, or you can feel excited about what we could have in the future and what you can have right now in front of you that is so much better, but different.
You're also working on your sake certification. How is that going?
I'm a certified sake advisor. It's not like Kikisake-shi, which is like a sommelier, but I'm halfway there.
What would you say are the best ways that people can enjoy sake and sushi?
Always ask for what's in season, that's ultimately the best way to enjoy sushi. Just looking at the menu and saying, "Can I have a spicy tuna or California roll?" every time you go to a sushi bar --- to me, that's not what sushi is all about. What sushi is all about is what's seasonal. Ask a sushi chef what they can do. Just ask a question and initiate a conversation. Don't just expect to have what you've been eating for the last 20 years. Maybe there is something more that you can learn.
Sake, same thing. Some people are still drinking hot sake. Maybe there are some sake that you've never had before. Don't be afraid to ask questions. [This is the] same as wine too. So many people go to restaurants and pretend that they know a lot about wine because they took a wine class twice in their life, but wine is infinite. Don't be afraid. Don't be stuck up. Don't be a douchebag. Don't worry. Just relax. It doesn't matter. You end up learning one more thing because of that. If you pretend that you know everything, you're not going to learn anything.