When Takashi Saito first envisioned his future, sushi was never part of the plan. A twist of fate and a chance encounter sealed his destiny as not only a sushi chef but one who can proudly stake a claim in the Michelin-starred pool of restaurants. As the youngest-ever sushi chef to obtain the highly revered three-star rating as dictated by the sacred gourmet bible, Saito-san is unfazed by the glitzy stars, choosing to quietly steer focus on his signature Edomae-style sushi, a style highly regarded by traditionalists who believe in the sheer beauty of simplicity.
As a young boy who grew up near the ocean waters of Chiba, Saito-san spent his youth toiling part-time at a fishmonger who brought him to his first proper sushi restaurant. “At that time, I thought being a sushi chef was very cool and it looked easy; just placed the slice of fish on the rice,” he laughs rapturously at his childhood self. Displaying an amiable disposition that immediately puts anyone at ease, Saito-san’s humble demeanour is reflected in the sushi he crafts.
His training in the art of sushi making took 10 years to complete, from cleaning and scaling endless slabs of fishes to cooking the rice. The former apprentice at Kyubei in Ginza and two Michelin-starred Sushi Kanesaka founded by Shinji Kanesaka also served time at the two sushi institutions to perfect his craft before finally establishing his first outpost inside a carpark. “Running my own restaurant meant that I can use the fish I want and make the sushi I want to make,” Saito-san says with conviction. The modest seven-seater sushi counter christened Sushi Saito eventually caught the attention of Michelin Guide and was even hailed by Joël Robuchon as “the best sushi restaurant in the world”.
For many chefs, receiving a trio of Michelin stars is the utmost honour in the culinary world. At 44 years old, Saito-san has retained his Michelin three-star rating for the eighth consecutive year, a remarkable feat that is no doubt almost unattainable. Yet he confesses that it was never his aim to earn such recognition, as what is most important to him is to serve his customers and see their happy faces. “Producing good sushi is always about maintaining consistency in everything that you do. That is the most challenging part,” the sushi master reveals.
Sushi Saito currently occupies a bigger premise in Tokyo’s Roppongi district and it’s only natural that the establishment with its lofty reputation has received numerous offers from culinary heavyweights such as Hong Kong and Singapore to establish an extension of the restaurant outside of Tokyo. But it was ultimately Malaysia that received the honour, as Taka by Sushi Saito’s opening one year ago at the prestigious St. Regis Kuala Lumpur marked a step up for the city’s burgeoning sushi scene.
Saito-san’s meticulous attention to detail and dedication to uphold only the highest standards has led to a rule he abides thoroughly – there should always be a ratio of eight guests to one chef, neither more nor less. As a master of his craft, Saito-san receives the privilege of securing the first pick from Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji market, where he has formed lifelong relationships with trusted vendors who harbour deep respect for the sushi master. He follows through the same routine every day, riding his bike to the market at 7am to select the fresh produce before heading back to his Roponggi restaurant for lunch prep.
Saito-san’s distinctive style of sushi lies in the rice, as the sushi master has perfected the art of creating a rare quality of airiness in the rice of his sushi complemented with just the right amount of red vinegar. This signature technique ensures that the rice is not clumpy as every grain is discernible to the palate. The rice is served slightly warm, as the overall combination of temperature, texture and taste plays a vital role in Saito-san’s perfected craft.
Sushi etiquette differs slightly when it comes to dining at Saito’s establishment. His recommended method of consuming sushi is to lift the piece of sushi using the thumb, index and middle fingers, before turning it upside down so the fish touches your tongue first. Not the most graceful way to dine but this ensures the airiness of the rice is preserved without being compromised by a pair of chopsticks.
In Japan, a sushi chef’s calibre is judged based on the tamago, a classic Japanese omelette which is usually disregarded due to its inconspicuous form. A chef who has dedicated a reasonable amount of years in training will be able to produce a quality piece of tamago. There are various versions of the tamago as every chef will call the signature item his own by infusing different techniques and ingredients. Saito-san’s version certainly did not disappoint, boasting a disparate texture that is closer to a custard without being cloyingly sweet.
“I want to keep making my customers happy. I don’t want to aim for anything as I believe if I keep doing what I do, something positive will happen,” says Saito-san.
5 facts about Takashi Saito
“My mother used to cook fried chicken and curry rice for me when I was young.”
Maintaining his hands as a prized asset
“I slather on Nivea cream and wear a pair of gloves when I sleep.”
“I walk my dog every Sunday during my off day and I occasionally play golf.”
Being a mentor
“I want to help young men to be sushi chefs, that is my motivation. I can tell if a new trainee is good just by observing him clean the fish.”