Imagine a simple technique, all in the twist of a wire. A technique with the potential to revolutionise fishing in the Western world. Dubbed Ikejime in Japanese, this method for slaughtering fish more ethically could also lead to a change in expectations of how fish meat should taste and age.
An unusual yet ambitious mission fit for an extraordinary person: Yoshinori Ishii. This elegant and discreet Japanese chef is not only bringing his Kaiseki – Japanese haute cuisine to the world but is showing us a more intelligent way to fish.
Currently, executive chef at Mayfair-based Kyoto-style Japanese restaurant Umu, Ishii’s quest to serve the finest fish took him beyond sourcing the best product available, to spearheading change around fishing methods in the UK. By frequenting fisheries in England’s South West Coast, specifically along Cornwall’s long peninsula where there is an existent tradition of carefully handling fish, Ishii found a supplier (the boss of a small boat line fishing company) who was able to emulate his method and thus meet his standard. And as a side-win, he put into motion the disruption of current fishing practices, through teaching local fishermen this traditional Japanese method of slaughtering fish that maintains the quality of the meat.
The Ikejime method is based on a simple premise: The less a fish suffers before, during and after slaughter, the better the quality of the meat; as a fish struggles after capture stress hormones, lactic acid and cortisol are produced, thus lowering the meat quality. By quickly—this processes should be completed in a matter of seconds—deactivating the brain, an aspect referred to as closing the fish, then draining the fish of blood from the gills, and finally destroying the nervous system by running a wire along the spine to prevent the fish from sending out more stress signals, you are left with a superior quality fish meat that tastes and ages better.
Following nine years as a sous-chef at Kitcho, the legendary 3 Michelin star restaurant in Kyoto and three-year stints in both Geneva and New York as the official chef at the Japanese embassy to the United Nations, it was on arriving in London that the state of fish being served in restaurants caught Ishii’s attention. “I’ve been fishing since I was a child in the sea and in rivers. I know fish and fishing. In Switzerland, I could get fish from the lake. In New York I could get fresh fish from Japan [imported from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market],” but London, he explains to me over tea after the lunch service at Umu, was a different story. “Now we get much better fish [in London], eight-years ago the fish destined for the customers’ sushi wasn’t even fit for the staff meal,” he muses.
A man whose earnest yet sophisticated appreciation of beauty, tradition and technicality manifests itself in everything from his love of pottery to his culinary excellence may seem like an unusual trailblazer for fish-slaughter methods, yet it is exactly this level of perfection in all and every aspect of cuisine that makes Ishii the perfect example for generations to come.