I had been curious to interview Mitsuhiro Araki ever since learning he had given up his 3 Michelin stars in Tokyo and moved to London, only to regain them all just three years later. What does it take to give up all and start all over again from scratch on a completely different continent, in a new city and culture? Surely more than just personal circumstances or a business decision?
I’ve been going to The Araki in Mayfair since it first opened in 2014, but we only finally managed to arrange an interview two weeks ago, thanks to his right-hand-man Marty Ryu, who is Chinese-British, a gaijin (which means “a foreigner” in Japanese), like most of the Araki staff.
Having a mostly foreign staff is something else that makes Araki-san stand out from the rest of the top Japanese sushi masters. Those familiar with the Japanese way of thinking know how unimaginable it can be to hire a foreigner, especially when you have achieved the level of craftsmanship Mitsuhiro Araki has. For him, though, it was just another challenge he wanted to take on, and it didn’t make sense to work with Japanese apprentices only. “What’s the point in moving here then?” Mr Araki smiled. He feels the same about using mainly local, European ingredients. While some of the Japanese sushi chefs would fly their fish daily directly from Tsukiji as far away as to Hong Kong or even New York, for Araki-san it’s more about using his own abilities to make the best out of what he can source locally.
“You train and you learn the fundamentals so that later you are able to test your abilities according to what you have before you,” he says. No, ikejime is not as widely available here, and Europeans don’t specialize in catching that one fish and sending it to the market to be sold at a huge price like in Japan. There may not a Tsukiji fish market here, but Araki-san believes that every challenge can be overcome and that is what drives him.
Mr Araki certainly knows what he is talking about as from 2000 until 2012 he was running his eponymous sushi restaurant in Tokyo (first in Setagaya, later in Ginza) and working with top-notch ingredients from Tsukiji market. Mitsuhiro Araki is originally from Kyushu, where he was exposed to his grandfather’s Western-style cuisine cooking since an early age. After graduating from high school, he decided to become a chef. At that time, there were not many places in Japan where it was possible to work as a chef specializing in Western cuisine. So, Araki-san began working as a chef in a hotel in Hakone, famous for its resorts. Japanese cuisine has never been his first choice, but he decided to give to give it a try. After training as a sushi chef in Hakone, he went to work at a tonkatsu (pork cutlet) restaurant, but still was not sure he wanted to cook Japanese cuisine. At that point he decided to broaden his horizons and moved to Sydney for one year, where he ended up working at a Japanese restaurant from 1990-1991. It was then that he realized Japanese cuisine was becoming the next big thing, and changed his mind to become a sushi master. While living in Australia, he found a book about a sushi restaurant in Shimomeguro called Izumi, where he worked until 2000, the year he opened his own restaurant in Setagaya and his daughter was born.
From being completely unknown, Mitsuhiro Araki became one of the biggest sushi masters of his generation in a period of just over ten years. When asked what it takes to be a sushi master, he says first of all, “to really enjoy your craft and love creating.” He went on to say that making sushi is a completely hands-on job, something very personal that goes from one person’s hands to another person’s mouth. You can tell immediately if someone is enjoying the sushi or not and the person eating it can’t lie. To be a sushi master, to have people respect you and be able to look up to you, you have to be one with the craft; this shows in the amount of focus, attention, care, and love you put into it. Are you able to touch people? Are you able to attract attention? That kind of love for your job is the only thing that will give you the power to generate the kind of aura and power that captivates people.
When asked if he moved to London because of his daughter’s studies, Araki-san answered that it was not just because of that, but also because he wanted to test local ingredients and take on a new challenge. When I commented on how unique it is to regain 3 Michelin stars, Marty Ryu answered that it wasn’t a quick journey and that his master had to work very hard for it. After closing Ginza, it took three years to set up in London. When asked if it was a difficult decision to give away his three stars in Tokyo, Araki-san said that of course, it was something he was proud to attain and to maintain, but that it soon evolves into the desire for something more: “Once you reach the top of the top of Mount Fuji, you see Everest and you say, my goodness, I want to climb Everest.”
What is Araki-san’s next goal now that he has reached the top of Everest? He is leaving his options open and says he might open a restaurant again in Tokyo. He likes the idea of hiring only foreign apprentices and teach them his craft like he has been doing in London.