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On Set | Inside A Three-Michelin Omakase

By T: The New York Times Style Magazine Singapore

Earlier in November, the two-time three-Michelin starred chef, Masaki Miyakawa popped by Singapore for a short pop-up restaurant at the Nami restaurant and bar in the Shangri-La hotel. While the pop-up stint ran for two full weeks, Miyakawa himself was here for only five days — he closed his namesake restaurant, Sushi Miyakawa in Sapporo, for all five days — and rushed back to Sapporo to tend to the surge of winter tourists and diners. 

Miyakawa's career started after he graduated from high school, a time when he was in search of a chef apprenticeship. "At first, I was just interested in becoming a chef — any kind of chef. Then I saw an advertisement calling for sushi chefs. So I decided to take this path," says Miyakawa.

"There are so many kinds of sushi in Japan," says Miyakawa as he lists them out — the takeaway sushi stores, the conveyor belt (Kaiten) sushi restaurants, and the top-notch omakase style sushi that he does now. "In places like Kaiten sushi, the cheap sushi restaurants, it's easy to make the nigiri. You just need one week of training to make a nigiri," laughs Miyakawa. 

His training was, however, vastly different from the one described above. It took him three years before he was allowed to touch a fish. "First, I started off as a dishwasher. I was washing dishes every day. After that, I became a chef who made food for the staff — I made meals for my seniors and they would comment if the food was too salty or sweet. That was how I gained experience and improved." That took three years.

He then had to learn to make basic styles of sushi, namely the maki and gunkan. "After work, I will take home the shari [rice] and take old newspapers, cut them like nori [seaweed] and practice rolling them up," recalls Miyakawa. 

When he was finally allowed to "handle" a fish, he found himself removing the scales, then the fishes' heads, before he was allowed to touch the precious flesh. In between was a rigorous training of learning every different type of fish, their source, the conditions they were brought up, and how all these factors affected the taste and texture of the fish — and therefore, the dining experience. 

He saw his first three-Michelin star crowning back when he was training at Sushi Yoshitake in Hong Kong. Later, he returned to Japan, set up his own Sushi Miyakawa, and earned three Michelin stars for himself in 2017. To Miyakawa, there is no lofty recipe or method behind these Michelin accolades. It's about knowledge of the ingredients and careful attentiveness to the diner. 

Here, Miyakawa's video interview with T Singapore:

"Shokunin refers to someone who is committed to and focussed on what he is doing. Sushi chefs are shokunins because they can only make sushi. Sushi chefs? They can only do this, but they are good at doing this.

I am Masaki Miyakawa. I was born in 1970, I am 48 years old. I am from Hokkaido, from a small town in Asahikawa. Now, I'm currently living in Sapporo where Sushi Miyakawa is.

I think sushi making is everything — it's art, it's mathematics. I need to see what the situation of the fish is. If it's salty, I will need to add lesser soy sauce. Everything is calculated.

When I step on the counter, I'm thinking of how to satisfy the customer. When I'm making the sushi, I am thinking of what the situation of the fish is. For example, when the fish is firm, I will make the rice firmer as well. So the guests will be able to enjoy the texture of the fish. Or if the eel is soft, I will make sure the rice is soft as well, so it melts and sets well in your mouth. It's usually omakase that I make, where I choose and serve dishes that I think is in the best quality. But I look at guests' reaction when they eat. If the guest had something oily and is reacting to it, I will choose something else. 

Anyone can do this job, but you need a sense of effort and commitment. You do need patience for this job. But what motivates me to keep going is when my mentors praise me for what I do or when the customers say, "This tastes good."

I am not good with words. Sushi is a tool for me to communicate with others. I create a dish, serve it to the guests, and from the reactions the guests make, I communicate with them."