Sushi chef Shinichi Maeda, 35, loves surfing on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast when he isn’t cutting fish. A native of Hokkaido, he is now head chef of Sake Restaurant in Brisbane. While spending a week as a special guest chef at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, he discussed sushi, knives and punk music with Bennett Murray.
How did you get your start in sushi?
My grandmother had been a sushi chef for a long time, and she taught me the basics. I really enjoyed it. But I also wanted to be a musician. I started with punk, but then changed to more hard rock.
I thought when I moved to Tokyo when I was 20 I could do both. But immediately I found that a musician will never make money. There’s only a very small chance. To be a great chef is also a small chance, but it doesn’t matter if you’re famous or not, you can still make money if you work.
How did you go about becoming a chef?
I went to Ginza, the super expensive, high-end area of Tokyo. If I was going to spend years apprenticing, I wanted to have real high-end skills. I didn’t want to waste time. So I chose one of the hardest areas in Japan. I knocked on the door on a few restaurants and said: “This is my resume, this is my knife and I want to work here. I don’t need any time off, just give me the job, but I want to work on hand, not just watch.” A few restaurants said: “Who do you think you are? Get out.” But one thought: “Oh, not many young people want to do this anymore. So if you want to work hard, come here tomorrow and start with us.”
What were your duties?
When I started, I’d pick up fish and vegetables from the market every morning. I’d come back, clean, set up, wash all the vegetables and rice, and normally I’d help with the garnishes. I always got up much earlier than I would have to. By the time I was supposed to start, I had already done my job, so then I could help the chefs. Then they’d be happy for me to do their job, so they could go out and have a coffee or cigarette or go to a horserace. I did it in a little tricky way, but that was my plan.
When did your apprenticeship end?
When I turned 24, I finished my apprenticeship and started working as a chef. I was lucky; it only took me three and a half years. People may take five or six years, even 10 years, and if you’re not good enough you will still be washing the vegetables and rice.
Could you tell us about your knives?
I have had my fish knife for 15 years, since I started with my grandmother. This is to chop the head off and for filleting. It is pure carbon, it gets rust straight away. It doesn’t like salt, it doesn’t like vinegar. It’s still fine – if you look after it, it can last for 30 years. But it is shorter now. The other main knives are for sashimi and vegetables.
Have your knives ever caused problems at borders?
The first time I came to Australia in 2003, I had a whole set of knives, and customs asked me: “What are you doing?” Because I didn’t have any English, I just said “I cook” five times while they explained to me that I only had a working holiday visa.
They finally said it was fine.
How did you end up in Australia?
When I was a child, six or seven years old, I wanted to go overseas and I wanted to be able to speak English. I realised without English, you can’t have really have communication.
I finally moved to Australia in 2003 and lived on the Sunshine Coast in a very small town. I’d wake up, pick up fish from the market, and jump up in the water and surf, go to lunch, then after lunch I’d jump into the water again. On holidays it was packed, but if it wasn’t a holiday it’d be quiet. That was for about seven years. Then I got an offer to open a restaurant in Brisbane. I thought it was a good chance to do something bigger with more challenge.
Maeda will provide a five course dinner at 6pm Friday and Saturday night at Sofitel. He will also provide a Japanese cooking class Saturday morning at 10:30am, and a brunch on Sunday at 11:30am.