It’s probably true to say that behind every good sushi chef lies a very, very good supplier of fish.
Develop a good relationship with the wrong person and you could set back your sushi restaurant by many years.
One of Sydney’s top seafood suppliers is Narito Ishii, a man utterly dedicated to quality. Outspoken and confident in his belief of the value of his work, Ishii-san took some time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts about his work ethic, the state of sushi in Sydney and his favourite sushi.
Thank you Ishii-san for taking the time for this interview.
It’s my pleasure.
Arriving in Australia you began delivering fish from Pyrmont Fish Market to restaurants before eventually starting your own supply company. In your own words, you thought, “I could do this myself?” What made you think that and how did thinking that influence your work philosophy?
Well, here is a little bit about my work experience history in Australia. When I first arrived in Australia I worked in delivery and distribution for a Chinese cold goods business. Of course, this was part-time work but after two years of it I’d had enough of the lack of professionalism. After that, I floated around a bit and then started up an Australian-Japanese fresh fish and wagyu beef wholesale operation but unfortunately was unable to secure a business visa through this and so I headed to Hong Kong.
That must have been a difficult time for you.
Well yes, but while in Hong Kong I was working at Japanese wholesaler, importing fish directly from Tsukiji, Hokkaido and Fukuoka. I learnt many things there, you know, about many kinds of fish. I’d talk to the supplier in Japan at midnight asking about availability and the weather and so on. I’d buy the fish on the phone and then see the fish delivered the same day to the restaurants. The fish was good. Expensive of course but honestly, not fresh enough… Anyway, I learnt a lot in Hong Kong about many kinds of fish, how to cook with them and about seasonal produce.
It sounds like it was an important experience for you.
It was and when I came back I started up Wellstone Seafoods which is a translation of my family name Ishii and we worked hard from there. Anyway, we’re about delivering good produce to restaurants. I tried pretty much all of the fish in the market and started selling more and more of the fish that I thought was good. With a lot happening, I sold the business to Pyrmont Seafood. However, without a doubt, it’s my belief that the breadth of Japanese food has expanded because of Wellstone Seafoods.
Sushi has certainly increased in popularity in Sydney but for people who have experienced sushi culture in Japan, they may find the range of fish used here a little disappointing. What would you say to those people?
Unfortunately, there are a lot of sushi chefs in this country only playing at being sushi chefs. You know, people taking a strange pride in being sushi ‘chefs’. The sushi boom means that now anyone can make sushi easily so it’s about making money. As disappointing as that is though, I feel that it provides an important opportunity to let people know what sushi really is and that there is some good quality produce emerging. With all due respect, even you may not be properly aware of the flavour of the real Sydney sushi. I’d like to set up a tour in winter here for people coming from Japan to let them know about the flavour of sushi in Sydney.
And the range of fish?
The shellfish here [in Australia] is a bit weak but there really is a lot of different fish species, you know, fresh from around the coast and adjacent waters. Eating sushi in Japan costs around 10,000 yen [approx. $100+] but for that you are often getting frozen farmed fish from overseas.
Which ones do you think are the best here, the ones that you think represent Australia?
You know, I think the best three Australian fish in winter are the Southern Blue Fin Tuna, Tasmanian Purple Sea Urchin and Imperador. They were very cheap when I started the business, but now they are getting popular and the price is... But that's a good thing. It means that people understand the taste and respect it. Fisherman too are taking care of their fish more. You know, the Imperador, when I started buying it, it was only six dollars and sold mixed with alfonsino. That was ten years ago. Now, it’s forty dollars…
Anyway, you know, the sushi restaurants in Tsukiji in Japan are done. They are completely oriented towards tourists. If you have the chance, we should eat some of the real stuff together. I think your views might change.
That’s an offer to good to refuse Ishii-san. I’ll take you up on it soon. Okay, let’s talk a little about the actual work that you do. To put it simply, what makes a fish supplier a good one?
Someone who delivers good fish! I also try and explain the produce to people and mature their understanding this way and also by returning to Japan and taking pictures of the various produce and showing them to restaurant people. I consider it my job to try and improve the level of Australia’s Japanese cuisine.
What kind of things do you notice about the fish you are choosing?
Well, of course the degree of freshness and the seasonal taste. Meeting the demands of special orders is also important.
What about people buying from their local fishmonger?
To put it bluntly, your local community fishmonger sells good produce cheaper than the fish market. The best thing is to be on good terms with the fish dealer in your local area. This way, they’ll purchase fish just for your sake. Because the fish market has the name, they just stay silent as they sell you something. Knowledge from the source is the best since where they are from is their authority.
You’ve been to different fish markets around the world and you’ve mentioned that each market focuses on different things particular to their culture. Can you explain what you mean when you say that Tsukiji, Japan’s most famous fish market, focuses on umami and how that affects the understanding of fish in Sydney?
That’s a difficult question. Of course, the way of catching and eating fish will differ according to the country and that it is obvious that each market has its own personality and idiosyncrasies. What is amazing about Tsukiji is that the world’s fish are all found there and of course also the way the fisherman manage and control the fish and the skill in how it is all delivered. Alas, Australia has a way to go in this regard.
I’d like to ask you about your enjoyment of your work. What is it about fish supply that keeps you doing it?
Well, it’s interesting because the fish differ each day. You find that the same product can be good or bad since natural produce is influenced by the weather and such things. Also, that look on the face your customer when you’ve delivered on a special order from them. However, truth be told, I’ve yet to see the face of the person who ends up eating the food that was cooked!
Most people just sell and forget. You don’t often hear of that level of customer focus here. It’s something I experienced for the first time when I lived in Japan.
It’s a little different, right? Because of this, I’ve acquired my Responsible Service of Alcohol certificate so that if I have the time, I’d like to try being a waiter somewhere [and see things from the point of view of the person eating my customer’s food]. It really is great to see the fish that I chose and delivered in the morning be prepared by the chef. That’s why I sell that fish again.
Now, I do have to ask you, what sushi do you like to eat?
Well, when it comes to sushi, I have to say tuna. I’m not sure there is anything that can top it. Naturally it has to be properly matured and eaten at the time it is most delicious. It also doubles the flavour when I eat at my customer’s place and I’m finding out from the fisherman when they caught it and so on. It really is great!
Okay Ishii-san, thank you very much for your time.
You’re welcome. Was it ok? If there is anything you aren’t clear on, just ask.