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Sushi Chef Aoki Toshikatsu: At the Crossroads of Tradition and Innovation

Nakahara Ippo [Profile]


Sushi aficionados expect more than just top-quality ingredients when they dine in Ginza. They expect a relentless attention to detail combined with the kind of effortless class that cannot be faked. Sushi Chef Aoki Toshikatsu, second-generation proprietor of Sushi Aoki, personifies these attributes. Nakahara Ippo profiles the master chef and his reverential yet inspired cuisine.

Aoki Toshikatsu

Aoki ToshikatsuSecond-generation chef-owner of Sushi Aoki. Born in Saitama Prefecture. After graduating from Nippon Sport Science University, spent one year traveling in the United States. Worked at the famous Kyōbashi sushi restaurant Yoshino before embarking on advanced training under his father, one of Tokyo’s great sushi chefs. Took over Sushi Aoki at age 28, following his father’s unexpected death.

Aoki Toshikatsu cuts a fine figure behind the sushi bar, thanks in part to his impressive athletic physique (the product, he says, of his college judo training). Just the sight of him standing there in his white chef’s jacket behind the wooden cutting board is enough to inspire customers with total confidence. It seems to tell them they can leave everything to him, with no doubt that they will be served something good.

Aoki’s sushi is clean and elegant in style, yet infused with a playful gallantry, like a father showing off for his family. The boyish grin the master flashes from time to time is part and parcel of his low-key charisma.

Edomae (Edo-style) sushi is one of Tokyo’s great contributions to world cuisine. Aoki’s first bite of sushi was prepared by his own father Yoshi, who opened and built the business that his son would eventually inherit.

A Rock-Solid Foundation

Raised in the old Asakusa section of Tokyo, Aoki Yoshi trained for 20 years at the famed Nakata restaurant in Ginza before he was finally permitted to open his own branch in the Kiyamachi district of Kyoto. In a city of notoriously fussy diners, he made a name for himself as a master Edomae chef.

This was at a time when restaurants explicitly devoted to Edomae sushi were practically nonexistent in Kyoto. Insulating materials like polystyrene foam were not yet in wide use, so bluefin tuna (hon-maguro), a staple of Edomae, had to be shipped in crates packed with ice and sawdust from Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, a full day’s journey away. Yet sometimes all that effort was wasted on his customers, who favored the delicate flavors of traditional Kyoto cuisine and regarded maguro—whether the lean akami or the fatty toro—as inferior to white fish like Akashi tai, or sea bream. “I think my father had a hard time indeed with the maguro problem when he was in Kyoto,” says Aoki Toshikatsu.

Sushi Aoki showcases four different cuts of bluefin tuna. Above, from left, are two cuts of fatty toro: the marbled shimofuri and jabara, or “snake’s belly.” Below are medium-fatty chūtoro (left) and lean akami marinated in soy sauce.

For his part, Aoki grew up thinking of his father’s workplace as a kind of playground. He loved hanging around on weekends and school holidays, helping the kitchen staff with prep work.

In 1986, after spending 14 years building a reputation for himself in Kyoto, Aoki’s father moved back to Tokyo and opened his namesake restaurant in the Kōjimachi district of Tokyo. Sushi Aoki traces its beginnings to that establishment.

New Culinary Horizons

After high school, the younger Aoki attended Nippon Sport Science University, then spent a year in the United States, immersing himself in the English language and exploring the diverse food culture of a multiethnic society as he traveled from coast to coast.

Sushi was already a familiar “fast food” to many Americans, but the sushi Aoki encountered in the United States was a far cry from the authentic Edomae he had grown up with. Distinctively American creations like the California roll (avocado, cucumber, and real or artificial crabmeat) and the spider roll (soft-shell crab) were all the rage. Aoki saw sushi eaten with mayonnaise or teriyaki sauce instead of soy sauce and washed down with cola instead of tea. Meanwhile, American cooking was feeling the impact of France’s nouvelle cuisine, with its emphasis on light, vibrant dishes highlighting fresh and exotic ingredients. Aoki’s first encounter with a white fish carpaccio drizzled with balsamic vinegar was such a revelation that he had to call his father long distance to tell him about it.

Aoki’s American sojourn exposed him to the notion of sushi as an evolving international phenomenon and awakened him to its creative possibilities. This awareness would later come to fruition in such original East-meets-West creations as Aoki’s famous monkfish liver and baby scallions wrapped in rice and flavored with ponzu (soy and citrus sauce), one of the few dishes in the sushi repertoire that can be paired with red wine.

  • [2014.08.12]

Journalist and nonfiction writer. Born in Saga Prefecture in 1977. After graduating from high school, began writing about food while working in a food stall in Fukuoka. During his twenties, traveled the world from the upper reaches of the Amazon to war-torn Afghanistan. Author of Saigo no shokunin—Ikenami Shōtarō ga aishita Kondō Fumio (The Last Artisan: Kondō Fumio, Beloved of Ikenami Shōtarō), Kiseki no saigai vorantia “Ishimaki moderu” (Miracle of Disaster-Relief Volunteerism, the “Ishimaki Model”), and other works.

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