Suburban Melbourne is eerily quiet in the early morning. It’s 3.30am when I get in the car. I roll down an abandoned Kensington Road and under the unlit rail bridge. There are a couple of dinged-up vans around, but it’s mainly just me – until I get to the fish markets.

Trucks are lined up almost all the way to Dynon Road, their headlights on and heaters at full blast. Getting inside is a pretty special event – unlike other wholesale markets in Sydney and Tokyo, you can’t just rock up to buy a flathead. This is strictly a pro affair. Everyone’s waiting for the roller doors to open.

We’re here with the Lucas Group, which runs powerhouse restaurants Chin Chin, Baby, Hawker Hall and Kong. More specifically, we’re meeting the staff from Kisumé, the group’s sleek, high-concept Japanese eatery on Flinders Lane. Everyone gets the basics of making sushi: haul the fish (or eel or urchin or other sea creature) onto a boat, bring it back to land and pass it to a skilled chef to slice up. But we wanted to know more – to understand everything the restaurant does before its sushi reaches a diner’s plate.

The Kisumé crew emerges from a van, led by Lucas Restaurants' publicity guru Holly Lucas, daughter of Chris. Like her father, she’s a force to be reckoned with. Following her is head chef Nabila Kadri, dressed sensibly in an enormous orange parka; JangYong Hyun, a Korean-born senior sous with an immovably sharp haircut; and Shinya Nakano, a real-deal fish wizard who learned his trade in Kyoto. We’re guided by Nori Koizumi from Oceania Seafoods. The wholesaler first opened in Thornbury in 1983 and was one of the first to specialise in high-grade seafood before the sushi train pulled up in Australia.

The market hall is like a live-in freezer: full of ice and white boxes, with unshaven dudes hauling crates filled with oceanic goods, and forklifts careening in through flapping plastic curtains. A brace of pearly-pink snapper lies on a low marble table, and crays scuttle to the edge of their polystyrene cages. Koizumi and Nakano inspect the gills of a huge hapuka; they check the eyes for clouding, but a spot of blood is okay.

The team is drawn by strange magnetism to the tuna section, where yellowfin are laid out on steel tables. These things are predators; the size of small cows, but all strength and death. Unlike other fish, tuna are almost warm-blooded and have a vascular structure that keeps them warmer than the water – making them faster and hungrier.

The three chefs check out the lemon-sized wedge cut above the tail fin, to test for colour, texture, freshness and fat content. Their many years of experience are invaluable. They can tell the quality of a fish by sight, smell or touch, but usually employ all three. Kadri, Hyun and Nakano seem impressed, and ask Koizumi to hook them up.

Kisumé’s chefs don’t come here every day. That’s what wholesalers such as Koizumi are for. But the occasional research trip provides invaluable context for menu design – to help Nakano and Kadri scope out what's actually on offer.

Minutes later, I find Nakano standing over a blue bucket, with three dented-looking tuna sticking up with their tails in the air. He’s quietly shaking his head. He tells me in Japan this is completely unacceptable – that nobody would dream of treating such a beautiful object with such utter disrespect. He points out the bruises and dings in the flesh, and seems genuinely saddened by the treatment. He mimes throwing the tuna into the fishermonger’s face.

On the way out, the chefs pick out a few treats: latchet, a deep-sea fish that’s richer and fattier here than in Japan; a crazy-looking bright-orange gurnard; and some kingfish, calamari and salmon. The market’s winding down as we walk out the roller doors. A considerable mob has formed around a coffee truck. I get two sugars in my long black. We watch the sun rise over the electricity towers, the pink and cobalt sky against the motionless cranes.

We make a quick hop across the Maribyrnong, to Oceania’s current home in Footscray. Koizumi demonstrates his production line; masked women spraying fish with metal hoses, and an enormous fridge too cold to bear for more than a minute. He hands over a parcel wrapped in unmistakably Japanese-style: green crepe paper folded into a delicate envelope, with a decorative band strapped around the outside. It’s a block of toro: the tender, fatty belly of the tuna. We pass it hand to hand like it’s a baby bird.

Across town at Ocean Made, we meet George Lucas (not that one, and also no relation to Chris and Holly), perhaps the most famous fishmonger in Melbourne. Some of the best chefs serve his fish – including Jacques Reymond, Neil Perry and Ben Shewry – and with good reason. His Collingwood warehouse looks like an operating theatre, with huge teams gutting and scaling, packing fish neatly into boxes marked in Sharpie with restaurant names. The chefs pick up some mackerel, a goldband snapper and some Storm Bay clams.

By now we’ve all been up about five hours, and it’s time to actually start the day. We work our way through the peak-hour traffic to Kisumé, all looking a bit disheveled – except Hyun, who is neat as a pin, wearing a fresh white shirt, a black tie and a chef’s cap.

The monochromatic restaurant is split between three levels, beginning with a bustling, windowless basement. Above that, at the ground floor, a slightly quieter room displays prints from fine-art photographers Polly Borland and Nobuyoshi Araki, most notably depicting Nick Cave clad in an electric-blue wig (Borland) and various women tied kinbaku (Japanese bondage) style (Araki). Our destination is the top floor, Kuro Kisumé, which contains a chablis bar, cellar and several private tables hidden behind curtains. Chief among them is The Table, a 12-seat, horseshoe-shaped bar that hosts kaiseki, the Japanese version of a degustation, for $195 per person.

Nakano is prepping the fish in a small kitchen behind The Table. It’s wonderfully gory: he guts the gurnard and the dory, checking the egg sack and liver for freshness, which he can gauge by sight. “When it’s really, really good, the colour is brighter and it’s not so soft,” he says. The one in his hand doesn’t meet that standard. He won’t serve it.

Once it’s been gutted, Nakano uses a roll of sharpened bamboo skewers to scrape the inside of the fish. He strips away the chewy white membrane that sticks to the flesh and clears off any clots of blood. “Blood can ruin sushi,” he says.

Normally, filleting is an apprentice chef’s task, but today Nakano is doing it. “The training is step-by-step,” he says. “The apprentice has to know the quality of the fish. And if they don’t touch, they won’t know. But of course, the higher chef knows how the fish’s flesh feels. So the first thing an apprentice does is touch, and memorise.”

To take the fish away from the bone, he uses a squat pointed knife named a deba – shorter than a standard chef’s knife and with a fatter spine, which makes it perfect for hewing bone.

Nakano is intensely focused when he’s slicing. He spent years practising the repetitive and exacting actions that’ve given him an instinctive appreciation for how a fish should be cut and where.

“If you cut too fast, it breaks the cells. More gently cutting … that subtly affects the flavour,” he says. “I want to concentrate. For me, the way I make sushi: don’t talk to me."

One of the primary reasons Nakano is at Kisumé is he knows the art of traditional sushi. And he wants to do something a bit different.

The best dishes at Kisumé are the ones you won’t see in any traditional Japanese eatery. Richmond’s Minamishima works exclusively with fish flown in from Tokyo to create its exquisite sushi, for example. That means it’ll never serve something like a gentle curl of King George whiting (a fish found only in Australian waters) with a weird little cube of lime jelly and wafer of crisp nori. Nor vinegar-cured mackerel served with kelp, or seared rock oyster with olive jam and garlic oil. As much as we appreciate adhering to traditions that stretch back hundreds of years, there’s also something to be said for mastering the underlying skillset and using novel ingredients to create something new. Even if it means getting up at 3.30am.

175 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
(03) 9671 4888

Daily 10.30am–2pm, 5pm–10pm

This story was republished on March 1, 2019, to match the version that appeared in Melbourne Print Issue 25.