It’s been more than a decade since I last held down a real hospitality job. I was never particularly good at it. I scrub a mean dish, and I can talk some grade-A shit with drunk customers, but nobody was ever willing to pay me any more than $10 an hour, so in the end I found it was better I stick to my knitting.
But I was enthusiastic. And I still fantasise about waving a blade over an un-hewn slab of tuna, transforming it into a delicate, elegant, delicious little sculpture. The chefs at Kisumé (by Lucas Restaurants, also of Chin Chin, Baby, Kong and Hawker Hall) can and do just that, using only a Kataba (a single-beveled knife) and what seems like a lifetime of monastic concentration.
Sushi chefs are the straight-edge punks of cookery: they take produce-driven food to the next level by serving only produce. They’re so hardcore, sometimes they don’t even cook.
So when my editor asked me to spend a day at Kisumé trailing its sushi chef, I rapidly agreed. Being in the kitchen, at least vicariously, would be fun! She neglected to mention the 3.30am start.
A little context: the sleek, New York-style Japanese restaurant is one of Melbourne’s most celebrated openings of the last two years. It’s nothing like Chris Lucas’s other venues. It’s a quiet haven of calm. The music is subdued; there are no riotous colours on the walls. And unlike some of the others, you can reserve a table – so no queues.
But instead of talking about the wildly entertaining experience you’ll get if you shell out $195 (plus drinks) for a night at The Table, the 12-seat degustation-only chef’s table; or three levels of moody muted blacks, greys and buffed metals and provocative prints from photographers Polly Borland and Nobuyoshi Araki, let’s talk about the people who cook there.
I haven’t showered when I get in the car at 3.30am. I roll down an abandoned Kensington Road and under the unlit rail bridge. There are a couple of dinged-up vans roaming 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 a strictly pro-level affair. Everyone’s waiting for the roller doors to open. The Kisumé crew emerges from within a van led by Lucas Restaurants' publicity guru, Holly Lucas – daughter of Chris – and, like her father, 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 all guided today by Nori Koizumi from Oceania Seafoods, which first opened in Thornbury in 1983. It was one of the first to specialise in high-grade seafood before the sushi train pulled up in Australia. Also: his name is amazing.
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: yellowfin 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, smarter 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. 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, where a coffee truck is surrounded by what looks like the beginnings of a street fight. 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 stop off at Oceania where Koizumi demonstrates his production line; masked women spray fish with metal hoses, and an enormous fridge too cold to bear for more than a minute. Koizumi 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 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. All the best chefs serve his fish – Jacques Reymond, Georgie Calombaris, Neil Perry, Scott Pickett, Shane Delia, Ben Shewry, Matt Wilkinson and Peter Gunn – and with good reason. His warehouse looks more like a surgery, with huge teams gutting and scaling, packing fish neatly into boxes marked in Sharpie with the restaurant’s name. The chefs pick up some mackerel, a goldband snapper, and some Storm Bay clams. The pièce de résistance is a gnarly-looking lobster that Holly’s trying to charge to the business account. I promise her I won’t tell anyone.
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 on Flinders Lane, all looking a bit disheveled – except Hyun, who is neat as a pin, wearing a fresh white shirt, a black tie and a little sailor’s cap. I’m not sure how he recovered so quickly. His hair is still amazing.
As usual, I’m carrying twice my body weight in lights and camera, so they bundle me into the freight elevator and jam shut the metal concertina. The thing is older than I am, and I’m concerned this’ll be its final journey – but it’s better than hauling up the stairs.
Behind The Table is a small kitchen where Nakano is prepping the fish. It’s wonderfully gory: he guts the gurnard and the dory, checking the egg sack and liver for freshness, which he can guage 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 would be the task of an apprentice chef, but today Nakano is doing it.
“The training is step-by-step. 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.
At this point, I need a break. It’s 11am and my dogs will have destroyed all my stuff. (I once found my red heeler, Iggy Pup, chewing on my copy of Iggy Pop’s 1988 album Instinct. He’s a great dog.) When I return, both Nakano and Hyun are behind the sushi counter. Nakano is intensely focused when he’s slicing. He spent years practicing the repetitive and exacting actions that’ve given him an automatic appreciation of 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 cooking at Kisumé is he knows the art of traditional sushi. And he wants to do something a bit different. So Kisumé, no, it’s not on the same level as Tokyo’s Sukiyabashi Jiro – but that’s like saying Inglourious Basterds isn’t The Great Escape.
Before hanging out with Nakano, I assumed Kisumé was a standard Japanese restaurant, just using more expensive produce than most, executed with Lucas’s almost supernatural talent for theatre. But I sold it short. The best dishes at Kisumé are the ones you’ll never see in any traditional Japanese eatery. It’s the gentle curl of King George whiting with a weird little cube of lime jelly and wafer of crisp nori. It’s the vinegar-cured mackerel served with kelp. It’s the seared rock oyster with olive jam and garlic oil. The best dishes have the most surprising heritage. The best dishes come from here.
By 3pm I see spots. I’m standing on a chair, hunched over an elaborate bento box with my camera when they start swimming again: green and magenta amoeba wobbling before my eyes.
Chef Nakano has been awake at least as long as I have, and he looks great. He’s still in the kitchen filling containers with intricately cut garnishes ahead of service. And he stayed until midnight last night. Me? I’m a mess. I’m cranky for days.
It’s not news that it’s hard to be a chef. They work ridiculous hours. They’re always cutting and burning themselves. There’s enormous psychological pressure. It’s a hyper-competitive environment. Their schedules are a kind of inverse of normal life – often to their own families and friends. I genuinely don’t know how they do it.
But for some reason, since that day, there’s a thought I can’t shake: despite the burns and cuts and unpayable sleep debt, something magical happens in kitchens as imaginative as Kisumé’s. Maybe I’ll just try and find a shift a week …