The Sharp End - Turning Japanese

Dave Waller tries to cut it as a sushi chef during the lunchtime feeding frenzy.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 18 Nov 2015

The Sharp End will have to be super sharp this month, as we'll be slicing our way through raw flesh at Yo! Sushi. I'm off to learn the way of the itamae, the sushi chef. Hope I don't wind up slipping on a salmon skin and committing inadvertent hara-kari.

Yo! is a kaiten sushi joint, meaning punters pluck plates from a carousel that carries them past as they eat. It's like chowing down at baggage reclaim. At 9am it isn't switched on yet and the bright, colour-coded dishes have yet to come out, so it feels as if I've turned up at the fairground before it opens. The party really starts here at 12, it's a two-hour frenzy during which a team of three may serve 100 people around five or six plates each.

I arrive at London's St Paul's branch, opposite the cathedral, to a warning from executive chef Mike Lewis: things could get hectic. The Queen's in town today to dish out honours, and upwards of 4,000 people are rumoured to be descending on the area to get pictures. It sounds like hungry work.

Mike kits me out and gives me a tour of the kitchen, positioned Japanese-style smack in the centre of the joint. It's so much more pleasant than the sweatbox you'd find out the back of your typical eatery. It's all about simplicity and presentation here - which is typical of the modern Japanese paradox, serving the mad lunch rush with order and serenity.

My first job is hand-making some maki, square-sided rolls of rice and cucumber, wrapped in nori, crispy seaweed. Pop a square of seaweed on a bamboo mat, oil your hands and spread 80g of sticky rice across it. Lay the cucumber on top and roll the mat up and over, sliding your thumbs across the top to get a flat edge, rotate, slide, and repeat till you've got a tight cuboid package. Then slice this into six and you're done. Repeat 100,000 times and try hitting someone: you'll find you're the Karate Kid.

As Mike gets me plunging my hands into the flow of ice water to rinse the starch off the rice, he explains the health and safety: wash your hands every 10 minutes and leave food on the conveyor for two hours max. The rules here are more strict than in Japan, he says, which brings back memories of a particularly rancid and rat-friendly ramen shop I once frequented in Tokyo.

We're a long way from that here. Mike started his career in Manchester as a pot washer at 15, before becoming a sous chef at 17. After working in different international restaurants around the country, he got a call from Yo! Sushi in 2002, asking him to head its Manchester launch. 'It was weird,' he says. 'We didn't have sushi in Manchester then, let alone in the Yo! style, so it was a bit of a leap. But as soon as I saw their kitchen I was sold.'

These days, he's the man who oversees new restaurant launches and dish design. This includes the Yo! roll, inverted so the seaweed is on the inside and the rice outside, all seasoned with fish roe. He has me making some of those. As an impetuous student of the art, I'm itching to get past all these menial tasks and feel the cold steel of a weapon in my hand. Mike makes me watch him wield it instead. He calmly slices a salmon to pieces, each part earmarked for specific dishes with only the tiniest sliver of waste left over. It looks simple, but it takes years of practice to earn that ease, he says.

Come noon and the promised rush hits. It's no royal onslaught, but the whole place suddenly leaps into action. Head chef Kyomin has prepared a flotilla of plates, which are soon whizzing everywhere to a soundtrack of Japanese pop. The head chef is watching everything - making sure that there is enough of each dish, that the presentation is good and that customers are being seen to. It's good to keep them happy: Mike says the place turns over around £1,500 a day.

I stand in the centre of the affray, deftly plucking bits of cress to drape over an arrangement of tuna and salmon sashimi. It is weird working in the middle of an orgy of people eating. It shows a very functional side to human beings - creatures in suits and courting couples who throw themselves down, stuff their faces with fuel and go.

Come 2pm, it's suddenly calm again. It was all a blur. There's a man holding a knife. I think no one died, but some fish may have bought it. I am calm.

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