One Day at Kisume

One Day at Kisume

We get up (really) early to see into the life of Kisume’s sushi masters

It’s been over a decade since I last held down a real hospitality job. I was never particularly good at it. I scrub a mean dish, I suppose, 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 it was better I stick to my knitting. I was (and remain) enthusiastic, however.

I loved the camaraderie that working in a kitchen engendered, the feeling at the end of service that you’d somehow survived something – together. And occasionally you literally had. So when my editor asked me to spend a day at Kisumé trailing their sushi chef, I pretty rapidly agreed. Being in the kitchen, at least vicariously, would be fun! But I forgot that bit about surviving something…

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 fam. Even so, getting up at 3.30am is outrageous. But that’s exactly what I do.

I haven’t showered when I get in the car and roll down an unlit Kensington Road, under the unlit bridge rail bridge. There’s a couple of dinged-up vans rolling around, but it’s mainly just me - until I come to the fish markets. Trucks are lined up almost all the way to Dynon Road, their headlights on and heaters at full-blast, waiting for the roller doors to open a little after four. I linger out the front vaping in dark for a little bit, while waiting for my party of chefs, led by the irrepressible Holly Lucas - daughter of restaurateur Chris, but a force to be reckoned with in her own right.

Out of the van wanders the incredibly accomplished head chef Nabila Kadri, an energetic presence dressed sensibly in an enormous orange parka; JangYong Hyun, a Korean-born senior sous who has an infectiously boyish charm; and Shinya Nakano, a real-deal fish wizard who learned his trade in Kyoto before working at Nobu and now, Kisumé. He’s quiet, kind and totally knows his shit.

They’re guided today by Nori, one of Kisumé’s key suppliers, a fish wholesaler at Oceania. Established in 1983, Oceania was one of the first businesses to specialise in high-grade seafood before the sushi train pulled up in Australia. Also: his name is amazing.

It’s worth noting that getting inside Melbourne Fish Market is a pretty special event: unlike other wholesale markets in Sydney and Tokyo, you can’t just rock up to buy a flathead – this a strictly pro-level affair. We’re welcomed by CEO Barbara Konstas, who’s keen for me to communicate to Broadsheet’s readers that Daniel Andrews hates fishermen and restaurants because he’s banning commercial netting in Port Philip. I’m an anarcho-communitarian who’s a member of the Labor Party, so I’ll respectfully disagree. On the other hand, Konstas knows her fish way better than I do, so you’ll have to make up your own mind on that one.

The hall itself is a riot of ice and white boxes, with unshaven dudes hauling crates filled up with fish. A brace of pearly-pink snapper lay on a low marble table, and cray scuttle to the edge of their styrofoam cage. Nori and Shinya-San inspect the gills of an impressively-big Hapuka; they check the eyes for clouding, but a spot of blood is okay.

Being sushi chefs, the team is drawn by strange magnetism to the tuna section: yellow-fin laid out on steel tables, with wedges cut out of their tails. I’ve seen the pictures and knew, intellectually, that tuna are huge, but I didn’t really understand how powerful they are. These things are apex predators: they’re enormous - 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 - and faster, smarter and hungrier than their prey. I wouldn’t want to be a squid.

The three chefs check out the lemon-sized segment from above the caudal fin. It’s been drained and aged for four or five days. Nabilla, JangYong and Shinya seem impressed, and ask Nori to hook them up with some of this gear.

A few minutes later, I find Shinya standing over a blue bucket, with three tuna sticking out of it with their tails in the air. He’s quietly shaking his head. He tells me that 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 fisherman’s face.

On the way out, the chefs pick out a few treats: a deep-sea fish named a Latchet, that’s far better here than in Japan; a crazy-looking Gurnet, bright orange and designed to fly; some Kingfish, Calamari and of course some Salmon.

The market’s winding down as we walk out the roller doors, where a coffee-truck is surrounded by what looks something like a riot. I get two sugars in my long black. We watch the sun rise over the waist-shaped electricity towers, the pink and cobalt sky against the motionless cranes.

We stop off at Oceania where Nori demonstrates his production line; masked women spray fish with metal hoses, and an enormous fridge is too cold to bear for more than a minute. Nori 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 rarest, tenderest, fatty bit of the fish. We pass it hand to hand like a baby bird.

From Footscray, we cross town to Collingwood, where we’re due at Ocean Made. I haven’t smoked a real cigarette in years, but when I spy Nabilla rolling a durry in my passenger seat, it feels entirely right. There’s something important about smoking with chefs: it is itself a kind of culinary pleasure, if a defiant one, and I still miss the activity, if not the cough. So I roll down the windows and we smoke.

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 restaurants serve his fish - and with good reason. His is a slick affair - his warehouse looks more like a surgery or a lab, 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 and a Gold Band Snapper, some Storm Bay Clams. The piece de resistance 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 ford the peak-hour traffic and make our way to Flinders Lane. When I get there, JangYong is already neat as a pin, wearing a crisp white shirt and black tie, and one of those little sailors caps beloved in Japan. I’m not sure how he did this so quickly.

As usual, I’m carrying twice my bodyweight in lights and camera, so they bundle me into the freight elevator and reef across the wire screen. The thing is older than I am, and I’m concerned that this’ll be its final journey – but it’s better than hauling up the stairs.

Behind The Table, Kisume’s high-end omakase offering at which I’d dined (at Holly’s expense) a couple of nights before, is a small kitchen where Shinya has repaired to prep his fish. It’s wonderfully gory: he guys the gurnard and the dory, checking the egg-sack and liver for freshness - which he can tell by sight. “When it’s really, really good, the colour is brighter and it’s not so soft,” he explains. “I won’t use this one.”

Once the fish is gutted, he uses a roll of sharpened bamboo skewers held together with a rubber band to abrade 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 tells me.

The next item of prep is filleting the fish. Today, Shinya-San is doing it, but normally this would be the task of an apprentice chef. “The first thing I learned in sushi was how to fillet the fish. My master checked the quality, how the cutting was, and he says okay. Then he does the sushi,” he explains. “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, unwalked all morning, will have destroyed all the stuff of my life. I once found my heeler, Iggy Pup, chewing on my copy of Iggy Pop’s 1988 album, Instinct. He’s an amazing dog.

Once I return, both Shinya and JangYong are behind the sushi counter, where Chris Lucas is waiting patiently for me. This is all research, by the way: I’m here to experience the craft from the customer’s point of view - and this is the best vantage point possible. See? Research.

Shinya-San is intensely focused when he’s slicing: “I don’t like to cut super-fast. If you cut too fast, it breaks the cells. More gently cutting, the cells are more gently cut and that subtly effects the flavour,” he explains. “I want to concentrate. For me, the way I make sushi: don’t talk to me. I feel like that. For some people, it’s totally different.”

If you ever get the chance to have lunch with Lucas, take it. He’s a man who knows more than a little about a lot of things. Our lunch takes place about a week after the now-infamous New York Times review came out, and in the hospo gossip circles it’s been a hot topic. If you haven’t read it: tl;dr - it’s critical. I’m going to keep Chris’ thoughts about it private – though I will say he’s admirably philosophical – but my own response was crystallised over lunch.

Here’s the thing: Besha Rodell is a fine writer, she undeniably knows her stuff, and I didn’t eat what she did. But as Chef Nakano passed his nigiri over the counter, it occurred to me that about Kisume that can be easily lost in translation. See: among other things, Rodell faults Kisume for not being up to the standards of a strip-mall sushi in LA. But LA this is not - nor is it Kyoto.

Chris Lucas’ restaurants, be they Kong or Chin Chin or Hawker Hall, have never claimed to ‘authentic’: they’re hyper-coloured interpretations of all the things that vibe with him. “What’s authenticity really mean? I don’t think it really necessarily exists because how can we be truly authentic if we’re not in Japan or Tokyo or in Greece,” he explains to me. “David Chang nailed it: there is no temple of authenticity. And no one has the keys to authenticity. What we should be trying to do, in my view, is simply create what’s great in respect to our own cities and countries, what we can produce.”

As much as we vaunt the purity and integrity of Japanese cuisine, its flip side is a deep cultural conservatism that can lead to paralysis. The hint at Kisume is hiding in plain site - Nobuyoshi Araki’s confronting photographs of geishas in bondage. At first I thought they were a distasteful attempt to be ‘controversial,’ until I realised they’re genuinely subversive: here’s a woman in ‘traditional’ costume, bound and gagged while you’re eating. This is actual, real-life art, and it’s not meant to make you feel comfortable. It’s meant to make you examine your expectations.

One of the reasons that Shinya-San is cooking at Kisume is that he knows the art of traditional sushi: and now he wants to do something different. So Kisume, no: it’s not on the same level as Sukiyabashi Jiro – but that’s like criticising Inglorious Basterds for not being The Great Escape. Instead of exoticising Shinya as a Japanese chef doing Japanese food, after getting to know him I reckon it’s better to think of both him and Kisume as Australian.

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.

I genuinely don’t know how chefs do it. Chef Shinya-San has been awake at least as long as I have, and he’s still in the kitchen filling stainless steel containers with intricately-cut garnish ahead of service - and he worked a shift until 12 last night. He looks great. Me? I’m a mess. I’m cranky for days.

But for some reason, since that day, there’s a thought I can’t shake: maybe I’ll just try and find one shift a week in a kitchen…

first published in broadsheet