Love, when it’s real and lasting and running deep in the veins, isn’t always pretty. It’s the love London’s most lauded Japanese chef expresses to fish with a swift spike to the back of the head, followed by the insertion of a piece of wire along the length of the spinal cord, which is then aggressively jerked until the nerves that communicate with the rest of the body are irrevocably severed.
It isn’t pretty, but—just as it seems to be with everything else to which Yoshinori Ishii turns his hands—there is a crisp, efficient beauty to the process. Most importantly for Ishii, this method of killing, called ikejime, is kinder to the fish and finer for the diner. The reason ikejime is such a well-established custom in Japan is because it makes for firmer, fresher fish that retains its texture and even looks nicer on a sashimi plate: its clean, glasslike fillets being unmarred by bloodstains or blemishes.
For five years Ishii has been head chef at Umu, the Mayfair restaurant devoted to the traditional Japanese formal dining style called kaiseki. When he was a child he loved to make things with his hands and enjoyed fishing. In his teens he realised he liked working in kitchens, and so in 1989 after graduating from high school, he enrolled at a branch of Japan’s best-known cookery school, working nights frying fish. He went on to work at fabled kaiseki restaurant Kitcho in Kyoto—which came top of a recent survey of the world’s most expensive places to dine—then became the chef-in-residence for the Japanese Embassy at the UN, first in Geneva and then in New York, where he later moved to a special role at “Iron Chef” Masaharu Morimoto’s eponymous upscale Japanese joint. During this time Ishii also managed to cultivate his prodigious talents at flower arranging, pottery and woodblock printing, as well as his love of fishing and farming.
“When it’s been killed with ikejime and kept in an ice freezer, the next day, the meat still moves – not alive, but the meat doesn’t know it’s dead.”
It was his arrival in London, in 2010, that transformed him from an attentive expert into a public ikejime evangelist. “When I was in New York I could receive live fish, and I could get fish three times a week from Japan,” he recalls. But in London the first thing he realised when he encountered “sushi-grade fish” was that in Japan or New York “you wouldn’t eat that fish – not even for staff meal! We’d throw it away.” Frankly, London’s fish stank.
Once he was installed as head chef at Umu, Ishii refused to believe that nothing could be done about the inferior quality of fresh fish in the UK. He couldn’t simply import the fish he needed from Japan, because of EU regulations. Ishii doubted suppliers who insisted that he was getting the freshest and finest fish, but when he arranged to look in their fridges, he realised they had been telling the truth: he was already getting the best they had to offer. But this wasn’t good enough. He decided he had to go beyond London to track the lack of freshness closer to the source.
Ishii started his detective work, visiting some of England’s ports where he would ask: “What is today’s fish?”, to which her received some dispiriting answers. Big boats went out for two or three days at a time, often throwing new fish onto old catches, and leaving them to gasp to death under the sunlight. Then, middlemen would often sit on their stocks for two or three more days to take advantage of an escalating market price. “This is happening by the shore,” he recalls, still amazed, “so what chance do I have? If we get ‘fresh fish’ delivered in London, it might be a week old.”
“Unlike so many kaiseki chefs, he didn’t want to solve his problem by importing Japanese ingredients on a decadent scale”
Having solved the mystery of the bad fish, Ishii needed to grapple with the culinary repercussions. Unlike so many kaiseki chefs, he didn’t want to solve the problem by importing Japanese ingredients on a decadent scale, something many high-end Japanese chefs—including his precursors at Umu— were famous for (one had even been know to import water from Kyoto). Instead Ishii wanted to embrace the local, seasonal ethos of contemporary, ultra-luxe kaiseki, and see the island he was living on supply fish worthy of its waters. In 2012, he wrote to UK line-fishing associations and authorities with a two-page manifesto and request for help that he called “Revolution of Fish and Chips!” In it he compares Japanese and UK methods of killing and keeping fish and points out the higher prices Japanese line fisherman get for their better-tended catches. At this stage no mention was made of ikejime: Ishii didn’t want to scare off the uninitiated, but he did want to encourage them to start thinking about providing fresher fish, and getting greater financial rewards for doing so.
Over the following months he established ties with several Cornish fishing towns and villages, slowly starting to work with fishmongers and fishermen to secure catches from the country’s waters in the best condition he could: line-caught from boats that only went out for a day at a time, with ice on board to keep the fish fresh. His biggest Cornish supplier, in St Ives, now has an ice-making room so that its stocks can be stored in the same way Ishii keeps his at Umu: at a gentle chill of 2-3°C by the power of frequently refreshed ice alone.
These things all help, but it is in the name of the swift, surgical process of ikejime that Ishii has been most tireless in his crusade. He’s made repeated trips out to sea to show Cornish fishermen how to kill fish instantly. Every few weeks he undertakes one of these journeys to far-flung coastal towns, and since late 2014 he’s also been building a relationship with fishermen on the Algarve, after the luxury resort Vila Vita Parc asked him to come and help them source better fish.
“Fishermen know Yoshinori will take unusual specimens, and they also know he’ll pay them 50 percent more again if they take the two or three minutes required to kill them ikejime style.”
So far the work has been worthwhile: like the Cornish fishermen, Ishii says, those on the Algarve have a traditional connection with the sea, with small boats and line fishing. And by building relationships with them, Ishii has accessed fresher and more unusual fish than he would otherwise be able to get. From deep Portuguese waters there are the prized alfonsino and stone bass. From Cornwall’s secret fishing spots he now uses the striped gurnard—a clean-tasting species that has recently enjoyed a revival in British waters—and the cuckoo wrasse, a beautiful variety whose flavour he raves about, and whose blue-and-orange skin makes it look like it hails from the tropics. Fishermen know Ishii will take these unusual specimens, and they also know he’ll pay 50 per cent more if they take the two or three minutes required to kill them ikejime style.
“Do that,” he says, putting his hand on an imaginary fillet, “and the next day the flesh still moves – it’s not alive, but the flesh doesn’t know it’s dead. With normal fishing the fish dies very slowly on the boat, and the flesh gets a signal from the spine: ‘we’re dead, we need to die.’”
Ishii says he knows that all fish can’t be caught according to the ikejime method, but he still wants to encourage others to understand it. Not only so he can get more of the high quality fish he prizes, but also because he’s certain it expresses a more thoughtful approach to valuing the fish we eat. “If people are interested in ikejime, it might be because they’re interested in life, in the life of the fish.”
At the moment most UK chefs would see a sea bass that had ikejime cuts in its head and tail as compromised—mutilated, even—instead of appreciating it as a fresher, firmer product. So currently if Ishii doesn’t buy an ikejime–killed fish, the fisherman that went through all the effort might not be able to sell it at all.
Despite Ishii’s attentive nature, this great ikejime tutor can’t actually remember his own first time. “For me that was like nature. I liked fishing, but I didn’t like killing animals.” He says he had to kill them, though, to land food. “Maybe when I was a child I was thinking: If I need to kill them, instead of putting them in the cooler box with a lot of stress, where it takes them an hour to die, what if I kill them instantly?” It was perhaps when wrestling with this dilemma that Ishii picked up an awareness of the method from the grown-up fishermen around him. “That’s why, when I was a child, I had a small knife and I’d kill the fish ikejime, and put them into the ice box straight away.”