Narito Ishii and the Rarefied World of Omakase

The Sydney-based chef inspires either fandom or fear depending on whether you’re tasting his seafood or trying to sell it to him.

Article by David Matthews

The fish handler Narito Ishii slices through a belly loin with a specialty knife known as a maguro kiri bocho. Photography by Rob Palmer.

Before this tuna lay cold on the bench, it swam laps across the Pacific, around Australia and New Zealand, up the coast of Mexico and back through to the Arafura Sea, where it was spawned. An annual migration of about 15,000 kilometres, done at speed, its torpedo shape cutting through the ocean, gills pumping seawater. By the time it came to rest here, it would have made the loop two, maybe three times — enough to pack on kilos, but not enough to reach maturity — until somewhere off New Zealand it snagged on a longline or found itself encircled by seine nets. Its brain would have been spiked, a wire run down its spine to stop the nerves firing and ice packed around its body. When it finally landed at Sydney Fish Market, tuna buyers would have pored over it in the early morning at auction, Narito Ishii making the winning bid.

Now, hours later, Ishii stands over the fish in a packed room. The crowd, here for a charity cutting show and auction, is baying for toro. Music pumps as Ishii readies his knife. “My name is Narito,” he says, then gestures to the man standing next to him. “And this is a superstar sushi chef from Sushi Oe.” Alongside him Toshihiko Oe, who runs a six-seat sushi counter in Cammeray in Sydney’s north, flashes finger hearts around the room. When the auction starts, frantic bidders will pledge thousands of dollars to get a taste of the choice cuts. “No sushi no life” reads Ishii’s T-shirt, and as he hoists a bluefin loin into the air, it’s met with wild applause.

Ishii and his workers show off the catch of the day. Photography by Rob Palmer.
Ishii lifts a 55-kilogram southern bluefin tuna. Photography by Rob Palmer.

Few, if any, fish handlers hold this level of public affection (in fact, few suppliers do at all, unless your name is Dario Cecchini). But for Ishii, this warm glow of attention reflects onto him from a close network of Sydney chefs, each with their own intimate omakase restaurants serving, among soup courses and palate cleansers, course after course of sushi to scores of fanatics who book their seats months in advance. While Attica might make a centrepiece of tomatoes and waiters at Quay might relay the provenance of purple corn, a supplier’s contribution to a meal at these restaurants might amount to a couple of bites. For these sushi chefs, the medium is just fish and rice. And for fish — their fish — there’s no-one better than Ishii.

Fishing, says Ishii, runs in his family, even if his father broke the streak. “My father’s brothers — there are five brothers — every one used to be a fisherman. Lobster fishermen, normal fishermen, their grandpa was a fisherman,” says Ishii. His dad, though? “He was a captain on a passenger cruise.” In Kagoshima, Japan, where Ishii grew up, boats frequently cast out from the southwest tip of Kyushu into the bay and beyond, under the shadow of Sakurajima, the city’s emblematic volcano.

Ishii presents a cross-section of a bluefin belly loin. Photography by Rob Palmer.

Food wasn’t a particularly noteworthy aspect of Ishii’s childhood, but he has memories of his father cracking open wild sea urchins and spooning the roe onto rice for lunch. Rather than follow his family’s path, when he hit 19 Ishii moved to Tokyo. “I was doing so many jobs,” he says. “In Japan we call it ‘freeter’, which means you change job all the time — always part-time, never working permanently.” A few years later, in 1998, wanting to learn English, Ishii weighed up a move to the United States, but instead chose Sydney. There he scored a delivery job for a seafood wholesaler that supplied Japanese restaurants, and developed long, sometimes painful, relationships with some of the city’s best Japanese chefs.

John Susman, a veteran seafood consultant who has worked with Ishii for nearly two decades, thinks his timing couldn’t have been better. “We had this explosion of Japanese food in Sydney 20 years ago,” he says. “So Narito’s certainly been mentored and tutored — and probably beaten — by some of the best Japanese chefs in Australia over that period.” Beaten isn’t far off the mark. “All the chefs were like that, screaming at me if a delivery was late or something,” says Ishii. “But now, they’re my friends. They taught me, actually, how to be like me now. They were very strict, but now I’m really thankful.”

After the auction, bluefin tuna chill on ice, awaiting grading. Photography by Rob Palmer.

These days the roles are reversed, with Ishii having built his own company, employed his own buyers and then stepped into a position with a parent company with which he maintains his local clients and also grades tuna for export. The knowledge he has accumulated, the relationships he has built and the sheer tonnage of fish he has cut and tasted have established him as the country’s foremost expert on Japanese-style fish.

“I rate him very much as probably the tuna master of Australia,” Susman says. “He really does have an intimate knowledge of, but also an intimate love for, that particular species. But I’d also say that he has a broad repertoire of knowledge across not just fish, but also shellfish.” Ishii posts the spoils of auction on his Facebook page; rich in their variety, they include blue mackerel from Wollongong, hairtail from Coffs Harbour and imperador from New Zealand. “There’s a whole suite of fish that would still probably be at the lower end of the demand cycle if it hadn’t been for the work that Narito had done with his posse of Japanese chefs,” says Susman.

The past 18 months have, more than ever, propelled omakase restaurants into the mainstream, with the demand for luxury experiences growing among those who can afford them, combining with Covid-19 rules that have seen restaurants that can cater to fewer guests, and charge more, flourish. Add to that the fact that some of the best local fish and shellfish are now being kept in Australia, and there has never been a better time to be in the sushi business. Or to be the guy supplying it.

Ishii comes alive in the company of the city’s best sushi chefs, relaxed and joking one moment (“I caught him playing Candy Crush once at the auction,” says Chase Kojima, the executive chef at Sokyo), deadly serious the next. And he’s at his most serious when he dines at his clients’ restaurants. “They’re really scared when I come. I want to know how they do my fish and if they’re using it the wrong way,” says Ishii. “When I supply fish, they can complain. But when I go to their restaurants, I pay money, so I tell them whatever I want.” Kojima confirms with a sharp nod. Wherever he goes, Ishii brings a discerning palate. A few hours after I first spoke to him, he texted me a line-up of empty bottles: rare Piper-Heidsieck, Krug, sake, a couple of 1986 Pauillacs. “Wine for tonight,” it read.

Ishii presents a cross-section of a bluefin belly loin. Photography by Rob Palmer.

As a menu item, bluefin tuna is the thing that marks the climax of any omakase — first akami, the deep red part of the loin, then chu-toro (the centre, shot through with fat) and finally the o-toro (the belly). A few generations ago, sport fishermen had trouble selling tuna even for pet food, while in Japan, o-toro was often reserved for cats. Nowadays, these single slices of fish over rice are the thing diehards clamour for and chefs throw thousands at.

Place a piece in your mouth, taste the lightly seasoned grains of rice, the fish brushed with tare, and no matter your opinion on eating threatened species — and southern bluefin is among the most threatened, as much as Ishii and his clients might shrug and point to quotas and tagging systems — there’s almost no single bite that’s more revelatory, more purely delicious. It’s that moment that keeps Ishii and his clients in work.

It’s also what keeps Ishii getting up at 3am. The hope that no matter how many thousands of fish he’s cut, the next one will be better. “Even the same fish — today and tomorrow, it’s never, ever the same,” he says. “I’ve cut so many salmon that I don’t want it. But tuna, I can cut, cut, cut. The smell, the taste — it’s so good, I can eat it every day.” Ask him about the future and his thoughts turn to luring travellers from Japan to show off Australia’s sushi, and plans to open his own restaurant.

When Ishii cuts a tuna, he is both matter-of-fact and fiercely attentive. He starts with the tail, sawing it off to examine the bands of flesh where the four loins meet. A bad tuna, Ishii says, is dark and has a dullness to it, with little to no visible fat, whereas a good fish, usually also more rounded in the midsection, fades to white at the edges. He’s happy with what he sees, so he takes a filleting knife and slits the skin close to the dorsal fin, peeling off a strip and then running the blade along the spine to open up the back. After easing off a loin, he reaches for his maguro kiri bocho — a long knife with a wooden handle forged specially for tuna — then spins the fillet crossways, cleaves it and turns it to expose the flesh.

There are no words from Ishii. Just a glance, a sharp “hmm”, a nod and a gentle smile. This is a good fish.

A version of this article appears in print in our third edition, Page 86 of T Australia with the headline:
‘King Fish’
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Western Australian Chef Colin Wood’s Passion For Cheesemaking

A drive for sustainability and communicating care through food combine in his experiments with cheese.

Article by Emma Pegrum

Chef Colin Wood’s passion for positive change in the food industry has deepened, and cheesemaking has become his medium. Photography by Colin Wood.

When chef Colin Wood was busily dishing out polished plates at some of New York’s most respected restaurants, he might not have guessed he’d soon find himself back in his home city of Perth, willingly elbow-deep in milk curd. Wood was one of a growing number of Australian chefs in New York making their mark on the culinary culture of one of the world’s gastronomic centres; in his case, as culinary director for It-chef Ignacio Mattos at his dining hotspots Estela, Flora Bar and Café Altro Paradiso. Last year, Wood left the city for a job in Melbourne, where he’d previously spent over a decade working with Andrew McConnell, one of the city’s seminal chefs, and with chefs Matt Stone and Jo Barret at Oakridge Winery. But when coronavirus arrived, he and his wife wound up contained to his Mum’s Perth home with nothing but time.

Not one to remain idle, Wood dove into a craft he’d spent the past fifteen years exploring, but never mastering: cheesemaking. Using single-herd Guernsey cow milk from a small farm just outside the city, Wood started making fresh fromage blanc, ricotta and halloumi, and a list of other products that see every last scour of milk utilised. It’s a culmination of sorts, and a relaunch pad. Wood doesn’t like waste. He’s spent much of his career trying to improve the sustainability of kitchens he’s graced – not always an easy feat. Returning home became an opportunity to recharge that purpose through cheese.

Wood’s life as a chef is born less from a love of food than from an infatuation with high-stakes environments. Photography by Emma Pegrum.

Wood’s life as a chef is born less from a love of food than from an infatuation with high-stakes environments. It’s a love derived from his time as an elite gymnast from age four until sixteen, when Wood’s Olympic dreams were abruptly shattered by a serious back injury. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life,” Wood says. “I was lost.” A lucky stroke landed him an opportunity to work with a friend’s chef brother. “I walked into the kitchen and the loudness, the discipline, the pace, the focus, the team – it was so familiar. That was it. It wasn’t about a love of food.”

When Wood was training at the Western Australian Institute of Sport, sometimes six hours a day with school in between, food was nothing but fuel. “I kind of resented food if anything,” he says. “It was all about the environment. The pursuit of excellence in kitchens always resonated with me.” But as his career progressed, Wood sought to make food with more feeling. His first major job was at McConnell’s pioneering Cumulus Inc., a farm-to-table all-day diner. It was there, in 2008, Wood started to think closely about where produce came from and how to use it properly.

Not long after, Wood first began experimenting with cheesemaking, through which he’d become invested in learning a zero-waste, sustainable approach to food. After a decade with McConnell, Wood took a position as co-head chef at Mattos’ incoming Upper East Side restaurant Flora Bar and, while waiting for his US visa, he spent six months establishing an in-house cheese program at Oakridge. Stone had located a small biodynamic dairy farm a short drive from the restaurant; it ticked all the boxes for truly good cheese. Experimenting with fresh and aged styles, Wood was dismayed with how much of the milk went to waste (around fifty per cent, he says), and started exploring uses for whey, the by-product of cheesemaking. Today, Wood’s process utilises 100 per cent of the milk with which it begins.

Photography by Emma Pegrum.
Whey ricotta made with the remaining whey from the cheese making process. Photography by Emma Pegrum.

It wasn’t necessarily New York’s frenetic pace that prompted Wood’s return to Australia, but he was opting for a greater intentionality of sorts. “New York is such a competitively-paced city that if you sleep, someone is going to get in front of you,” he says. “That pushes you forward, but your inspiration and creativity come in decompressing from the day, not mid-service.” And the busyness of Mattos’ restaurants – though they had a strong sustainable ethos – also made it near-impossible to embody zero-waste principles in such a complex supply chain. “We worked hard on sustainability initiatives there,” Wood says. “A lot of good stuff is happening in New York, but it can be really difficult to see the wider impact – and a lot of it is just buzzwords and bullshit.”

For Wood, returning home and reconnecting with his roots has been an emotional balm for the wounds of a time spent in high-velocity kitchens; a chance to flush the system. He found himself looking back on Friday lunches at his grandmother’s house, when she’d cook dishes full of love with produce from her garden. “The restaurant scene is really built on capitalism,” he says. “But food is really about nourishment and caring for people.” Here, at the intersect of his deep-seated discipline and passion for communicating care through food, lies Wood’s true gift.

Wood's homemade halloumi, fried and topped with olive oil. Photography by Emma Pegrum.

In being forced to slow – first by the pandemic and then by a knee injury that prevented him from working – Wood’s passion for positive change in the food industry has deepened, and cheesemaking became his medium. “I’ve been more inspired to educate people here about doing the right thing,” Wood says. On Instagram, he meticulously documents his dairy exploits and shares an uber-honest dialogue about his own learning journey. “I have a long way to go, but I am committed to being better, to confronting and trying to solve problems,” he says.

Soon, he’ll be back in a kitchen somewhere, putting those lessons on plates. Physically, he says, he’s slowed down – but his purpose as a chef has intensified. He’s hungrier than a sixteen-year-old gymnast, and even more determined. “We left New York because we wanted to regain control over our lives,” Wood says. “I am cautious of going back to big hospitality groups where it’s so hard to enact and see change. If I can start somewhere small and grow with people that care about sustainability, including how this industry treats those within it, that’s a step in the right direction.”