“Translating” Japanese cuisine for a Local London Clientele at Dinings SW3

The Borough of Chelsea and Kensington is one of London’s most fashionable and affluent districts. Home to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, luxury department store Harrods, and several historic museums, its boutiques, galleries, and restaurants target some of London’s wealthiest visitors and residents. It is not unusual to see supercars parked on its bustling streets. But for those who know, in a quiet residential area away from the shoppers and sightseers, is the unassuming entrance to a unique restaurant.

Chef Masaki Sugisaki behind the sushi counter of Dinings SW3

Dinings SW3, which opened in 2017, is headed by Japanese chef Masaki Sugisaki. From the outside, only some small cherry blossom trees hint at the cuisine on offer here. And inside, apart from some Japanese touches such as a bonsai tree by the sushi counter and Noh masks on the wall, it feels very much part of London.

In fact the impressive building is registered as part of London’s architectural heritage, so Sugisaki could only make certain changes to the interior. Nevertheless, the space has been ingeniously designed with a sushi counter, main dining room, bar, and an outdoor terrace dominated by a huge plane tree that is over 100 years old.

“It doesn’t look like a Japanese restaurant, and that is the part I like,” says Sugisaki. “People feel comfortable.”

From the start, Sugisaki wanted Dinings SW3 to be a relaxed local restaurant, somewhere customers could return to time and again, a place where people from other cultures could appreciate and enjoy Japanese food. He serves cuisine that is a mixture of East and West, fusing Japanese culinary techniques, seasonal ingredients, and European influences – an approach he describes as “translating” Japanese food.

The terrace of Dinings SW3 with its huge 100-year-old plane tree. Photo: David Robson

A career-changing experience

But Sugisaki’s own journey as a chef began far from London, both geographically and in culinary terms. He grew up in the Japanese prefecture of Saitama, near Tokyo, where he worked for his family’s restaurant from the age of 15. By the time he left high school, he had received a thorough training in the traditional and sophisticated Japanese cuisine of kaiseki.

In his early 20s, he traveled to London and worked for several small Japanese restaurants. However, he was “very shocked” by what he found. Due to a lack of Japanese ingredients and staff trained in Japanese cuisine, London restaurants struggled to produce authentic Japanese food; and what they did serve was very expensive. Sugisaki almost gave up his dream to work as a chef in London.

But after a second spell working at his parent’s restaurant in Japan, he returned to the UK. Then, in 2005 he joined the opening team for a Nobu restaurant on Berkely Street, London. His experiences there would greatly influence his culinary philosophy and future career.

At the time, he explains, Japanese restaurants in London did little to help customers engage with a very unfamiliar cuisine. For example, they might describe a dish as “seabass usuzukuri with ponzu.”

“Probably the customer understood seabass and nothing else,” he says.

But Nobu’s radical approach was to take a dish such as usuzukuri (thinly sliced raw fish) and call it “carpaccio,” making it more understandable to Western customers. Flavor profiles were also adapted to Western tastes, another way to “translate” unfamiliar Japanese food.

After three years at Nobu learning all he could, in 2008 he joined the team of another small newly opened restaurant in London.

“It was all about creativity and having fun,” recalls Sugisaki. Alongside an a la carte menu, there were two or three big blackboards with dishes made with seafood supplied by fishermen that day. “An unwritten rule within that project was that I did not repeat the same dish again and again unless a customer asked for it.”

And when Dinings SW3 opened in 2017, Sugisaki again put constant creativity at the heart of the project.

Currently, 90 percent of the restaurant’s staff are non-Japanese, mainly from Europe, bringing their own experience and new ideas. The only rules, he says, are that suggestions for new dishes must reflect the chef’s own culinary background and fit the Dinings SW3 concept.

Sometimes, such creativity can be truly surprising, at least from a traditional Japanese food perspective. Sugisaki mentions a mixologist who wanted to use dashi fish stock in a cocktail. He let them try, and it “didn’t work.” But other experiments such as using soy sauce and miso in Bloody Mary drinks have been more successful and earned a permanent place on the menu.

Masaki Sugisaki instructing a member of staff. Most of Dinings SW3 chefs are from Europe.

The key Japanese ingredients that cannot be replaced

When Sugisaki first arrived in London in the 1990s, obtaining good quality Japanese ingredients was extremely difficult, if not impossible. Soy sauce was limited to one variety produced in the US. The two key ingredients for dashi fish stock, katsuobushi (bonito fish flakes) and kombu (kelp), were unavailable, so most chefs used dried dashi powder.

Almost three decades later, there are numerous suppliers of Japanese ingredients and a far better range. And although Dinings SW3 uses local ingredients when possible, they also source many products from Japan.

“Some of the Japanese ingredients, especially condiments such as good quality soy sauce or miso paste are impossible to replace,” says Sugisaki.

He would like to see an even greater range reach London, and in particular import rules change to allow chefs to source blocks of katsuobushi, rather than just the fish flakes. “It would be a game changer,” he says. “The quality of the dashi is completely different.”

A classic Japanese dish of boiled spinach with sweet sesame soy. Sugisaki has given the dish a twist by adding Japanese tosaka seaweed and a tahini-based vinaigrette. Photo: David Robson

Regenerative fishing methods, zero by-catch, and “gill to tail”

In recent years, many chefs and diners have become concerned about the global fishing industry’s effects on the environment. With this in mind, Sugisaki sources much of the seafood served at Dinings SW3 from day-boats in the South-West of England. He also maintains a personal relationship with the people who catch the fish, going out on boats to check in person whether fishing methods are environmentally friendly.

For example, fishermen may use small nets with holes matched to the size of a specific fish to avoid “bycatch”, a term for the wasteful capture of other species. Or they will use regenerative fishing methods, such as not fishing during the mating season to allow stocks to replenish. Sugisaki often takes restaurant staff to meet the fishermen and see how they catch the fish. Once they realize the hard work involved, they are far less likely to waste food, he says.

Sugisaki is also a passionate advocate for “gill to tail,” a seafood equivalent to “nose to tail.” Both involve using every part of the animal, and have much in common with the traditional kaiseki cuisine philosophy of respecting ingredients and using them to the full.

One of Sugisaki’s recent gill-to-tail creations was a particular surprise for UK diners. During a series of collaborative events with four chefs in coastal regions of the UK, Sugisaki created a dish of turbot. He then served this dish with traditional “hirezake,” warm sake flavored with the leftover turbot fins.

Chilli oil made with Japanese ingredients

Many of the customers at Dinings SW3 hail from the Middle East and have second homes in London. Adapting the Japanese-European cuisine served at Dinings SW3 to Middle Eastern tastes is an interesting challenge, says Sugisaki. He explains that diners often ask for raw chilli, which is certainly not a typical ingredient in Japanese cuisine.

A specially-created chilli oil containing Japanese ingredients. Photo: David Robson

Sugisaki rose to that challenge by creating a Japanese-style oil containing 20 different ingredients. Apart from the chilli itself, these are all Japanese products, such as rice miso powder and bonito flake powder. It is more evidence of Sugisaki’s highly creative approach to Japanese cuisine.

“I purposely don’t set any boundaries for myself,” he says.

He remembers how early in his career he used to worry about what was Japanese food and what was not. But eventually he decided that such thoughts were holding him back.

For Sugisaki, the basics of Japanese cooking include using fresh seasonal ingredients, the knife skills to make best use of those ingredients, and how to build flavor profiles. Cooking overseas allows him to combine his kaiseki cuisine roots with creative freedom. And as ever, ingredients are the key, whether sourced locally or imported from Japan.

“Whatever I create, the foundation is Japanese cuisine anyway,” he says. “The basis of Japanese cuisine is paying respect to the ingredients we consume.”

Masaki Sugisaki outside the entrance to Dinings SW3

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