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Pro tips: How to shop like a Michelin chef
We hit Tokyo with a group of Michelin-starred chefs, kicking off with sushi and beer for breakfast
At 6 a.m. on an overcast morning in late May, I found myself fumbling with the pink shell of a raw amaebi shrimp at the Tsukiji fish market in central Tokyo.
Unlike the seven chefs I’d accompanied there, I’d stabbed my fingers repeatedly on the crustacean’s spiny carapace before exposing its translucent flesh and popping the tail -- tiny black eggs and all -- into my mouth.
David Faure, of the Michelin-starred restaurant Aphrodite in Nice, France, plucked a fat specimen from the Styrofoam bin and nodded his approval. “Very sweet,” he said.
“I’d prefer it with a little olive oil and some salt,” quipped Tokyo-based chef Luca Fantin, whose restaurant, Bulgari Il Ristorante, earned its first star this year. “But I usually have cappuccino at this time of day.”
Faure, together with his wife and business partner, Noelle, and three chefs from Spain -- Erlantz Gorostiza, the talented young chef of M.B in Tenerife; Ismael Alonso, second-in-command at Sergi Arola in Madrid; and line chef Miguel Gimeno -- had come to Tokyo to shop for culinary inspiration.
The night before, they’d ridden the bullet train from Shin-Osaka Station with Toine Hoeksel, executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton Osaka, to join Fantin and Kiyonari Araki, of Azure 45 in the Ritz-Carlton Tokyo, for a guided tour of the world’s most celebrated fish market.
The European chefs were in Japan to participate in the first annual Asian Pacific Food and Wine Festival at the Ritz-Carlton Osaka, a month-long event featuring special dinners with Michelin-starred chefs from across the globe.
However, my time in such exalted company was limited -- they’d be heading back to Kansai after lunch.
Tsukiji is a place of dizzying chaos, where carts stacked with crates of squirming eels and an array of sea creatures you’ve likely never seen before whiz by a mile a minute. For chefs, it’s destination number one.
“In Europe, you don’t get live fish unless you catch it yourself,” Gimeno remarked, stopping to snap a photo of tairagai shellfish as big as dinner plates.
By the time we’d arrived, just past 5 a.m., the tuna auction was well under way.
We stood on the sidelines, behind the auctioneer, and watched as merchants bid on whole tuna worth tens of thousands of dollars with a flash of their fingers.
Traveling with chefs has its perks. You get to see and taste things that regular consumers rarely do.
More on CNNGo: Our insider guide to Tsukiji market
Inside the market, we visited a wholesaler who demonstrated the notoriously difficult ikejime technique -- a shock-and-awe method for dispatching live fish that originated in Japan but which is gaining popularity with chefs abroad.
The process involves quickly paralyzing the fish to minimize the bleeding and also the pain.
After two swift chops -- one behind the gills and another at the base of the tail -- the fishmonger inserts a spike directly into the fish’s brain.
It’s gory-sounding business, but ikejime ensures a cleaner-tasting fillet.
David Faure recorded the spectacle on a tiny camera about the size of a Rubik’s Cube.
Recently, he’s been able to source live fish, which he marinates for 24 hours in a mixture of salt, olive oil and herbs, from a small producer in Nice.
“I’m going to study this video and try it in France,” he announced.
Summer is squid season in Japan. At another booth, a merchant uncovered a box filled with creamy-skinned, live aori ika (Bigfin reef squid) that change color when touched.
Running his finger down the animal’s back, Gorostiza traced a dark line, as though drawing on a living Etch A Sketch.
On our way to the vegetable auction, we stopped to sample the freshest scallops I’ve ever eaten, still quivering in their shells and redolent of the sea.
Fantin leaned over and asked, “You got any olive oil in that bag?”
By 6:45 a.m., we were ready for a proper breakfast: Sushi and beer.
The young chef behind the bar at Ryuzushi worked quietly and with precision, placing a steady stream of nigirizushi on the counter in front of us.
Between the succulent akagai (conch shell) and the tender anago (eel), the chefs grilled me on my "signature dish.” Chefs always joke about wanting you to cook for them. Always.
Eager to change the topic, I poured more beer and asked, “Do you make it a point to explore the food culture of the places you visit?”
“I’ve been fortunate to do quite a bit of traveling and working in other countries,” Toine Hoeksel replied. “In order to keep your product relevant, you have to understand the culture of the people.”
“I get loads of ideas that way -- in terms of presentation, cooking methods and flavors.”
Most of the chefs chose the aji horse mackerel, served with a dab of grated ginger and scallions, as their favorite, but Faure couldn't decide.
“It feels like I’ve had sushi for the first time,” he said.
We stepped outside just in time to catch the tail end of Tokyo’s first annular solar eclipse in decades.
More on CNNGo: Tsukiji fish market in action
As we strolled through Tsukiji’s outer market, Gorostiza purchased bags of kombu seaweed, katsuo-bushi dried fish flakes and a thick slice of tamago-yaki, a sweet, rectangular omelet.
The seaweed, he explained, will be placed in a coffee press to make the dashi broth for a dish of tuna escabeche he serves at his Michelin-starred restaurant, M.B, in Spain.
He got the idea on his last trip to Tokyo, when he spent a week studying Japanese cuisine at Hattori Nutrition College.
“Japanese culture -- the people, cuisine and tradition -- have been important to me all my life,” he said.
For Gorostiza and the other Spanish chefs, the shopping spree really began at Kappabashi, a street filled with specialty shops selling restaurant supplies, plastic food models and knives.
By 10:30 a.m., Gorostiza, Alonso, and Gimeno had already purchased a salt meter, long bamboo chopsticks used for stir-frying and several engraved knives as souvenirs.
At cutlery shop Tsubaya, though, they got serious.
An hour passed and Gorostiza was still haggling with the clerk. Gimeno added a Sugimoto meat knife and a Misono fish knife to the pile of blades Gorostiza had set aside.
“This is the most exciting part of our visit to Tokyo,” Gimeno told me. “I’ve been dreaming of this day.”
The bill came to over ¥300,000 (US$3,800). Last time, Gorostiza said, he spent more than ¥1,000,000.
A dash of crazy
For lunch, everyone convened at the swanky Bulgari Il Ristorante in Ginza, where Fantin had prepared a feast.
One of the dishes consisted of fresh green peas, mint and raw aori ika, meticulously scored to give it a meltingly smooth mouthfeel.
Fantin had learned the cutting technique from Seiji Yamamoto of Ryugin, where he worked when he first came to Japan.
“We were just talking about Yamamoto-san’s way of cutting aori ika this morning,” I observed.
“Luca changed his menu when he saw the fresh squid at the market,” Hoeksel replied.
The food was stunning, and it went terribly well with the magnum of Chardonnay from Sicily that we were drinking.
The chefs realized they’d missed their scheduled train.
Although there was work waiting for them when they returned that evening (they had to create their own version of okonomiyaki, the savory pancakes that are a specialty of Osaka), no one seemed to mind.
“To work as a chef is a privilege,” Gorostiza said with a smile, before adding, “but we are a little bit crazy.”
Getting to Tsukiji
Either: Take the Hibiya Metro line, alight at Tsukiji and use Exit A2. Walk straight to Harumi Dori, cross the street and then make a left and cross again. This will put you on Monzeki Street, the beginning of the outer market.
Or: Ride the Oedo line to Tsukijishijo and use Exit A1. Once on the street, turn left and, at the first corner, turn left again. Outside of A1 there is a fantastic map of the market in English.
The market is closed on Sunday, public holidays and some Wednesdays, so check the official Tsukiji website before you go.
We also visited
Bulgari Il Ristorante, Bulgari Ginza Tower 9/F, 2-7-12 Ginza, Chuo-ku, +81 (0) 3 6362 0555. www.bulgarihotels.com
Cutlery Tsubaya, 3-7-2 Nishi Asakusa, Taito-ku, +81 (0) 3 3845 2005. Open 9 a.m.-5:45 p.m. (5 p.m. on Sunday). e288.jp
Also Ryuzushi, 5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, +81 (0) 3 3547 6894. Open 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (closed Sunday).
More on CNNGo: Tokyo 2012 ultimate dining guide