They are almost impossible to tell apart. Yet those who know, know the subtle differences that make them unique individuals.
We aren’t talking about twins, but the two local branches of Shinji by Kanesaka.
The temperature and weight of the sushi pieces crafted are consistent almost to a fault. As is the freshness and the quality of the seafood, specially flown in from Japan. Even the special dipping sauce, blended in-house, is kept to the exact same formulation.
“It’s a very specific taste that defines us,” says Master Chef Oshino Koichiro, who has been with the restaurant for nearly eight years and now oversees the outlet at Carlton Hotel Singapore.
Every single one of their chefs – from master chefs to back kitchen cooks – are shaved bald and sport absolutely no accessories on them. Not even a wedding band. Such monastic similarities make the two restaurants almost indiscernible if not for their décor. The branch at Carlton Hotel is a compact space dressed almost entirely in blonde wood and washi paper. Its St. Regis counterpart features a lofty ceiling and carpeted flooring – traditionalists would gape at this daring, modern touch.
But the differences run deeper than superficial appearances. That seemingly faceless brigade in white, working in uniform focus, is not so uniform after all.
“We are different people. Our hands are of different sizes, of different temperatures. Small things like these make the sushi pieces from each chef different, even if we are following the same techniques.”
– Oshino Koichiro, Master Chef at Shinji Kanesaka (Carlton Hotel Singapore)
Each chef, while following the teachings and principles of award-winning Shinji Kanesaka, is a unique individual with a colourful personality. “We are different people. Our hands are of different sizes, of different temperatures. Small things like these make the sushi pieces from each chef different, even if we are following the same techniques,” shares Oshino.
All are trained to be a keen observer and a quick thinker. From the moment you step into the dining space, you are being watched: who you are with and how you interact with the person, the pace at which you are eating, what you are drinking. Based on their observations, each chef then uses his own judgment and experience to deliver a meal that is pretty much designed for you.
(Left) Master Chef Oshino Koichiro; (Right) Shunsuke Yoshizawa, head chef of Shinji’s St. Regis branch. Photo by Wong Weiliang
“There is no spreadsheet with customer details, or any handbook on how to react to requests and observations. It’s all in our head,” says Oshino, matter-of-fact. So two groups of diners sitting shoulder to shoulder at the sushi counter might order the exact same set, but their dining experience is likely to be different, even if just subtly.
If you’re having a generous amount of full-bodied sake with your meal, for example, the chef might discreetly swap out a white fish for a red one. Or if you appear to be slowing down, they will reduce the rice in subsequent dishes.
Such is the nature of the Shinji experience that regulars choose which outlet to visit based on where the chefs – or even service staff – are stationed.
So while location is a factor – Shunsuke Yoshizawa, the head chef who helms the St. Regis branch, shares that the Carlton Hotel outlet sees more corporate diners who want things quick, while the St. Regis branch sees more affluent travelers happy to linger for a longer meal – it’s all about who you have more rapport or chemistry with.
If you have a stereotypical impression of stern sushi masters reprimanding ignorant diners for not eating sushi pieces the “correct” way, you will be pleasantly surprised to find that the chefs at Shinji are as serious about fun as they are about work.
“There is no spreadsheet with customer details, or any handbook on how to react to requests and observations. It’s all in our head.”
– Master Chef Oshino Koichiro
Anybody who has witnessed a celebration at the restaurant will know the antics the chefs put up when the birthday candles come out.
“I don’t like serious chefs,” declares Oshino, who hand-picked his opening team when the Shinji first opened its doors in 2010. “Serious chefs cannot enjoy their life and work.”
Yoshizawa puts it succinctly, “The Shinji experience is defined by the people. And by that, I don’t just refer to the chefs.”
From the master chef crafting a piece of sushi to suit that Bordeaux you’ve opened, to the service staff who ensures that your cup is never empty and your tea never cold, they are all working towards Kanesaka’s vision: to create a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience, every single time.