Hiro Sakai: On a knife's edge

About ten years ago, Hiro Sakai received a visit from a very unpleasant guest. And that changed his life. Today, the sushi master still welcomes all visitors and maintains particularly open communication. We came, ate sushi and talked to the pioneer of the counter style sushi from Frankfurt about his life.
Text Matthias Mederer & Marko Knab
Photo Matthias Mederer · ramp.pictures

Hiro Sakai loves his guests. Except for one. About ten years ago, of all people, one sat down at Hiro Sakai's table that no one wanted. The guest was death, he said. He didn't want anything to eat either, but he had brought something with him: cancer and pain. For Hiro Sakai, who was running five very successful restaurants in Japan at the time, a world collapsed. He then proposed a game to death. The risk of surgery as a gamble, the odds were about fifty-fifty. If at all. Sakai didn't want to be too specific. »I had the surgery right away.« And he won.

You have to know this story to understand this man. Because it's also the reason Sakai opened a restaurant in Frankfurt am Main in the first place: »Cancer changed my self-perception, it transformed me and the way I look at things. Before I had cancer, I thought success was something I earned just by working hard.«

"Cancer changed my self-perception, it transformed me and the way I look at things. Before I had cancer, I thought success was something I earned just by working hard."

Hiro Sakai

If you watch Hiro Sakai and try to follow the movements of his fingers as they shape a bit of rice, you fail. He just lets sushi come into being. It just happens. He doesn't really prepare it at all. And yet nothing happens casually, but with full awareness. Sakai doesn't talk either - although he has entertainer qualities and likes to laugh a lot. Many a Bauhaus idea can also be found in his work: »I am both a culinary artisan and an entertainer. I try to make food a work of art, and I entertain my customers who sit at the counter and watch me prepare sushi.« Sakai continues as he flambés a salmon: »Of course, I still take pride in my work as a chef, but I now consider myself part of society.«

Accurate and determined, he places another batch of sushi on a wooden tray with the others - and talks about the very unique approach he has come to take: »For me, the whole picture includes not only the perfection of the dish, but also the satisfaction of the people eating it. So the whole is only complete when the dish satisfies not only me, but also the guest. For this reason, I try not to rely on my own feelings, but to actively take into account the opinions of others, especially those who are not cooks.«

Which really says it all. But before we start eating everything, there is still one question: What does the master actually eat himself? He looks briefly at the dish on the table, then says: »In the past, eating for my customers was much more important to me than my own diet. But if you don't live healthy yourself, you can't satisfy and convince your customers.« And by that, Hiro Sakai means all customers.

You can read more about what makes his restaurant »THE SAKAI« one of the best sushi restaurants in Europe, which dish the master himself recommends - and where the traditional preparation of sushi comes from - in part two soon. Find the whole feature in rampstyle #24.

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