There is always something inscrutable about sushi chefs. They maintain an aloof distance behind the counter, carefully taking their seafoody bounty out from treasure boxes to inspect and putting them back again; brandishing their knives in ponderous silence; communing with vinegared rice in a secret language of the hands and eyes. As a diner, you sit in hushed reverence, keenly aware of the privilege of partaking of a sushi master’s skill and trying not to knock your tea over.
But at Hashida, where chef Kenjiro Hashida is celebrating his 10th anniversary in Singapore this year, there is little best-behaviour ceremony. No matter how genteel the restaurant’s interiors may be, the 44-year-old’s laid-back nature, funny little fortune-cookie-style messages on the chopstick wrappers, and occasional dad joke delivered in a booming voice all put guests at home.
At dinner one evening, a waitress politely pointed out to my co-diner that the spoon she was using for her soup was in fact meant for another dish, and that spoons are not used for soup in traditional Japanese dining. Hashida, overhearing from behind the counter, immediately grabbed a second spoon and pushed it into her hand, insisting she should do as she felt comfortable.
Ten years in Singapore have also earned Hashida – or “Hatch”, as he’s known to friends – plenty of local pals and some local tastebuds. He readily rattles off the names of food stalls he loves visiting – Mr and Mrs Mohgan’s Super Crispy Roti Prata; Da Dong Prawn Noodles; Ah Hua Teochew Fishball Noodles. “I also like bak kut teh – the herbal one.” And, in true Singaporean fashion, he also has a few pet peeves, such as the use of “not bad” to describe something good.
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN
One might say his destiny was carved out for him even before he was born, as the only son of one of Tokyo’s most well-respected sushi chefs and a descendant in a line of fishermen. He was first given a knife at the age of three, when he told his mother he wanted to recreate his favourite teacher’s favourite dish of cucumber slices dipped in miso paste.
Although he says his father never pressured him into becoming his successor, Hashida Senior did train his son in the way of fish from a young age. When young Hatch returned from school, for instance, there’d be a portion of sun-dried, grilled kamasu waiting for him, and a challenge to pick the bones clean in the shortest time possible. Or, he’d be made to stand behind a Tsukiji fishmonger for five days straight in order to learn how to prepare bonito in the most masterful way. He was also trotted out to meet his father’s friends at the restaurant.
But, as a child growing up in Tsukiji market, where his grandmother ran a gourmet provisions shop, young Hatch was always breaking out of the mould.
After his mother declined to buy him the air gun that all his friends had, he had a lightbulb moment when one of the little turret trucks that constantly zoomed around the market knocked him over. Lying on the ground next to a vending machine, his line of vision revealed a wealth of lost coins under the machine. He then drew a map of all the vending machines in the area and formed a consortium of school friends to harvest the bounty. His mother wondered where the brand new air gun she saw him brandishing had come from.
As a youth, sushi was the last thing on his mind. Instead, he’d wanted to be an artist. He was called into the school office when, instead of faithfully reproducing the likeness of a live model during art class, he painted a green sun instead. He thought he’d be getting in trouble, but unexpectedly, he was proclaimed talented. Sadly, the art teacher at his next school didn’t agree; and he also flunked the entrance examination for an art college because he didn’t follow the standard conventions of faithfully reproducing an apple.
But the one actor whose movies Hatch loved best was Johnny Depp. During his year studying English in Los Angeles, he’d sit by the window in the Starbucks on Hollywood Boulevard, overlooking red carpet events.
By a wondrous twist of fate, he actually got his chance to meet Depp when a friend of a friend who worked at Time Magazine offered him a reporter’s pass to the premiere of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. The two didn’t speak, but Hatch did motion to Depp to adjust his collar for the photos, and Depp nodded back in thanks. It was a “wow” moment, he recounted.
Listening to Hatch’s stories, I had the idea that I could be here all day, all month, and there would still be no end to his tales.
MUSTAFA AND MONAKAS
For instance, diners have the experience of watching a huge slab of tuna brought out, and Hatch carving slices out of it for sushi – a signature style of his father’s. The palate-cleansing pickled ginger slices are also his father’s recipe.
Instead of serving seasonal fruits for dessert, though, he started getting into pastry (he once ate nearly 300 macarons in a week in a quest to make them) and his current menu features a hojicha black pepper macaron as well as a lemon nasu tiramisu comprising eggplant layered with honey lemon jelly, lemon vanilla oil, and house-made vanilla ice cream.
Speaking of pastries, he once created a Merlion-shaped kaya, miso, white bean paste and white chocolate monaka as a gift for his mother, using a Merlion figurine he bought at Mustafa Centre to shape the mould.