(Update: Hashida Sushi closed its Mandarin Gallery venue on 15 June 2018, and reopened at 25 Mohamed Sultan Road on 5 October 2018.)
When it comes to sushi chefs, there is one stereotype that reigns supreme: That of the stern-faced, unsmiling sushi master standing behind the counter, watching as his diners dutifully finish everything he serves — because we all know it’s a faux pas to ever reject anything offered during an omakase meal.
Perhaps this image of the intimidating sushi chef has been burned into our collective subconscious, thanks to the likes of Jiro Ono, the famously stoic chef-owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro. In the acclaimed 2011 film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Ono is portrayed as an introverted, austere perfectionist in and out of his restaurant.
Stereotypical notions aside, we didn’t know exactly what to expect when we met up with chef Kenjiro ‘Hatch’ Hashida of Hashida Sushi Singapore for lunch. The first time we interacted with him was over an omakase meal at his posh Japanese restaurant, where we watched as he deftly pressed fish atop perfectly vinegared rice. He occasionally bantered with us, gave advice on how best to savour each dish, and even whipped up a few bonus items. His brow furrowed in concentration, he meticulously plated every dish — starting over if he was unsatisfied with how it looked. Evidently, sushi is serious business.
So we almost didn’t recognise the 38-year-old when he turned up for our lunch at modern Australian restaurant Whitegrass, clad in a flamboyant blue and white suit by Thai label Pattric Boyle, and sporting a jaunty straw hat. Away from the sushi counter and out of his chef’s robe, he could easily be mistaken for an artist or fashion designer. He chirpily greeted us as we stepped into the restaurant — which recently bagged its first Michelin star in June and is among his favourite eateries in Singapore.
Off duty, Hatch was exceptionally chatty and upbeat. “I’ve always been interested in fashion,” he explained. “When I was in my late twenties, I started my own brand called Girluza. I designed t-shirts, bags and pants; I learnt to sew and knit from my mum.”
Make no mistake, Hatch’s heart is first and foremost devoted to his restaurant and the craft of sushi making — one that was passed down from his father Tokio Hashida, the former chef-owner of the original Hashida Sushi in Kachidoki, Tokyo. The Singapore restaurant opened in 2013 and is the establishment’s only overseas outpost; it is run by Hatch with three business partners.
Hatch is currently working on a major project to rebuild and breathe new life into the restaurant in Japan, which closed earlier this year when his father retired. He plans to reconstruct the place using wood from its previous premises, which had remained largely unchanged for some 50 years. This wood carries some significance, as it was originally part of his father’s old home in Aomori Prefecture.
“I want to create an atmosphere that feels like home, like the customer was invited to my house. With lots of wood and an open space, like those you see in sake breweries,” he said, adding that he visits Tokyo every few months to check on things. Another new feature of the revamped restaurant is an intimate tea ceremony room, where a host will guide four customers in the preparation and consumption of matcha, which is paired with a kaiseki meal and desserts.
It’s similar to the concept at the now-defunct Hashida Garo, Hashida Sushi Singapore’s sister restaurant which closed last March after less than a year of operations, because its owners wanted to focus on running the main eatery. Hashida Garo, however, was a more casual venue that showcased only select elements of the tea ceremony ritual. “The one in Japan will be more elaborate. I’m even thinking if it’s possible for us to rent kimonos for the guests to wear during the meal,” said Hatch.
With the renovations already underway, Hatch is hoping to launch the restaurant by end of next year. Its opening, however, means he’ll have to shuttle between his Tokyo and Singapore establishments rather frequently, as he has to helm the sushi counter at both places. As tiring as that arrangement will be, he won’t have it any other way. Completely handing the reins of the Tokyo restaurant to someone else is also out of the question. “It’s about keeping the name of [the restaurant] and the food as a kind of legacy to pass to the next generation. The only one who can carry [this responsibility] is me. Which is why I decided to become a chef,” he said.
Born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, Hatch is the youngest and only son in his family. As a child, he was fascinated and curious about what happened behind the hallowed doors of Hashida Sushi Tokyo — a place his father forbade him and his siblings from entering or even peeking into.
It was only until Hatch was 12, that his father invited him into the restaurant. When he stepped inside, his father simply handed him a towel and asked him to wipe the tables. “After I finished, my father said, ‘Well done. Did you have fun?’ I said yes, and he told me to come in every day from then on, to clean tables. That was my first job,” said Hatch.
It wasn’t just menial chores that he learnt, though. Spending nearly every day inside the restaurant also opened Hatch’s eyes to the processes that went into sushi making. He observed the kitchen staff at work, trying to pick up skills so he too, could one day prepare raw fish on his own. After a year of pleading with the staff about this, one of the chefs finally passed him a knife and told him to try. “I managed to cut the fish [satisfactorily], and they were surprised. Someone told my father, and he later got the staff to teach me proper knife techniques,” said Hatch. “Before that, they always said the fish was expensive, and didn’t let me touch it.”
While Hatch had finally entered the inner sanctum of the restaurant’s kitchen, his apprenticeship was far from over. His role was limited to preparing sashimi and various ingredients, and it wasn’t until he turned 21, that his father was willing to let him actually make and serve sushi to paying customers.
His confidence was boosted after one particular incident, when his father backed him up in front of a customer, who had rejected Hatch’s dish and said he “didn’t want to eat a part timer’s sushi”. When that customer paid the bill, Hashida-san introduced Hatch as his son. “The customer apologised to me. I replied, ‘No need to say sorry.’ Because I understood that people expected a sushi master to prepare their food,” said Hatch.
In the years that followed, he carried on working at the restaurant, and was eventually entrusted with additional responsibilities such as hiring staff and communicating with suppliers. He’d make daily trips to the nearby Tsukiji fish market, where he purchased the freshest catch ranging from tuna to octopus and sea bass. “The market opened at 6:30am and I’d be there to meet with the fishmongers and vegetable sellers to see what I could buy,” he recalled. “Sometimes I’d get things like soft-shell turtle, which we’d slow cook and make into a consommé. There’s a lot of collagen and it’s really nice; Japanese people love it. I don’t serve it in Singapore, though.”
Catering to the masses
After spending a few years working at Hashida Sushi, Hatch decided to introduce a new element to the restaurant: A catering arm, so he could “meet more people and bring new customers to the restaurant”. He told his father that he no longer needed a salary; his only request was that he could leave the restaurant whenever he needed to attend meetings or networking sessions.
Hashida-san agreed, and Hatch began catering for company functions and special occasions, rolling out platters of sushi, salad, and Western-style canapés. He also added macarons to his repertoire, after witnessing how popular they were at an event he cooked for. “Everybody likes sushi, so my counter had a long queue at first. There was a French-Italian spread by another chef, which no one touched because the food was dry. But when that chef replaced his food with macarons, eighty people from my queue left to get them.” he said. “That was when I knew I should learn to make macarons myself.”
He toiled for six months to perfect his macaron recipe, and gave boxes of the sweet confection to a few friends. One of them liked the macarons so much, he ordered 20 boxes — 200 macarons in total. That was when Hatch knew he had a hit on his hands. He began serving complimentary macarons to Hashida Sushi diners, before turning this into an actual business where he took pre-orders and had customers collect them during lunchtime.
To spread the word even further, he also contacted a magazine, and arranged for the colourful pastries to be packaged together with subscribers’ copies of the publication. This tactic worked: He sold more than 200 boxes in a week.
As successful as his catering venture was, Hatch was still restless. He left for Shanghai in 2012 to become the head chef at the now-defunct The Geisha restaurant, but left after a few months as he disagreed with its American executive chef over the menu. So he returned to Hashida Sushi in Tokyo.
But things were about to change, thanks to an encounter with a Singaporean customer in the restaurant. “This man came in, speaking no Japanese. So I talked to him in English while serving him sushi. He liked it and said he’d come back 10 days later with his friends,” recounted Hatch. The customer kept his word. He even visited the restaurant for a third time, during which he suggested that Hatch brought the restaurant concept to Singapore.
“I said, ‘Why not?’ We had our first meeting the next day, and that was when we realised we didn’t even know each other’s names,” said Hatch.
A new adventure
Hashida Sushi Singapore opened its doors in May 2013 at Mandarin Gallery shopping mall. Unlike its rustic, homey flagship in Tokyo, the restaurant is a swanky venue furnished in earth and wood tones, with its sushi counter illuminated by spotlights shining down the back of a wall.
To enter the dining hall, visitors are led through a set of wood panelled doors and down a footpath flanked by rock installations. The restaurant underwent a renovation last year, when it relocated from the second to the fourth floor of the shopping centre. Its interiors have remained largely unchanged, save for an expanded dining area and the addition of two private rooms.
Hatch helmed the sushi counter, serving up omakase meals for lunch and dinner. As with any other omakase restaurant, the dishes depended on seasonal produce, but there were a few signature items such as a rice bowl filled with uni and ikura pearls, as well as otoro sushi. In a nod to his catering days, Hatch sometimes made macarons as a dessert course.
The preparation of the otoro sushi, which remains a staple today, is particularly Instagram-worthy: Hatch brings out a hulking slab of the premium fatty tuna belly, and, right before diners’ eyes, slices off thin slivers of fish. He then delicately places it atop a small mound of rice, so the tuna almost completely covers it. Savoured in one mouthful, it’s a decadent treat with a gorgeous melt-in-the-mouth consistency. This dish is also a signature item at the Tokyo restaurant.
Another similarity that the Singapore outpost shares with its flagship, is its soy sauce. Made using a 135-year-old family secret recipe, it’s a lightly flavoured concoction produced from a blend of eel bones and sake over two to three days. This sauce is gently brushed on select types of sushi such as baby barracuda.
What sets Hatch’s restaurant apart from his father’s, though, is his penchant for intricate, masterfully plated dishes — evidently a manifestation of his artistic inclinations. Each ingredient on the plate is carefully arranged to form an aesthetically pleasing composition, before being garnished with sprigs of vegetables or flowers.
In contrast, the food at Hashida Sushi in Tokyo is simply presented, with minimal adornment. “My father said, ‘If there’s too much decoration, people will say the food looks too different, and cannot enjoy it’. But I think that things are changing. People now enjoy more with their eyes; they take photos before they eat,” said Hatch, adding that his father was supportive of his decision to open the Singapore outpost.
Like many other new restaurants seeking to break into Singapore’s already saturated market, it wasn’t all smooth-sailing during the establishment’s early days. Hatch grappled with hiring staff, as he didn’t have any sushi chef friends here. There was also the challenge of finding the right seafood supplier. Unlike in Tokyo, he couldn’t just send the produce back to the supplier if it wasn’t fresh.
While Hatch’s staffing issue has since been settled and he managed to hire a kitchen team of six over the years, he still occasionally faces difficulties with his Japan-imported produce. Fresh fish is flown in four times a week from Tsukiji market, and twice a week from Kyushu and Hokkaido. “Sometimes the fish cannot be eaten, so I will tell the suppliers not to charge for it. We usually take a picture of [the produce] and send it to them, and they understand.”
Four years on, the restaurant has gained a loyal following, with many repeat customers coming back for its exquisite sushi and sashimi. 2017 has been a particularly busy period, with Hatch taking on collaborations with other chefs such as Ola Cocina Del Mar’s Daniel Chavez (for a Peruvian-Spanish-Japanese omakase dinner in celebration of its fourth anniversary) and Whitegrass’ Sam Aisbett (for a private event by a fashion brand). He also recently returned from a guest chef stint at Italian restaurant Bice Mare in Dubai last month, where he whipped up a six-course dinner.
Next in the pipeline for Hatch are the ongoing renovations at Hashida Sushi Tokyo, as well as upcoming pop-up shops to be launched in Bali and Jakarta next year. Details for the latter are still under wraps.
Outside of work, Hatch enjoys creating art. It’s something he has been interested in since his teens: At 18, he considered becoming a street artist and spent his free time painting postcards and selling them to tourists. He later branched out into designing clothes and bags under a brand named Girluza; cutting, sewing and painting everything himself.
Once, an American man stopped him on the streets of Los Angeles and asked him where he had bought the floral-printed t-shirt he was wearing. “I told him I had designed it, and he said he wanted to buy my shirt. I sold it to him on the spot for US$800 and, in return, he bought me a Snoopy t-shirt from a nearby secondhand shop to wear,” he recalled, laughing. At that time, Hatch was staying in the Southern California city for a year to study English at the University of California, Los Angeles.
He recently teamed up with his friend Takeshi Nagashima to start Pi, a fashion brand offering caps and apparel. The caps, which were made in collaboration with US label New Era, are currently available for sale at 81 restaurant in Tokyo — where Nagashima is chef-owner.
Hatch also loves painting whimsical and wacky works that feature colourful pictures and cut-out words overlaid on closeup photographs of ingredients such as strawberries and mushrooms. In one art piece, an image of clams is plastered with letters that spell out “The Sound of Silence”. It references the eponymous Simon & Garfunkel song and is inspired by the closed clam shells — “like their mouths are shut”.
This penchant for the quirky extends to his choice of iPhone cover, which is emblazoned with an image of chefs Joël Robuchon and Jiro Ono embracing each other. It looks like Star Wars‘ Yoda and Luke Skywalker, he cheekily quipped. He has a whole stash of equally amusing covers, which he designs and orders through an app.
Hatch is a serious foodie as well. When he’s not working or creating art, he’s constantly on the lookout for a new restaurant to try. He frequents Corner House (he’s good friends with its chef-owner Jason Tan and they often meet up for meals together), ramen chain Ippudo, and zi char eatery JB Ah Meng. He also used to visit a now-defunct kopitiam along South Bridge Road for local delights such as roti prata and wonton noodles. “I like everything,” he said.
His favourite restaurant of all time, though, is Whitegrass, which he estimates to have visited at least 10 times. The eatery is a particularly Instagram-worthy spot due to its lovely pastel-hued interiors that differ from room to room. During our lunch, Hatch was impressed by dishes such as black Angus beef with buah keluak purée and shallots, as well as raw shaved Japanese yellowtail with white beetroot, tonburi (a type of seed that’s referred to as land caviar, due to its similar appearance) and smoked organic soy.
The latter was presented in the form of a delicately constructed white rose made from “petals” of fish alternated with pickled and roasted beetroot. This was set atop a bed of tonburi, which had been spruced up with small purple flowers. “It’s beautiful, and it tastes so good,” exclaimed Hatch.
Another favourite dish was Whitegrass’ dessert of shredded milk mixed with Hokkaido milk jelly, ice cream, salted caramel, honey and honeycomb. Sweet and decadent, it is a glorious juxtaposition of textures.
“I like that the food here is modern Australian and [its chef] Sam uses some Chinese ingredients in it. It’s a nice touch to put such a twist on dishes,” he said. “And I love the atmosphere. It always feels welcoming. That’s exactly what I hope to achieve with my restaurants — to make customers feel like they’ve been invited to my house. To make them feel at home.”
Hashida Sushi Singapore, 25 Mohamed Sultan Road, Singapore 238969, +65 8428 8787 (New address)
Whitegrass, 30 Victoria Street, #01-26/27, Chijmes, Singapore 187996, +65 6837 0402