We spoke to executive chef Hideki Hiwatashi of Sake No Hana, THE hot Japanese dining spot

What makes London such a special place to live is the diverse cultures and access to world renowned food. Never before have we been in such a lucky position to be able to experience such vibrant and other-worldly flavours in spots just steps from our front doors. We have places like Sake No Hana and chefs like Hideki Hiwatashi to thank for this.

Until June 18th, this St James’ central Japanese restaurant is celebrating the national arrival of Spring known as Sakura. With a limited edition seven course meal designed by Hideki and authentic cherry blossom decor, Sake No Hana are offering a dining experience of a lifetime.

We caught up with Hideki to talk about the importance of the Hanami tradition, how the UK audience have developed a taste for Japanese food and mastering your craft.

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your career journey?

I was born and brought up in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. It is well known in Japan for its superb seafood and different meats. So much so, that there is a lot of food tourism to Hokkaido from the rest of Japan. I grew up foraging for mountain vegetables with my father, fishing and diving for shellfish, particularly sea urchins with my friends. It is where I learnt how important good, healthy food is for the body and soul. After, a spell of travelling around Australia and America, I started my chef training in Sapporo.

In Kyoto, I learnt to be a chef; I refined my cooking and presentation skills and was refined myself! I also learnt how to be able to speak to customers and explain the food while making it, which is a skill that takes more than a little time to learn. After my training, I worked in the front kitchen and then I became Head Chef at Kikunoi for two years before moving London to work at Sake no Hana.

Image credit: Hideki Hiwatashi

Image credit: Hideki Hiwatashi

2. Do you think the ‘foodie revolution’ has made this three month celebration possible in London? People care more about the quality and meaning behind food now more than ever, especially younger people.

Well, I have only been in London for six years now, but I first visited the UK in 2004. Definitely, at the moment the customer’s knowledge and expectations of Japanese and other Asian food have changed. When I first visited the UK, Japanese food was mostly about sushi and not very good sushi. But now, there is a growing awareness of all aspects of Washoku, particularly of the various noodles and a definite demand for higher quality and more authentic sushi. I think there is a symbiosis between chefs themselves and between chefs and customers in London. As the customers from many different backgrounds experiment with new tastes and experiences, they start to understand food more and care about the quality and meaning more, and these customer expectations again influence the food the chefs are making. This is what makes a London such an exciting place to be as a chef and a foodie like myself! I think we can say that the chance to do the Sakura event at Sake no Hana arose out of this exciting environment food that is in London at the moment.

3. Can you tell us more about the significance of Hanami and the Haiku masters?

I cannot begin to explain how important and popular Hanami is in Japan. It is such a big event that as the blossom front moves northward across the country, the national news reports each day where in the country they are blossoming and when they are expected to blossom. Then we rush to have a Hanami picnic with our friends and colleagues before the rains or winds knock the cherry blossoms down. It is this highly transient nature of the cherry blossoms that appeals to us. It is the beauty of the brief moment and the beauty of the end as the petals are falling down that we appreciate. I think the beauty of Haiku also lies in its ability to evoke such image or emotion in such few words.

Image credit: Hideki Hiwatashi

Image credit: Hideki Hiwatashi

4. How did you go about designing the menu?

I was formally trained in Kaiseki Ryouri in Kyoto. In Kaiseki Ryori, the season is celebrated in every dish through the use of the serving plate, the garnish, the ingredients themselves, the use of colour and even the way of arranging the food on the plate. I wanted to use this Kaiseki way of food with the Sakura menu. I took my inspiration from the Hanami picnics that we have in Japan and the seasonality of the Kaiseki way of food.

5. Finally, how do you think London/The Western World’s relationship with Japanese food has changed in the last 5-10 years?

Of late, there has been a noticeable improvement in the supply of Asian and Japanese ingredients that are available in the UK. Good quality Asian vegetables, seasonings and tofu are being sold in London by people who care about their products, how they are produced and how they are used, which is something I am very happy to see.

As a chef in Japan, I had a very close relationship with my suppliers and was able to learn a lot from them. As a trainee chef I studied with the vegetable growers and the fishermen about how the taste of the ingredients are affected by the seasons, the weather and the way of harvesting or storing. As a Head Chef in Kyoto, I could collaborate with the suppliers to get the ingredients I needed to develop new dishes. I look forward to building more relationships like that here and to the food that will come as a result of these collaborations.

Learn more about Sake No Hana and Sakura here.