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Tokyo chefs show what it takes to dazzle judges

The Michelin Guide has decreed that Tokyo is the premier city in the world for food. A 19-hour day in the life of chef Ichiro Ozaki helps explain why.
Image: Jean-Luc Naret, Director of the Michelin Guides
Jean-Luc Naret, director of the Michelin Guides, center, Michelin Japan President Bernard Delmas, left, and the Michelin mascot pose at the end of the press preview of their first edition of the Michelin Guide Tokyo in November.Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP - Getty Images
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The Michelin Guide has decreed that Tokyo is the premier city in the world for food. A 19-hour day in the life of chef Ichiro Ozaki helps explain why.

Ozaki woke up one recent Thursday at 5:30 a.m. and began working the phones, searching for live turtles and fresh crab. He had not gone home the night before to his wife and 1-year-old daughter. He had cooked past midnight and fallen dead asleep in a tiny apartment near the Japanese-cuisine restaurant that bears his name.

It won a star in November in the first-ever Tokyo edition of the Michelin Guide, whose judges astounded the French -- and won over the Japanese -- by finding more than twice as many star-worthy restaurants in Tokyo as in Paris.

The Paris-based restaurant guide, often described as the most influential in the world, confirmed what well-traveled diners have long known: Extraordinary things to eat are served in a great many Tokyo restaurants.

"The Michelin judges were overwhelmed by our quality," said Masuhiro Yamamoto, a Japanese food critic and writer.

So, apparently, are foreign tourists in Japan. Seven out of 10 say food is the primary reason for their visit, according to a recent government survey.

It's not just the quality but also the sheer quantity of Tokyo's restaurants that tests the imagination. Michelin counted 160,000 of them, compared with about 20,000 in Paris and 23,000 in New York.

Fish culture
Having reserved turtles and crabs on the phone, Ozaki pulled on blue jeans, rubber shoes and a down jacket. At 7:30 a.m., he grabbed a wicker basket and jumped on the subway to head to Tsukiji, the world's largest fish market.

The market is a principal reason for the 191 Michelin stars now shining down on Tokyo, according to Yamamoto, the food critic who has spent years studying the fish-handling arts that have been perfected at Tsukiji. (Paris got just 98 stars total, New York 54.)

"Fish culture is at the core of food quality," he said.

Fishermen preserve freshness by draining blood from fish the moment they are taken from the sea. Shippers pack the creatures in water that replicates the temperature and salinity of the seas where they were caught. Then, like racehorses trucked to the track, fish are hauled to Tsukiji in their live position -- as if swimming -- to prevent bruising.

Dodging motorized fish carts like an open-field runner, Ozaki moved quickly through the noisy chaos of the market. He is a daily buyer. Fishmongers smile when they see his impish face. They say they save their best stuff for him.

Besides snapping turtles and a dozen crabs, he bought conger eels, blowfish, octopus, abalone, anglerfish, cod testicles, tuna and several kinds of shrimp for the meals he would begin serving in about 10 hours.

Ozaki, 38, the son of a sushi chef, spent 17 years as an apprentice and sous-chef in fish restaurants in and around Tokyo. In the first four years of his apprenticeship, he only chopped vegetables. He said he was never allowed to touch a fish that might be served to a customer. He then spent three years working on sushi techniques.

He opened his own restaurant two years ago and operates it with the help of two apprentices and a waitress. With seats for only 16 diners, it serves sushi and high-end Japanese fish dishes.

At work, Ozaki wears traditional wooden sandals, an impeccably pressed white gown and a spotless chef's hat.

To sharpen his senses, he always cooks and prepares sushi on an empty stomach.

Not long ago, a customer called him a samurai, a description that tickled Ozaki. Samurai were the honor-driven warrior class of preindustrial Japan.

"It is artsy obsession that I have," Ozaki said on the way back from the fish market to his restaurant. "I have chosen to compete against the best restaurants in Tokyo. For me there is no turning back."

'The samurai spirit'
The notion of self-sacrifice for the sake of exquisite food seems to suit many Tokyo chefs, even when they devote their lives to cuisine no samurai would have recognized.

Three of the eight Tokyo restaurants that won three-star status, Michelin's highest honor, serve French cuisine; the five others are Japanese. Chefs here also won stars for cooking Italian, Spanish, Chinese and steakhouse food.

At Le Mange-Tout, one of the 25 restaurants in the city to win two Michelin stars, owner-chef Noboru Tani goes home to his family only one night a week. He cheerfully describes his restaurant as a "prison." He sleeps in a loft above the dining room.

"The samurai spirit is in me," said Tani, 55. "The Japanese character is that we pursue one thing earnestly and with great diligence. For me, that object of diligence happens to be France."

Since he was 18, he said, he has devoted himself to the study of French culture, history, wine and cuisine.

Competition among Tokyo restaurants is "unimaginably tough," Tani said, and a chef-owner cannot survive unless he is willing to sacrifice in a way that "extracts the very essence of his self onto the plate."

"It is pride and ambition that bind us," Tani said, speaking of his fellow chefs. "The food we serve is a reflection of how we live."

As he spoke, Tani was sitting in the dining room of his restaurant. It was midafternoon. Downstairs in the kitchen, his staff was beginning to prepare dinner. It would include sea-urchin flan, a warm salad with salted pork from the Pyrenees Mountains, fried sea bream and a red-wine consomme flavored with rabbit, deer and wild boar.

Curry in harmony
To partake of the prix-fixe samurai spirit at Le Mange-Tout, you must reserve a month in advance and then pay a minimum of $200 per person.

But high quality in Tokyo restaurant food doesn't require a high price -- or a Michelin star. Consider the curry bun that is the specialty of Bistro Kirakutei, a curry joint that sits in the shadow of an elevated highway not far from Shibuya Station, one of the world's business commuter hubs.

The curry bun is a sweet doughnut wrapped around a deep green dollop of mild English-style curry. The onions in the curry are slow-fried for four hours. Once cooked, the curry is given a day of rest before it marries its doughnut. Only about 400 of these buns are made each day, all by hand.

"I have found the perfect harmony of curry sauce and dough," explains Hideki Okubo, who experimented with spices and curry powder for six months until he got it right.

That was 24 years ago, and his curry bun has since become something of a legend in Tokyo. Okubo said he has been offered lucrative deals to mass-market it but has never seriously considered doing so.

"A restaurant has to have one thing that stands out," he said. "For us, it is our bun."

Yamamoto, the food writer, has eaten Okubo's curry bun, which costs $2.50, and he has eaten the pricey fare at Le Mange-Tout. He believes the creators of these foods share identical values.

"They do not believe that success is measured by cash," Yamamoto said. "They measure it by giving happiness to eaters."

Living with a star
After a long afternoon of deboning turtles, skinning blowfish and slicing the bulbous livers of anglerfish, Ozaki greets his first customers at 6 p.m.

On his feet for the next five hours, he personally prepares each of the 15 courses that constitute dinner at his restaurant. Each course is devoured in one or two bites. Ozaki works fast. He works relentlessly.

Since he got his star from Michelin, he's had more customers than he knows what to do with. He's been able to raise his prices just a bit, which helps pay the bills. Dinner is now $150.

His new problem is figuring out how he will manage success over the long run.

"I know only how to sprint," Ozaki said. "I will need to be a marathoner."

So he worries as he works.

The last customer leaves after midnight. Ozaki finishes cleaning up at 1 a.m. Once again, it is too late to go home to his wife and daughter. Once again, he falls dead asleep in the nearby apartment until first light.

Then he starts to make calls about fish.

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.