Training to be a sushi chef is no mean feat. A decade into a traditional Japanese course, you will have just about covered the basics, granting you the title of Itamae (translated as ‘in front of the board’). It is a career path that, at this point, will have seen you spending much of your time watching and learning from your seniors, dowsing rice in sushi vinegar with a Shamoji and massaging dead fish.
Five years later, you’ll finally be allowed access to pricier seafoods, such as tuna, and in another two years, you’ll be accepted to learn the art of hand-pressed sushi, known as nigiri. Needless to say, the process of becoming a sushi master is lengthy, requiring an eye for detail and a nose for raw fish, but above all it demands an unwavering commitment and stoic spirit – plus, it’s a position stereotypically held by men.
In 1997, chef Miho Sato was one of the very few women to obtain a Japan National Professional Cooking Sushi Certificate after a decade of rigorous training, having left behind her former career as an orthodontist. Fast forward 26 years and she is still breaking glass ceilings, now holding the title of the UK’s only female sushi master.
We meet in the opulent pink velvet surrounds of The Aubrey, where Sato is now head sushi chef, and she presents me with a platter of her signature handmade fare, comprising yellowtail sashimi topped with dead ants (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it), Botan Ebi prawn nigiri and wagyu tartare sashimi served with black garlic, among others. From the few minutes I spend with her, it’s clear Sato is a thoughtful and creative chef, making this carefully-curated Japanese izakaya the perfect place for her to practice.
The plush restaurant is adjacent to Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park and takes its name from Oscar Wilde’s favourite British artist, Aubrey Beardsley. Accessed behind Japanese cloth curtains, it has an eclectic vibe, with Beardsley’s original artworks adorning the walls alongside fringed lampshades, oriental furnishings and wood-panelled booths and bars. Flick through The Yellow Book cocktail menu, inspired by the influential British magazine of the same name where Beardsley was art editor, to find more of his work alongside bespoke cocktails created by the in-house bartenders and informed by the illustration on each opposing page.
The culinary offering is not limited to sushi, however, there are few better places to get your fill. Elsewhere on the menu, discover charcoal chicken karaage with yuzu mayo, truffle croquettes served with black garlic, mushroom gyozas, miso-glazed aubergine, and lobster and hokkaido uni fried rice.
Ready to step inside, then? Sato shows us around The Aubrey as we discuss her career highlights, sustainable sushi and how it feels to be a female-first.
I had a very simple childhood. I grew up in a small town where my family owned a little boutique hotel in northern Japan, an area famous for its water, sake, and rice. Food, nature, and seasonal ingredients were always around me, so it’s no surprise that I became a chef, but I don’t think I knew that was my calling early on. I knew I liked precision and accuracy, so I started my professional life training as an orthodontist.
Sushi is like dentistry in that it requires precision and attention to detail. There are so many processes involved in making just one small nigiri! Each nigiri reflects my personality, as it is created with the ingredients and techniques that I love. I don’t think my career is glamorous, but I hope my parents are proud of my journey.
My grandmother made me sticky rice mochi with walnuts and mountain grapes. I had never liked mochi as a child but after I ate my grandmother’s I was converted and now enjoy them occasionally. Especially if I find walnut or grape flavour!
I trained in Japan for nearly 10 years to earn a Japan National Sushi Certificate. Soon after my graduation, I was chosen for a sushi chef role at the JFC Daitokai restaurant in Cologne, Germany – I was there for nearly four years before moving to London. I have been here for 20 years now. I worked first in Masturi (St James’ and Holborn), then Sushi Hana and after Oblix at the Shard, working my way up from chef de partie to head chef in four years. My role before The Aubrey was at Annabel’s in Mayfair.
Itamae training can take up to 10 years to learn the necessary skills to prepare truly authentic Japanese sushi. I graduated with a Japan National Professional Cooking Sushi Certificate on 6 March 1997 – known as Heisei 9 [平成] in the Japanese era ‘calendar’.
It changes, but as it’s summer I’m most enjoying making my snow crab roll with passion fruit. The sweet citrus of the passion fruit isn’t usually used in classic Japanese cuisine but it’s something unique and creative and I love the summery colours and flavours.
I don’t feel any particular way about it, it’s all I know and it’s who I am. There is no difference in the dishes that men and women can create. However, a lot more sacrifices must be made by female chefs. It’s a choice and one I was happy to make, but it’s not for everyone.
It’s not my place to preach to motivate women, I can only show them the possibilities. Motivation must come from within. I teach Japanese culture with all my heart to anyone who wants to learn from me, regardless of gender. Believe in yourself and learn that, although you may not hone your skills by tomorrow, you will one day if you work hard. I truly feel that I am still learning every day.
I share ecological views with The Aubrey and the Mandarin Oriental group. We promote sustainability and responsible sourcing from suppliers, and we are always trying to reduce food waste and use no plastics. I always try to think about the impact on the global environment while improving myself.
I care very much about sustainable produce; I do not like to just stand by and watch the world’s resources decline. I want to share my experience and the knowledge I have developed to become a top chef, whilst simultaneously showing the team how to respect the environment. The Aubrey does not serve any species on an endangered list, including bluefin tuna.
I believe we are the only restaurant of our size that offers quality sushi to Londoners. We are also the only ones to make Edomae sushi. We use a short-grain Japanese rice, called koshihikari, which has a very high starch content. It is washed multiple times before cooking, resulting in a cleaner, more flavourful rice that accentuates the flavours of the fish quality and all of the ingredients: soy, wasabi and the rice itself.
Believe it or not, I rarely go back to the same restaurant twice. I love the adventure of going to new restaurants to taste, watch and learn.
I’m impressed with the original cuisine, and especially that of this new generation of chefs in London. They understand how to present themselves and their dishes to their audience.
I’m also always impressed by chef Fabian Beaufour, formerly at Oblix in the Shard. I was impressed by all his French, European and American dishes. I have always respected his professionalism very much. I’ve known chef Bjorn Bjoernat at Sexy Fish since 2013 [and] his Japanese fusion dishes impressed me a lot.
Our Okonomiyaki served on the weekends at brunch! This is my mother’s recipe. It is a savoury pancake dish made from grated cabbage and wheat flour cooked on a teppan, with nori (dried seaweed flakes), katsuobushi (bonito flakes) and our homemade kewpie sauce.