A Contemporary Take on IzakayaWritten by Christy C
Meet Shun Sato, a chef who started out in Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market and now heads up Hong Kong’s trendiest izakaya, Fukuro.
Shun Sato was a troubled kid when he was young. Today, he is the head chef at Fukuro – Hong Kong’s major restaurant group Black Sheep Restaurants’ latest izakaya concept nestled in the SoHo district. Originally hailing from Japan, Sato first set foot in Hong Kong four years ago. Whilst still a relative newbie to the city’s eclectic culinary scene, he has since proven his abilities at not one, but two Black Sheep restaurants, the high-end Chinese restaurant Ho Lee Fook and neo-Parisian bistro BELON. Now, he has gone back to his cultural roots, bringing an authentic izakaya experience to the city, and all whilst having a bit of fun.
Sato’s father owns a classic izakaya in Sendai, northeast of Tokyo. So, for the chef, the casual Japanese pub or Sake house represents both an indispensable part of his childhood and also a central piece in Japanese culture. “Japanese society places a high value on obedience and restraint, but the izakaya is the inverse of that,” he explains. “Izakaya is about revelry, a place where camaraderie is built and communities are centred, where you can tell your boss how you really feel and escape from real life, even if it’s just for the evening.”
Despite his background, following his father’s footsteps wasn’t initially part of the plan. His foray into the kitchen only began in his teenage years, after he got himself into a bit of a mess. “When I was young, I got into some trouble which led to my stepfather closing down his restaurant to settle a fine for me,” Sato confesses. To express his gratitude, Sato worked in the kitchen to repay him. “I wanted to do something that he enjoyed and would make him proud, something that made myself proud,” he says, sealing his destiny as a professional chef.
Over the next decade, Sato worked his way up the ranks, starting at Tokyo’s renowned fish market Tsukiji where he toiled in his early 20s and became a specialist in rare species of seafood. To break out of his culinary comfort zone, at 22, he moved to Australia for seven years. There, he earned his stripes working at some of Australia’s celebrated restaurants, including Japanese fine-diner Yoshii and French-Japanese Restaurant Blancharu, which opened his eyes to a whole new world of flavours. “Australians take an innovative approach to ingredients pairing. It’s very different from how we do it in Japanese cuisine, which is simple and based on tradition,” he reveals.
This year, Sato returned to his izakaya roots after being tapped by the Black Sheep restaurants’ co-founder Syed Asim Hussain and Chris Mark to head up Fukuro. Today, the 34-year-old chef is, maybe, less rebellious than his younger self, but his bold and creative personality still informs his cuisine at Fukuro. From their sashimi platters to a plate of corn (one of their most popular dishes), Sato elevates common ingredients with unexpected flavour combinations. Those corn cobs are halved and grilled with butter and sugar, a French cooking technique Sato picked up along the way which gives them a crunchy, caramel-rich crust giving the customers their ‘Crispy Caramel Butter Corn.’ Voila!
It is this freedom to experiment and bring together the sum of his experiences that Sato most treasures. “You can do whatever you want in an izakaya,” says the seasoned chef. “I could put dishes inspired by other cuisines on the menu. For example, the drunken clams were inspired by my time at Ho Lee Fook. In a French restaurant, you could never do that. I’m not trying to recreate a Shibuya izakaya in Hong Kong, but to create an izakaya for our city and our community.”