For a while now there has been much speculation surrounding an unsolved mystery in the foodie blogosphere; where does the delicious fish found in the capital’s top sushi bars actually come from?
While a lot of the speculation has been relatively accurate, I felt that an insight into what is actually coming from where would be quite interesting. I recently had the privilege of meeting with Alex Macfarlane (Sales) and Takeshi Yamagishi, (Director) of T&S Enterprises in London to find out more about where the best sushi fish comes from.
Before we begin anything, Yamagishi san introduces me to the roots of T&S, which briefly are as follows; Atari-ya was first opened in 1992 as a fishmonger for the Japanese community, around Finchley in north London. While Atari-ya was a retail outlet, they where also running a wholesale business from the kitchen supplying Japanese restaurants. The wholesale business outgrew Atari-ya such that it became a business in itself. That business has become T&S Enterprises which still operates under the Atari-ya umbrella of companies.
D – Dean
A – Alex
Y – Yamagishi san
This is essentially the reception area for T&S, lots and lots of fish, which is a good preview for what is about to come. While I wait I am surrounded by both Japanese conversation and the scent of the sea which fills the air; I very quickly feel as if I have teleported from a West London trading estate to an office above a Japanese fish market.
Alex comes to greet me and brings me to an office where I notice yet more walls lined with fish species identification posters. We begin the interview:
D - Can you introduce T&S Enterprises for our unfamiliar readers?
A - T&S Enterprises are a London based supplier of top quality seafood. We are the wholesale section that comes under the Atari-ya umbrella. In addition, we also supply Japanese imported vegetables and some meat products. Also within the Atari-ya umbrella we have our own shops and highly popular Japanese restaurants across London, though T&S is just the wholesale supplier. We import fresh and frozen seafood products, which are then processed in our factory, then either stored in our warehouse or delivered across London.
D - So excluding the Atari-ya branches, how many employees are at T&S?
A - At T&S we currently have 25 employees in various positions including sales, accounts, factory and drivers.
D - And approximately what volume of fish passes through your doors annually?
T - We make approximately 100 deliveries to customers
D - Every week?
T - No, everyday.
D - So sushi shops in the UK are your main customers?
A - Of course sushi and Japanese restaurants are our natural client base, but we are in no way restricted to just that. Initially our main customers were almost exclusively Japanese restaurants, but as the company has grown we have begun supplying many European and other non-Japanese restaurants, private clubs and hotels in London. I think as the population becomes more health conscious, so too does the trend for non-Japanese restaurants to serve top quality raw fish. Westerners are increasingly getting over any qualms they may have had over eating raw fish.
D - Alex, am I right in thinking that you are the only English employee at T&S?
A - Yes that is correct.
In addition to Japanese, we have employees from many countries including
Poland, France, Sri Lanka who work in various roles such as drivers and in the
However, I am the only non-Japanese staff on the sales team, I am responsible for looking after our non-Japanese clients.
D - So how did you end up here?
A - I lived in Japan for 4 years, learning the language and culture along the way. During that time I became a lover of Japanese food, so the chance to continue to work with it is fantastic. As I have the ability to bridge the gap between the two cultures, T&S Enterprises was a great opportunity for me to continue to work in a Japanese environment.
D - Yamagishi san, what are the origins of T&S? Why did you decide to begin trading fish and why in the UK?
Y - The founders of T&S are Mr. Tasaka and Mr. Sakai, who started trading under the brand of ‘Atari-ya’ in 1992 from our current Finchley shop. The fish business has been their speciality from the beginning. They were already in the seafood wholesale business from their previous jobs, which made London the obvious target market.
Alex (left) Yamagishi san (Right). Notice more fish in the background…
D - So since you began in the early 1990s, how has your growth progressed? Has it always been smooth?
Y - We opened
the first shop in Finchley in 1992. Our
operation has grown little by little. There were some difficulties during the recessions
and exchange crisis, but we somehow survived through these difficult times by
the support from our customers and suppliers.
(Before I am allowed to stop anywhere near the processing section to
take any more photos, I sign a disclaimer and tick lots of boxes saying I am
free from a number of diseases, much like a draconian landing card when
entering a country. I am then given three different kinds of overalls and told
to remove any jewellery….)
D - You super freeze some of your fish. What fish exactly and at what temperature?
A - We freeze fish at -60c, which believe me is cold (doing the monthly stock taking in there is a lot of fun!!) We keep many kinds of products in our -60c freezer, including some frozen Tuna, Prawns, Yellowtail (Hamachi), octopus etc. We are working on developing super-freezing other species.
An outside view of the -60 freezing facility. For the sake of clients privacy I could take any photos of inside, however the snow on the floor should convey the kind of environment the fish is stored in.
D - OK, so what are the benefits of super freezing?
A - Firstly, super freezing prevents oxidisation that can occur at higher temperature zone. As you may know, if the blood oxidises, it will turn purple or even black. This happens in the Tuna flesh. If the Tuna meat is kept at higher than -40C, it quickly loses the nice red colour and ends up with a purple or even black meat colour, which of course is pretty unappetising. The main benefit of super freezing is that it maintains the freshness and red colour of the tuna meat after the catching. Our frozen Yellowfin Tuna are frozen on board at -60C and by keeping it at this temperature, the freshness of the fish just caught by the fishermen is maintained! Once defrosted the colour is phenomenal.
(At this point I am starting to understand just how seriously T&S are about sourcing the highest-grade fish. While not the largest fish supplier, the elite clientele that T&S boasts (We can’t name names, but your imagination will probably be correct) is testament to the quality these distributors handle).
D - So is super freezing common in the sushi industry or is it only found amongst a few suppliers and restaurants?
A - Super freezing is growing steadily in popularity since it was introduced in Europe in the mid 1990’s. I am pleased to say that Europe doesn’t allow the more backward CO treated method, though it is still the main method used in USA and Russia. Today more sushi restaurants are investing in small -60C freezers than before.
D - What about in Japan?
A - Japan has been super freezing since they discovered the benefits way back in the 1960s. Japan has therefore been ahead of the game for quite a while.
D - I noticed you offer clients live turbot, how do you transport these? Why do you choose to offer only Turbot live? Is it simply a question of logistics, or because Turbot is such a premium product?
A - The turbot we import from France, and keep in a tank in our factory. We also supply live eel.
Y – We keep Turbot alive in our tank because it is a premium fish with quality that deteriorates quickly after being caught. We do not transport the Turbot live to our customers, but do keep it alive up until the last minute before being transported.
D - You import a number of fresh products from Japan, which unfortunately continues to be the location for a number of natural disasters. How exactly has this effected your supply of fish and affected business overall?
A - We only import fresh Hamachi from Japan. Of course the disaster has affected importing in the sense of rigorous EU regulations and checks, which of course our Hamachi must go through to enter our markets. In addition we import vegetables from Japan, which must also go through the same procedures.
D - Given the nature of the most recent Japanese natural disasters involving the reactor at Fukushima, have customers been reluctant to use fresh Japanese products?
A - The demand for our fresh Hamachi from Japan is constantly increasing, so I would say no, it hasn’t had much effect.
D - Many people who have eaten sushi in Japan say that despite the chef’s best efforts, the fish and sushi just does not taste as good. Would you agree with this or is it only psychological?
A - Of course Japanese sushi can’t be beaten, in the same sense that I don’t think I will ever have a better pizza than I have had in Naples. The fish market in Tokyo is incredible, and all of the world’s highest graded tuna passes through there. However, that is not to say that you can’t get good sushi in the UK, and of course we like to think that the fish we supply is of the highest standard. I think the standard here can be fantastic.
D - Can you tell us a bit about your procurement?
A - Tasaka-san (the owner) spends half his time here, and half his time abroad with suppliers checking that the quality standards we expect are always met. In addition, Yamagishi san (our director) also meets suppliers abroad at least once a month. It is important for us to not only import these products, but to spend a lot of time on the other end with the suppliers. If we can’t maintain the quality that we have become synonymous with, then our business would suffer.
Yamagishi san also explains how careful T&S must be about procurement; sushi chefs are not fond of adding new species their menus that they subsequently cannot serves due to volatile supply.
Fresh transatlantic Uni (Sea Urchin Roe).
D - Let’s talk about Bluefin tuna, how much do you import, where does it come from.
A - All our Bluefin is taken from farms and is from various Mediterranean countries, including Spain, Croatia, Portugal and Greece. Of course we are aware of the fact that there is stigma attached to eating Bluefin tuna, but the fish we import is managed sustainably. Farmed tuna differs from salmon or many other farmed fish in that the tuna isn’t born in the farm. The reason for this is purely technical, and although the scientists are working to farm Bluefin tuna from eggs, there hasn’t been any commercial success so far. We hope that they succeed in their projects to make the eating of Bluefin tuna more accessible to a greater population.
I was lucky enough to catch a whole Bluefin Tuna
being processed. Unfortunately my amateur photography skills cannot properly
convey the size of this fish, it was at least 1.2M in length, maybe longer?
Regardless of exact size, it was incredibly impressive.
D - Can you explain to us a bit more about the different grades of Tuna that exist? Is it only Bluefin Tuna that is graded, or does that also apply to Yellowfin and Bigeye Tuna?
A - All of our tuna is graded by our experienced graders / processors. Of course this is not only Bluefin, but also any type of Tuna. The Tuna we import from different places have different qualities. For example, our Greek Tuna is very nice for the red meat, but Croatian has a lot of fat. Different restaurants like different fish.
The best Tuna in the UK?
D - I know that the belly is the most prized part of a Tuna in sushi. How difficult is it to sell the rest of the Tuna to chefs?
A- Different chefs want different parts, for example many Italian restaurants that serve Carpaccio would prefer the akami, the red meat.
D - OK. In your opinion, what are the most under and overrated fish in the UK sushi market today?
Y - Grey Mullet is under rated, Red Mullet is over rated. Haddock has never been eaten raw popularly due to the fear of parasites. However, if we super freeze fresh Haddock from Cornwall at -60C, it is surprisingly very good! We may want to try more product development in this in this area for the future.
Yamagishi san showing off some fresh Sea Bream.
D – Alex, are you a sushi fan?
A - Of course, I think that
comes with the territory!
D- So what places sell the best/most authentic sushi in London, in your opinion?
A - If you want genuine, authentic Japanese sushi, then look
no further than our own sushi bars!
D - What plans do T&S have for the future in terms of growth, where do you see yourselves in 5 or 10 years time?
Y - We want to continue to grow in this growing market, but
we don’t want to compromise our standard of quality, service and delivery of
D - So to finish things off; what recommendations do you have for our readers who are new to sushi?
A - If you are new to sushi, then of course it is important to get used to eating raw fish, and especially the staple fish (Tuna , Salmon etc). However, I also recommend surprising yourself by trying something that may be a little out of your comfort zone, eel for example. You might surprise yourself!
This was the end of the interview, although we spoke for a little while longer discussing increasing the number of fish species we may source from T&S at Kazari. So keep your eyes peeled, Uni is coming…