When two-starred Michelin chef Lionel Beccat reminisces about Tsukiji, the world’s biggest fish market in Tokyo, it is not the ocean’s bounty that stirs memories but the fishmongers themselves.
“The story of Tsukiji is quite simply a story about human relationships,” Beccay says as he browses through the market at the crack of dawn in search of prawns and fish for his lunchtime service.
Beccat, 42, is executive chef at Esquisse, a restaurant in the Japanese capital’s ultra-chic Ginza district, and he has been making the short journey to the market for the past 12 years.
But all that will come to an end on today when Tsukiji closes after 83 years, moving to a purpose-built site at Toyosu, several kilometers east.
Now a veteran of the market, he says it took several years to establish a trusted relationship with the merchants of Tsukiji.
“I quickly had to get used to the idea that I knew nothing about fish,” Beccat said, even though he comes from the French fishing port of Marseille.
At Tsukiji, “it is the fishmongers who choose their clients. Not the other way around,” he said, adding that even the top chefs show deference to the vendors and their knowledge.
The market itself, a rabbit warren and tourist magnet of tiny shops selling every conceivable type of produce from the sea, cannot fail to inspire a professional chef, Beccat said. “Tsukiji is a world unto itself.”
He finds inspiration in “the range of produce one finds there, the expertise and advice from the fishmongers” and even “the smell, the movements, the light.”
“Coming here, day after day, week after week, month after month, gradually changes the way you cook, even without you noticing it.”
One of Beccat’s suppliers, Masatake Ayabe, has enjoyed a 30-year career in Tsukiji and fears that business might suffer when the market moves to Toyosu.
“There is no other market in the world which brings together so much fish, and people do us the honor of coming to shop here,” said Ayabe.
“But I am sure we will have fewer customers at Toyosu.”
He said he was sad to leave Tsukiji and “was not really looking forward to going to Toyosu.”
“It is further away for customers, we wonder how we will have such good relationships with them. There are also quite a few question marks over deliveries, access,” said Ayabe, who runs the Kamemoto Shoten fishmongers.
Tsukiji critics say the 83-year-old market is no longer fit for the modern world, pointing to questionable hygiene standards in the narrow streets and insufficient protection against fire.
Tokyo mayor Yuriko Koike, who has championed the move, says the new market, on the site of a former gas plant, will use cutting-edge technology to provide a modern environment for selling fish.
Beccat himself acknowledges that “it will be better from a sanitary point of view” and the fishmongers will suffer less from extremes of cold and heat, but he too points to a difference in atmosphere.
“Tsukiji is addictive: if you do not go in the morning, the day is not quite the same,” he said.
“It is the place that has taught me most in my life. A page of my professional life is turning.”
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