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Wafu Bistro – Nelson Mail 16.05.17

When Sachi Sushi closed I think Nelson lost one of its top restaurants, they served exquisite Japanese food in a wonderfully peaceful environment, and I am happy to say the new Japanese restaurant, Wafu Bistro, on the corner of Hardy and Rutherford Streets is filling the gap very nicely indeed.

It has very quickly become one of our favourite places for sushi and sashimi that is prepared with attention to detail using beautiful fresh seafood.

Owners Yuki and Naomi Takeoda met when they worked at Miyazu in the Rutherford Hotel and now have a two year old daughter but Yuki’s journey to owning his own restaurant has been a long one.

At university he studied philosophy of art, he smiles as he tells me he also did lots of outdoor adventure stuff while he was studying then worked in the Japanese office of Italian company Olivetti, one of the biggest computer companies in Europe at the time, as a project management engineer.

After three years of working in an office the outdoors loving Yuki flew to Canada with a folding kayak and spent two months travelling along the Yukon River in Alaska. When it got too cold to travel he hitched hiked to Fairbanks where he stayed for the winter and it is where he learned English.

“My parents sent me a big English grammar book and I studied that over winter, there are also many churches in Fairbanks and while I’m not religious I learned to speak English by reading the bible with friends and watching Jay Leno on TV as well as reading books from the library.”

Yuki had wanted to be a sushi chef but also travel so after his river adventures in Alaska he looked for a sushi restaurant outside of Japan that wanted an apprentice, “I found one in Chile but before I bought a plane ticket my uncle asked me to go to a sushi restaurant for a meal with him.

“He was sort of a play boy, loves wining and dining and eats at the best places in Tokyo, he said before you leave you need to eat proper sushi, he took me there and I was overwhelmed, shocked at how good it was.

“It was a small but expensive authentic sushi bar in the middle of nowhere, people need to drive to get there, they don’t advertise, it is just word of mouth and it is very popular.

“I stood up and asked the Sushi Master ‘please teach me’, he gave me an apprenticeship and I was lucky that my first Master is a very good sushi chef.”

Yuki realised that it is very important to have a really good foundation for your career and that looking at food, working with it and eating the best you can is essential if you want to be the best chef yourself.

He worked at this little restaurant for two years doing dishes and watching, “he didn’t hold my hand and tell me what to do, I had to watch him and learn from him, he left me to try so I was very lucky to work with such a good sushi chef” but he was earning just $500 per month and with his first month’s pay he bought one knife then spent every day “filleting fish like crazy, hundreds of fish every day, I did lots of fish prep from about 9am every day.

“I was there when they had no customers for two days and at the end of each day my master asked me to throw it all away and the next day we did the prep again with fresh fish, everything had to be premium quality.

“One day we had Spanish Mackerel, about 30 fish, and when I showed my master the filleted fish he threw it in the bin, I was too slow and the fish was too warm, premium customers know the difference so I learned not to hold the fish too much so it stays cool and fresh.”

“He was such a fast worker it was difficult for me to keep up, there were no recipes and every plate was prepared differently depending on the fish we had that day and as a new boy it was difficult for me but I learned knife skills I have for the rest of my life.”

Yuki moved to Sapporo City, Hokkaido, and for about two months was eating at different places in the city then found a small restaurant where the food was exceptional and once again he asked the Sushi Master to help him learn, so had another apprenticeship.

“There the Master didn’t teach me anything specific but was very tough on discipline, cleanliness, tidiness, how to be polite to the customers. I was assisting my Master, standing next to him as his assistant chef doing prep but not making sushi, I kept watching and learning, I even kept a handkerchief in my pocket and whenever I had time was using that to practice forming the sushi rice.

Sushi Roll at Wafu Bistro

“At the end before I left my master suddenly asked me to make a sushi for a customer, the first time I was shaking but I could do it, he had been watching what I was doing and decided I was ready to serve a customer.”

After Hakkaido Yuki moved to Seattle where he worked in a very popular sushi restaurant but it was too busy, “I was working from 9am to midnight for two months without a day off so found a job at a sushi restaurant in Queenstown and moved to New Zealand.”

A year later in 2006 he moved to the Rutherford Hotel as a sushi chef in Miyazu Restaurant, Naomi was a supervisor at Miyazu.

After about two years there he left to help his friends when they set up Sachi Sushi, then six months later he moved to Maruia Springs for 18 months and got his New Zealand residency while he was living there before coming back to Nelson, Naomi and Miyazu at the Rutherford.

When they set up Wafu Bistro they had intended to cook Yakatori (Japanese kebab) but Yuki couldn’t find a Yakatori grill that was compliant with New Zealand regulations and while he could have used a charcoal grill he decided it would be difficult to manage in a small restaurant with not many staff.

So with a low budget and the help of friends he made new table tops, painted the interior, designed wall hangings, and did everything else a new restaurant needs.

Wafu Bistro only seats 25 people but Yuki is staying true to his training using only the freshest seafood he can get, even the frozen food like prawns are premium quality, super-frozen products.

I have introduced many people to the delights of sushi and sashimi and one of the things people new to raw fish tell me is ‘I can’t eat raw fish, fish is supposed to be cooked’ but beautiful fresh fish doesn’t smell or taste fishy.

Some seafoods have distinct flavours but they tend to be very delicate and it is very easy to digest too so is very good for you.

“I want to thank all the local sushi lovers who have supported us, for me a restaurant is something you can’t run by a manual, food is like a human, everyone is different and even things like good weather and bad weather impact on the food, all we can do is do our best everyday” says Yuki

And based on the number of regular diners Wafu Bistro must be doing something right, I certainly think so.

Wafu Bistro – 03 548 1231. A website is coming soon.

I have been writing a regular wine column for The Nelson Mail newspaper since 2000.

Unfortunately the column space is not big enough to include my thoughts on all of the many wines I taste. Hopefully this blog will fix that. It also gives me somewhere to archive the many columns I write. I will also include some favourite recipes from my dearly beloved who loves cooking and of course because wine and food simply go together. I will also point you in the direction of upcoming events and websites I think are great. Enjoy, Neil

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