Endo Kazutoshi

Endo Kazutoshi

Endo Kazutoshi

Proving just how refined, world-class and mind-blowing an omakase sushi experience can be, Endo Kazutoshi's decades of experience in Japan intertwines with the best fish and seafood the UK has to offer.

For many of us in the UK, sushi was our first introduction to Japanese food. While we now know there is so much more to Japanese cookery – from ramen joints to izakaya-style drinking dens – sushi still holds more reverence and respect than any other facet of what is generally regarded as one of the world’s most advanced cuisines. You can of course pick up packs of ‘sushi’ in supermarkets these days, proving its popularity, but this of course is a pale, pale imitation of the real thing, which is as much an artform as it is a style of cookery.

Japan is, naturally, where you’ll find the largest number of high-end sushi restaurants, but London is gaining a reputation for holding its own on the sushi world stage. That’s thanks to chefs like Endo Kazutoshi, who have made the city their home and evolved their techniques to work with what’s available to them. As one of the first omakase sushi restaurants in the UK (omakase means ‘I’ll leave it up to you’ and offers a single no-choice menu specifically designed by the chef), Endo at The Rotunda broke new ground in the capital, showcasing just how special sushi can be when prepared at the very highest level.

Endo was born in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo, and was always destined to be a sushi master. ‘I grew up in my family’s sushi restaurant,’ he says. ‘My grandfather opened it in 1940, then my father took over. I was the firstborn son, so I didn’t really have a choice.’ It was his mother, however, who ensured Endo experienced and learned things outside of the kitchen, including flower arranging, calligraphy and judo, which led to a scholarship at Kokushikan University in Tokyo. Despite his passion for sports, Endo decided to honour tradition and return to the world of sushi after gaining his masters degree, landing an apprentice position at an omakase restaurant.

‘The first three years were very tough,’ says Endo. ‘I was never happy or excited and every day was just full of pressure. I would go to the fish market just to have a rest! My master was quite famous, following the edomae style of sushi preparation, and showed me everything – but for those three years all I was allowed to do was make tea and clean the fish, never fillet it.’

Endo moved to a restaurant in the Ginza district of Tokyo, where the kitchen team expected him to be able to do everything – after all, he had worked with a very famous sushi chef. He didn’t let them know he’d only been cleaning fish at this point, and when they were amazed at his skill, he realised he’d learned a huge amount just by watching. This was the turning point for Endo; he began to enjoy his time in the kitchen, improving his skills and eventually returning to his family’s restaurant for one year, before accepting a job working with legendary sushi master Akitoshi Ohno in Nagoya. He would spend the next two years working here, moving away from the edomae style into something more modern and contemporary.

At the age of twenty-nine, when he was asked by his master to go and work in the Japanese embassy in Madrid, Endo was initially devastated – but it led to where he is today. ‘I will always remember the day before I left for Spain – I was crying and thinking my master no longer needed me, he recalls. ‘But when he explained why he was doing it I felt better. He wanted to teach me the importance of being part of a team, rather than working so closely with just one person.’

It wasn’t too long until chef Rainer Becker approached Endo whilst he was in Spain to see whether he would be interested in joining his team as head sushi chef at Zuma in London. After a trip to the city to see what it was like, Endo wasn’t too sure – the restaurant was noisy and the general knowledge of Japanese food wasn’t what he was used to. But after having dinner with Becker, he was persuaded.

‘I had already decided not to take over my family’s restaurant but I was thinking about opening a small omakase bar in Tokyo. Chef Becker said there were so many omakase restaurants in Tokyo already and that London was ready for more true Japanese cooking. He explained how much responsibility I would have changing a whole city’s perception of Japanese cuisine, and I was up for the challenge. So I moved to London in 2007.’

The next eight years saw Endo not only lead the sushi bar at Zuma, but oversee eight branches of the restaurant around the world. Throughout his tenure, Endo was able to not only gain an understanding of how sushi was received and interpreted outside of Japan; he was able to push it forward too. But his dream was always to open his own establishment. Opening new Zuma outposts was always rewarding, but he felt after the doors opened and the rope was cut, his job was done and he would move onto the next one. Endo wanted to focus on one he could call his own, spending each day improving the offering.

It was Rose Gray – the co-founder of The River Cafe – who gave him the push he needed to do this. She was a regular at the sushi bar at Zuma, talking to Endo and persuading him to do his own thing. Endo even spent his days off working at The River Cafe, getting to grips with an entirely different type of cooking. After talking to chef Becker about his dream, he was encouraged to set out on his own and left Zuma in 2015.

‘I wanted to do omakase because it was what I was taught by my master, but also because there wasn’t anyone doing it in London,’ he explains. ‘It allows you to get closer to the guests; we explain the technique, mentality and philosophy behind what we do, so there’s more to it than just the food. I think of an omakase restaurant not as a sushi bar but as a stage, where the chef can express themselves. It’s a link to the chef.’

Opening a restaurant is never something that happens overnight; Endo spent four years working as a private chef whilst working on finding a location, developing his concept and researching the suppliers and produce available. ‘I must have talked to over 500 suppliers during this time, trying to find the exact ingredients I needed to match my technique,’ says Endo. ‘But after about a year, I realised this wasn’t the best way to approach things – I needed to look at the ingredients I had available, then adapt my technique to suit them.’

Endo began getting to grips with ingredients such as langoustines and razor clams, which he’d never worked with in Japan. He started sourcing from the likes of Namayasai, a Japanese farm based in Sussex. Certain things – such as soy sauce, rice, vinegar, wasabi and soft mineral water – he still gets from Japan, but his use of British fish and seafood is what sets him apart as a sushi chef. ‘My purpose is to deliver the best sushi in the world,’ he says. ‘Using local produce is great, but I won’t use it unless it’s the best.’

With a concept confirmed, relationships with suppliers built and a site secured, Endo opened Endo at The Rotunda in April 2019. The beautiful sky-high room gives him the opportunity to share his unique omakase menus, and in less than a year he received a Michelin star. Today, a seat at Endo’s counter is in huge demand, with reservations selling out in a matter of minutes each month – a testament to just how world-class his cooking is.

Endo is a living example of how skill, dedication and respect can create outstanding food, but that’s only part of what makes Endo at The Rotunda so special. It is, as he says, a stage for him to share his creations. ‘I don’t really see myself as a chef – I see myself as a craftsman,’ he explains. ‘Sushi just happens to be the craft I focus on. Every day is about making sushi better than the day before; it’s never-ending.’