Miho Sato

Miho Sato

Miho Sato

Ten years of rigorous training in Japan armed Miho Sato with remarkable sushi-making skills and a deep appreciation of her craft. Having cooked at Japanese restaurants around Europe, today she is the UK’s only female sushi master, introducing Londoners to edomae style at The Aubrey.

Growing up in Ninohe, a city in northern Japan famed for its spring water, sake and rice, and raised by parents who ran a boutique hotel, Miho Sato spent her formative years surrounded by an abundance of local produce, developing an early awareness of its origins and seasonality. ‘I wouldn’t say that growing up there influenced my relationship with food, but it influenced my relationship with ingredients and nature,’ she nods. Early memories of family dinners include okonomiyaki, a comforting savoury pancake (Miho uses her mother’s recipe for it in her current menu), but while cooking was at the core of much of her childhood, when it came time to move into the world of work Miho was instead drawn to the precision and accuracy of medicine and, in particular, orthodontics. ‘I have so much admiration for the medical industry. The treatment doctors give can be lifesaving, and maybe training as an orthodontist was as close as I could get to really helping people,’ she smiles. ‘I had a very simple childhood; I grew up in a small town surrounded by amazing seasonal ingredients at our fingertips, so it's no surprise that I became a chef, but I don’t think I knew that was my calling early on.'

While the likeness between dentistry and sushi might not be immediately obvious, over time Miho began to see more similarities between the two (both are arts which require ‘acute attention to detail’, she says) and eventually decided to make the leap. ‘I fell in love with how each nigiri takes on a different personality,’ she says, ‘as it’s created with different ingredients and techniques that all command respect in different ways.’ Training to be a sushi chef in Japan is, of course, no easy task, and in 1997 Miho became one of just a few women to graduate with a Japan National Professional Cooking Sushi Certificate. It came after a decade of intense training, covering everything from deft, delicate knife skills to a mastery of both sushi rice and fish preparation. Soon after, she was chosen for a sushi chef role at JFC Daitokai restaurant in Germany’s Cologne, a teppanyaki restaurant which brought her to Europe and put her in front of customers for the first time. It was an influential time in her life, and one which taught her a lesson she still holds dear today – train hard, learn always. ‘I was very scared at the beginning but I knew I had to master this fear,’ she smiles. ‘I remember one of my first services; I was the teppanyaki chef for a group including the President of Kikkoman, a very, very big Japanese company which also owned Daitokai JFC. I was so nervous but he said my behaviour was ‘professional’ – which is a big compliment in Japanese culture.’

Four years later, at the end of 2001, Miho made the move to London to join the (now-closed) teppanyaki spot Matsuri, quickly settling into life in the capital. ‘I have always loved walking – in so many Japanese cities people will walk around simply for pleasure,’ she smiles. ‘Chelsea and Covent Garden are such good areas for walking around and finding food to take and enjoy along the way in the fresh air. That’s what made me feel like London could be my new home.’ Stints at Sushi Hana and Oblix at the Shard followed, where Miho worked her way from chef de partie to head chef in just four years. There, she worked alongside Fabian Beaufour, who she counts among the most influential mentors of her career. ‘I was impressed by all the French, European and American dishes he created when Oblix opened,’ she says. ‘I have always respected his professionalism very much – that was my first experience of working with a French chef.’ A spell at Mayfair private members’ club Annabel’s was next, introducing Miho to an at-any-cost approach where exceptionally high-quality and rare ingredients were weaved into classic Japanese cooking.

Throughout her career, Miho has consistently gone the extra mile to stay at the top of her game. She rarely has fizzy drinks (an occasional beer or glass of champagne are the exception), doesn’t smoke and won’t eat spicy food. ‘I try to keep my palate as clean as possible to ensure I can identify all the subtleties in our delicate sashimi dishes,’ she nods. ‘I want to be able to taste all the pure ingredients so that I can balance them properly and create something that’s harmonious.’ Despite her achievements – Miho is the UK’s only female sushi master – you’re unlikely to hear her talking about either her gender or title. Though she recognises there have been improvements in diversity since she first trained, her goal is to ‘teach Japanese culture with all my heart to anyone who wants to learn from me, regardless of gender’. ‘I don’t like the title ‘master’ so much,’ she adds. ‘I think the challenge for any apprentice working to improve themselves is to keep learning from your mistakes. I think it's important to take responsibility and pride in your work as your career progresses and to make sure you stay in love with what you’re doing. Sushi requires so much precision and attention to detail, and with so many steps going into a single piece of nigiri you need to really love your training. My training will continue until I retire.'

It was in November 2021 that Miho opened a LinkedIn message from a sous chef at izakaya restaurant The Aubrey. Impressed by its focus on sustainability and seasonality, she felt it was unmei, or fate, and joined the team. ‘I care about finding sustainable produce; I don’t want to stand by and watch the world’s resources decline,’ Miho says. ‘Instead, I want to share my experiences and the knowledge I’ve gained throughout my culinary career, whilst simultaneously showing my team how to respect the environment.’ There, she focuses on edomae sushi, which replaces rice vinegar with red vinegar (made from sake lees), building a deeper umami taste. ‘We use a short-grain Japanese rice called koshihikari, which has very high starch levels,’ she explains. ‘Edomae sushi rice is washed many, many times before cooking, resulting in a cleaner, more flavourful grain but that still lets the flavours of the fish shine through. Other types of sushi rice are usually only washed one or two times.’ It’s prepared using a ‘sushi-meshi’ method, mixing slightly-cooked rice with vinegar, sugar and salt. ‘This is considered to be the best way to achieve the perfect texture and flavour for true sushi,’ she says. ‘It’s all about the simplicity of the ingredients and the freshness of the flavours.’

Whatever the future holds for Miho, it’s clear the principles that have underpinned her career so far will continue to guide her choices. Doing her bit to protect the future tops that list, a mindset put into practice day-to-day by reducing food waste, making her processes more sustainable and moving away from plastics. ‘We’re hoping to secure the futures of the next generation, so they can have their five, ten and fifteen-year plans, too,’ she says. And though she may be a master in her field, she certainly doesn’t see her education as complete. When asked about the most important lesson she learned during her training, she says: ‘Believe in yourself and learn that you may not be able to do it tomorrow, but there will eventually be a tomorrow when you can. I truly feel that I am only in the middle of my learning. Time is your greatest gift.’