Meet The Chef: Yukio Ozeki, Azabu

From Ponsonby to Mission Bay, Azabu is one of Auckland's finest eateries with its exceptional modern Japanese cuisine, with a twist of Nikkei Peruvian influence. We were fortunate enough to speak with Head Chef: Yukio Ozeki about growing up in Tokoyo, his dish inspirations, and some supreme advice for following your passion. 

Yukio Ozeki was raised in an old town in Tokyo, Japan, near the Tsukiji fish market. He would frequently dine out at a wide variety of traditional Japanese restaurants, the fun and the flavour charmed him to become fascinated with cooking. He worked hard and got a job as a trainee chef at a sushi restaurant. During this time he acquired numerous cooking skills, particularly traditional Japanese cuisine techniques including “Fugu” (blowfish) cuisine.

In his twenties, he travelled the world, exploring various cuisines and discovering new innovative cooking techniques. When he came to New Zealand he began working for Savor group in Auckland as Head Chef at Ebisu. Then he was appointed Head Chef at Azabu restaurant in Ponsonby and Mission Bay. He told us how the journey has been very demanding along the way but always exciting and well worthwhile. 

“The hospitality job is not easy. You have to be the one who feels the greatest joy in dealing with customers, taking action, talking to them, accepting what you want to, and making them happy, from beginning to end.” 

Azabu features an iconic menu with many signature dishes. Ozekis' told us one of the driving influences behind these dishes was his first job. Every morning he would go to the Tsukiji Market (the largest fish market in the world) and buy fresh fish. He quickly had to learn how to choose the freshest and most suitable fish for sushi, and also how to negotiate a good price for them. This work routine gave him one of the most important skills you need as a Chef, hard work and determination. 

The training required to become a Japanese sushi chef is strict and it is essential to learn numerous dexterities and skills to be at the counter serving sushi in front of customers. Through the austere training, he learned difficult yet valuable techniques, the history, the culture and the pearls of wisdom of cooking. All of these experiences, specialised skills and learnings made him the professional and experienced Head Chef that he is today. 

Ozeki told us about the Japanese idiom ‘ichigoichie.’  The extraordinary phrase describes the cultural concept of cherishing the unrepeatable nature of each moment. He told us how this sincere phrase keeps him treasuring all of the encounters he gets in sharing his joy and relaxing with many people.

“I don't think there is any other such job that you get to meet and interact with so many people.” This once-in-a-lifetime expression outlines his philosophy and inspiration to continue to cook and create. “We really aim for a memorable dining experience. If you remember what you had and what you experienced that day and still remember today then we are very happy.” 

There are many prospective challenges for the hospitality industry including serious labour shortages and soaring raw material prices. “Sooner or later, we could be experiencing robot-based customer service and machine-made dishes becoming more widespread. When looking to the future; I think it will be important for us to cherish and refine the unique services that only humans can do.” 

In the future, Ozeki has dreams of opening a unique more traditional Japanese nigiri style dining experience. He revealed how in New Zealand we recognise sushi in a roll-style, in which rice is placed on seaweed and rolled with ingredients. However, most Japanese sushi restaurants serve rice ball style sushi (without using seaweed, with sushi rice topped with fish etc.) With this gap in the market in NZ, Ozeki aspires to create a restaurant that can serve these unique dishes counter-style and utilize the more customary Japanese methods.

“It would be giving the customers a taste of Japan. But they are actually in NZ!”