maître d’ - Jun Sakamoto
Written by Mara Goldwyn Photography by Edson Kumasaka
In a pocket of Japanese culture in the heart of São Paulo, Jun Sakamoto’s minimalist cuisine and decor reflect unadulterated taste.
Brazil is home to the largest ethnic Japanese community outside of Japan. But in the estimation of ‘Brazil’s most famous sushiman’, Jun Sakamoto, this is not why its largest city, São Paulo, has so many sushi restaurants.
“When you go to the Japanese restaurants [in São Paulo], you don’t see Japanese eating there,” says Sakamoto, whose tiny, upscale restaurant has graced the Pinheiros neighbourhood for almost 10 years. “I think it’s the Brazilians who like Japanese food.”
He has a couple of theories on this. One is that the cosmopolitan, body-conscious Paulista population recognises sushi’s healthy aspect. Another is, while North Americans and Europeans have wheat as a staple carbohydrate, Brazilians eat a lot of rice. “So this makes it easy for Brazilian people to like sushi,” Sakamoto opines.
But neither of these are the only reason Sakamoto’s sushi is so easy to like. It is not made with just any rice. Specially imported from California and meticulously prepared, the rice Sakamoto serves stands apart from that of other sushi purveyors in the city who “don’t give it the same importance”.
To Sakamoto, sashimi (plain slices of raw fish without rice) is to sushi “as the grape is to wine”. ”One is produce, one is the art,” the sushiman declares quietly but emphatically. Sakamoto admits it has taken his entire professional life to perfect the rice he prepares today, adding that “the rice is like my soul”.
You can witness this art first-hand any weekday evening, where the master personally serves a tasting menu for up to eight people at the sushi bar. This can include various types of tuna, amberjack, eel, sweet shrimp, flounder, red snapper, mackerel, squid, sea scallops, and bonito.
A strict traditionalist, Sakamoto does not adulterate his sushi repertoire with California rolls or “any of these new things with mayonnaise, cream cheese or whatever”. In place of the dollop of green paste endemic to Japanese restaurants worldwide, he uses real, fresh wasabi from Japan. He is even reticent about soy sauce, preferring at times to use black salt from Hawaii mixed with a subtle lemon.
The main point is to let the true flavour shine through: “You have to show the taste, not change it.”
São Paulo, Brazil
New York restaurants also influenced the interior of Sakamoto’s. The aesthetic, incorporating elegant wood and leather, is ‘clean’. “It has to be beautiful, but not too beautiful,” Sakamoto says, “because the attention has to go to the food, not the place. Sometimes you see very beautiful restaurants and no-one cares about the food. My design has to make the food better.”