A Flower in Bloom

Melda Auditia’s structural, hand-crafted graduate collection seeks to examine the notion of femininity

Growing up in Indonesia, Melda Auditia was surrounded by craft. From pottery and textiles to jewellery and ceramics – plus the rich, natural fibres used to build them – needless to say that this exposure would steer the work of Melda, affecting both the composition and themes addressed in her own creations.

The designer, who’s now living in Tokyo, learnt to appreciate the process of handcrafting from a young age. “That’s what made me fall in love with fashion in the first place,” she tells me. The skill of making a quality garment or object from hand takes mastery, time and patience, which is a welcomed contradiction to the constant hum-drum of city life in Tokyo. “Life in Tokyo is incredibly fast-paced, so it’s super easy to forget that there are so many beautiful little details in my surroundings. But one thing I’ve learnt to do is to carve out the time to slow down and take in the little details, because when I let myself absorb everything, that’s when I get inspired.”

While pursuing a degree in fashion design at Bunka Fashion Collage in Japan, Melda began to employ the use of textiles and fabrics as a way of exuding her love of handcrafted processes. But, equally, it was also perceived as a way of discussing cultural and social issues that were greatly affecting the world. And this is exactly how Bloom was borne; a collection comprising large-scale flower dresses that seek to examine the subject of femininity.

Shrouded in soft pastel tones and textual wefts hanging from the shoulder, the artfully delicate compositions found in Bloom are paired with structural elements, like the panels that hang from arm to hip, cinched in corsets, sashes and, most characteristically, the structural – almost sculptural – addition of flowers and petals. Construed from subtle silhouettes and an “explosion” of colours, Melda’s use of materiality is just as important as the meaning attached to it. From sturdy high pressure laminate (HPL) to soft organdy, she toys with different processes and marries them into her own unique vision: using hand-painting, silkscreen, hand-cut petals to form the blooming flowers to achieve her goals.

Not just a beautiful foray into nature and form, the collection also turns a sharp eye onto the concept of femininity and how this is perceived throughout daily life. “Growing up, I realised that society has all these gender boxes and its own definition of what it means to be a woman or a man,” she says. “Since we were little, we have grown accustomed to suppressing our feminine sides: ‘stop crying like a little girl’. That is what they would say to us women when we show the slightest emotion, or to men when they express themselves outside the box of gender we are all put in. But we often forget that, regardless of our gender, we all have a feminine side inside us.”

The symbol of the flower, then, has great importance in Bloom as well as in the wider context of gender and identity. By merging the natural form with a floral petal, for instance, the collection sings as a reminder that “no matter what gender we identify with, or how we look, there is that feminine side that lies within ourselves and there is no right or wrong way to express it,” says Melda. The flower is widely interpreted as a feminine form, varying between cultures, place and time. “Throughout our lives, flowers have always been the symbol of femininity. Even as a kid, it was one of the first few things we came across that’s immediately associated with femininity – no matter the colour and form.” Rich in context and history, it makes for the ideal symbol to spread her messaging within this collection.

“But,” she continues, “this collection is also about the journey of discovering out feminine sides, embracing them and letting them bloom. I want every piece to embody that journey as well, and the process of growth is very much similar to how flowers come to bloom.” 

So who can we envision wearing these pieces, which are artistic and bold to the typical fashion barer? “There are some pieces that you can definitely wear on a day out, but there are also some pieces where I just went all out and let my creative freedom flow,” she says. “But they’re all very personal pieces, not just to me, but it can also be for whoever is wearing them. There is no one single person that I’ve made these pieces for. I feel like everyone has their own story, so I want these pieces to give whoever wears them the freedom to tell their personal story and experience it too.”

Painting: Toshio Shibata

Chose Commune unearths 16 previously unpublished works from the contemporary Japanese photographer, best-known for his painterly depictions of rural landscapes

Photography and painting have an undeniably tender relationship. In a time before the camera, realistic imagery would be produced by artists, employing a brush to hand and putting to use a mastering eye of realism. Now, in a world over-saturated with imagery, it’s hard to imagine a time when the long and intricate process of painting was the only format of replication – witnessing the skill and patience it would take to craft each stroke, gesture and expression. But the influence of both mediums works twofold, and the earliest practitioners of photography turned towards painting to find their subjects, be it a still life, landscape, nude or portrait. 

So when photography presents itself in a way that correlates highly with the process of painting, something wonderful happens. Your mind is instantaneously transported into otherworldly places; the locations which seem unfathomable, too scrumptious, too perfect, too colourful or vivid. Toshio Shibata is a photographer who’s mastered this canon, and he’s spent a healthy career perfecting the marriage of abstraction and realism through his camera. A contemporary Japanese photographer, he’s best-known for his large images of civil engineering in rural Japan, where manmade constructs are paired eloquently with notes from the natural world, causing ripples in light and sheds of water as they pass and flicker through the structural compositions of humankind. Dams, lakes and water ways are synced with the earthy notes of the environment; but rather than viewing these opposites as two juxtaposed elements in his work, Toshio depicts them in unmatched harmony.

You’d be unsurprised to learn that Toshio’s career first began in painting, having graduated with a BA and MFA in the subject from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. After leaving Japan in 1975 to pursue his studies at the Royal Academy in Ghent, Belgium, that’s when Toshio decided to test his hands at painting and printmaking, later discovering his interests in photography. Gas stations were his primary subject while making his debut into the medium, but it wasn’t long until he’d moved onto the landscapes of Japan, documenting the fine moments where the artificial and natural collide. To such success that Toshio received the Kimura Ihei Award in 1992, and he’s also had works exhibited internationally since 1971, including a solo show at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography; the Sprengel Museum in Hanover; the Centre National de Photogoraphie in Paris and many others.

In a new book published by Chose Commune, 16 previously unpublished colour works are brought to the surface in an artful curation of his finest and meticulous compositions. Aptly titled Painting, the publication turns an ultra-fine lens onto the more abstract and painterly of his pieces, and is designed in concertina format – to represent the kakemono, a Japanese unframed scroll painting. Below, I chat to Cécile Poimboeuf-Koizumi – director and co-founder of Chose Commune alongside Vasantha Yogananthan – to hear more about the publication. 

What inspired you to make this book?

I had been looking at Toshio Shibata’s work for a while but the idea of making a book came quite late. When I decide to reach out to an artist and propose a book, the intention has to be quite strong. When artists have never made a book before, it’s easier. The lack of an existing book on an important work is a good enough reason to make a book. In the case of Toshio Shibata, he had already made quite a few monographs. I asked myself: “why would it be relevant to release yet another book?” Including new and/or unpublished photographs can be a good reason. But I thought it would make even more sense if the concept was innovative and strong. I started selecting over 50 images and in the end, I kept only 16 and imagined this very tightly edited book that can also be turned into a kakemono (a Japanese unframed scroll painting made on paper or silk and displayed as a wall hanging).

What is it that you enjoy about Toshio Shibata’s work specifically; is it the subject matter, the aesthetic or process, for example?

I have always admired Toshio Shibata’s work for the quality of the composition in his photographs, as well as his prints. His colour work is fantastic. Also, although Toshio Shibata is best known for his landscape photographs, I was more drawn to the more abstract ones, when Toshio Shibata’s lens is closer to his subject matter and the photographs become a mysterious abstract composition. 

The book unearths 16 unpublished colour photographs, why bring these into light now?

Bringing those 16 unpublished colour photographs is a personal choice. It could have been any 16 other images, and my only guide was to choose the most abstract ones. This was also a reference to Toshio Shibata’s interest in painting, which he studied before he took on photography. This intention gave its title to the book as well: painting, as in the act of painting. For me, Toshio Shibata photographs the landscape as a painter would paint it: carefully choosing his colours from a palette, and bringing a lot of detail and texture to his compositions. 

Talk me through the design of the book, why make the comparison to a concertina and kakemono? What does this add to the presentation and interpretation of the artwork?

The book was designed as a concertina book, which means that one can unfold the book and discover the whole sequence. It’s a very different experience from actually turning the pages of a traditional book. The sequence is uninterrupted. 

But I thought it would also be interesting to give a vertical reading to the images, as a hint to Japanese scroll paintings. When hanging on a wall, the eight images on each side become something else. One doesn’t really read them as eight single images anymore but as one larger abstract image. The multiple readings of the images add an interesting layer to the interpretation of the work. 

What about the structure, was there much consideration to the order and placement of each image?

Yes, the order and placement were carefully thought through. My partner, the photographer Vasantha Yogananthan, pitched in for that. It was like a puzzle: we moved around the pieces, and found the harmony and connections between the shapes and colours. It was like composing another image from existing images.

Can you pick out a couple of personal favourites from the book and talk me through them?

16 images isn’t much, so I guess they’re all favourites. But if I had to pick only two, I would say the apple tree and what I call the “blue canvas with holes”. I wouldn’t know how to explain it. I think I like how the apple tree is a figurative photograph, but the bright apples looking like distinct dots of colour in the branches make it look almost like “pointillism”, the painting technique branching from Impressionism. And the blue canvas is the photograph that looks the most like a painting, almost like a Mark Rothko who’s one of my favourite painters of all time. 

How do you hope the audience will respond to the work?

As a publisher, it’s always impossible to predict the response to a book and the work inside. It’s daunting and magical at the same time. 

Painting is available here.

Daido Moriyama: How I Take Photographs

In an excerpt from the new book on Japan’s leading photographer, Takeshi Nakamoto asks – who is the real Daido Moriyama?

‘Oh come on, get real….’ In the ten years I’ve known him, I’ve noticed Moriyama has a habit of saying this – then giving a dismissive snort. I’ve heard him come out with it on all sorts of occasions, and I realise now that it’s the photographer’s way of demonstrating that he thinks the person he is talking to is being ridiculous. Some upstart (like myself, for example) will be mouthing off about something, or making some crazy request, and rather than putting them down with something stronger like ‘That’s total crap!’, he’ll come out with this expression.

‘I’ve never felt that I should conform to any particular set of rules – and not just in photography. I have no truck with what passes for the normal way of doing things….’

Moriyama steers clear of any preconceptions in snapshot photography and he has a similar aversion to rules, standards or normal practices in any area of life. You might say that, for him, the only criterion is that there should be no criteria. And when it comes to photography, it’s clear that many things that are generally regarded as common sense are, for Moriyama, non-sense.

Perhaps the best example of this would be the idea of originality – which he rejects out of hand. As someone who has always held that photography has never been anything other than mere copying, it’s a lost cause, he thinks, to try to argue for the originality of a photograph. Hence his lack of compunction about taking shots of posters he happens to see in the street – even when that poster contains an image by another photographer. He makes no bones about publishing it either. All he is doing, he says, is taking a copy of something that is itself already a copy.

‘I’ve even considered doing away with the copyright symbol from my own photo books. Of course, the publishers would object, there’d be all sorts of problems. But basically I think everyone should be free to copy anything they want to. What else is a photograph but a copy to begin with? When I hear people getting all hot under the collar, making the argument for photographs being original, being “art”, and so on, I always think to myself, “Oh, come on, get real….”’

A person of evident conviction, the thing to which Moriyama is clearly most committed is his own desire. The snapshot epitomizes this desire. A spur-of-the-moment shot that he takes the instant that he feels the urge. Point and shoot, point and shoot. Simply, without thinking.

But, of course, there is another Daido Moriyama: the Moriyama who in Sunamachi stares into the viewfinder lost in thought, the Moriyama who on our highway photo shoot feels compelled to interrogate what he is doing. This Moriyama is definitely not so simple, and is more open-ended.

In this scrupulous commitment to his desire, Moriyama never stops questioning the world he is shooting, never stops questioning the photographs he takes, and never stops questioning the self that is trying to take those photographs – even as he relentlessly continues to do so. The questions he asks go on well beyond that tiny split second – the 1/250 of a second – in which the shutter opens and closes. In every shot he takes, in that one brief moment, there lies an eternity of questions, and conflicting points of view, and journeys back and forth. Small wonder, then, that he refuses to waste his time or energy fretting about common sense or convention.

Excerpt from Daido Moriyama: How I Take Photographs by Daido Moriyama and Takeshi Nakamoto, published by Laurence King


Natalie Lee-Joe extols the democratic virtues of the uniquely Japanese grilled chicken skewers, with a recipe to try at home

Yakitori literally translates to ‘Grilled Chicken’. Put simply it’s different parts of the chicken cut into bite-sized pieces, thread onto skewers and cooked over charcoal. It’s comfort food – fast, satisfying, casual and delicious – and would be quite straightforward, if it wasn’t Japanese… 

Yakitori became popular in Japan during the Meiji era (late 1800s) when cooking and eating meat in Japan became acceptable. It took off in the 1950s when chicken became more readily accessible and izakayas (think Japanese gastro pub) offered salarymen a respite after work, before they headed home. Grilled chicken, ice cold beer, a stool to sit on – the perfect way to unwind and ease into the evening.

Yakitori still fulfils this role in Japan – you’ll see rows and rows of makeshift street stalls, smoke billowing out, near train stations in the evenings. Yakitori is cooked to order – as soon as you request your type, the carefully prepared skewers are placed over searingly hot charcoal on the little yakitori grill. The skill in cooking comes from moving, turning and seasoning your skewers. Knowing where to place the skewers on the grill, knowing when to turn them, and knowing when the chicken is still moist inside is an act of precision. The charcoal is so hot and the chicken pieces so small that there really isn’t any room for error. All of this takes only five minutes – and often barely a metre away from you. There’s nothing better than having salted chicken fat dancing on your tongue, straight from the grill. 

The interior of Jidori Covent Garden

I love yakitori not only for its flavor but because of the experience eating it. You have school kids, salarymen, tourists and groups of cool 20-somethings all sat shoulder to shoulder around the grill. Since the cooking is done right in front of you, you don’t even need to know Japanese – simply pointing at what’s on the grill will suffice, and in any case, you can’t go too wrong with yakitori. It’s inexpensive, served in small portions and meant to be fun. It’s one of the most democratised eating experiences you can have in Japan. 

Preparing and cooking yakitori can be as simple or as complex as you like. It’s all the little details and nuances that sets yakitori-yas apart from each other – the type of salt, the secret ingredients of the master tare (sauce specific for yakitori), how the pieces of chicken are skewered, what parts of the chicken are used, what the chicken is cooked over. Sitting at the counter at Michelin-starred Yoshicho in Gotanda, you’ll notice the chef adeptly and swiftly making his way through multiple salt shakers, each with a different coloured rubber band around it. Through a conversation using Google Translate, I came to find out he uses seven different salts across his menu of yakitori – each cut of meat having it’s own specific salt – some from Okinawa, some from France, some from the Himalayas.

Everyone in Japan has their favourite chicken skewer. And everyone has their favourite place to eat yakitori. It’s simple food, but the sense of familiarity – the frequency that you eat it and the routine associated with it – means everyone in Japan has an opinion on where to get the best yakitori. I’ve been to my friend Atsushi’s family’s local yakitori place, I’ve been to my cousin’s favourite place called Fuku, I’ve been to chef Daisuke from Sushi Yu’s comfort yakitori-ya. There’s something special about sharing yakitori with people – it’s convivial, it’s personal and has this ability to break down barriers. 

My favourite is tsukune – minced chicken, which we serve with egg yolk. It takes me back to Yokocho in Ebisu with one mouthful.



For the tare:
100 grams chicken wing tips (or any chicken trimmings)
500 grams mirin
500 grams sake
500 ml soy sauce
100 grams Japanese black sugar
2 scallions
1 (1-inch piece) ginger
1 garlic clove
8 egg yolks

For the skewers:
300 grams ground chicken thighs
25 grams panko breadcrumbs
3 grams kosher salt
4 scallions, finely chopped
3 shiso leaves, finely chopped
8 bamboo skewers soaked in water for 2 hours


1. Make the tare: Heat a medium saucepan over high heat. Add the chicken and cook for about 10 minutes, turning as needed until golden and caramelised. Add the mirin and sake and cook until thick, around 15 to 20 minutes. Add the soy sauce, scallions, ginger and garlic, and cook for 2 minutes more. Add the sugar and cook for 5 minutes until dissolved. Strain, discarding solids, and cool the tare completely.

2. Make the skewers: In a medium bowl, mix the chicken, panko, salt, scallions, and shiso. Tradition says to mix it 16 times clockwise then 16 times anti-clockwise to get the right consistency.

3. Divide the meat into 8 equal pieces and, using your hands, press the meat around the skewer.

4. Light a grill. Add the skewers to the grill and cook, turning as needed, until almost cooked through, taking about 8 to 10 minutes. Brush with the tare and cook until caramelised and done, about 4 minutes longer. Transfer the skewers to a serving platter and keep warm.

5. Divide the egg yolks between 8 ramekins. Pour some of the tare over each and allow them to sit for 5 minutes to cure slightly before serving with the skewers.

Natalie Lee-Joe is co-founder of Jidori, which has just opened a second yakitori restaurant in Covent Garden, 15 Catherine St., WC2B 5JZ. 

A Taste of Japan: Ginger Infused Greens and Vegetables

Having lived in Japan since 1988, faithfully recording the culinary customs of her adopted home, acclaimed food writer Nancy Singleton Hachisu reflects on the vitality of tradition in the country’s unique culture

Like everywhere, modern-day Japanese rely on convenience foods and instant preparations. Part of why I immerse myself in Japanese cuisine is to advocate for a look back at traditional foods and artisanal ingredients that have not yet been lost.

Today’s food distribution systems are such that almost all global foods are available in Japan. This has diluted traditional culinary mores, and one ironic result of that is an increased nostalgia for those very traditions. All kinds of Japanese ingredients, even somewhat obscure ones from small producers, are also now throughout Japan, which has given rise to a renewed interest and excitement about previously regional Japanese foods.

I have been cooking all my life. My husband, Taadaki, is an excellent cook, so other than a foray into temple food cooking when I first arrived in Japan from America in 1988, I left the Japanese cooking to him, except Japanese-flavoured salads. Once we renovated my in-laws’ farmhouse, I became the “resident bride”, and took over the making of the tempura (I like it hot and crispy) and kenchinjiru, the country soup we make before the New Year when friends come to help pound the mochi . Over the decades, Japanese recipes were transmitted to me orally and I faithfully recorded the heart and spirit of the dishes before writing the recipes and then testing them. Proportions and amounts needed to be based on logic, and that logic is generated from years of cooking experience.

Building relationships is the foundation of how we work and live in Japan. No request can come on the first meeting. Friendship and mutual trust need to be forged. I spent one and a half years visiting each chosen area at least two or three times before returning with my photographer. The atmospheric photos of this volume are a true record of the country as it is today, and for that, a treasure.


This medley of simmered, steamed, and crunchy raw vegetables is brought together by the ginger- infused dressing. Leftovers are good for several days, if refrigerated.

Preparation time: 20 minutes 
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Serves: 6

150g edible shungiku
150g bok choy
150g komatsuna or mustard greens
150g spinach
75g mitsuba
135g Japanese aubergines, peeled at intervals for a striped effect
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 and 1⁄2 tablespoons mirin
3 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
150g daikon (or other root vegetable such as turnip), scrubbed and cut into thin julienne

Fill a large pot halfway with water and bring to a boil. Hold the greens with a large pair of tongs and dip the stems into the boiling water to cook for 30 seconds. Drop the greens into the water, push down, and cook for an additional 30 seconds. Drain and refresh in a colander under cold, running water until cool. Squeeze the greens of excess liquid, chop coarsely, and squeeze again.

Set up a steamer and bring the water to a boil. Arrange the aubergine in the steamer basket, cover, and steam until soft, about 15 minutes. Tear or cut lengthwise into strips and halve crosswise.

In a medium bowl, combine the soy sauce and mirin. Squeeze the grated ginger to express the juice into the bowl. Toss the greens, aubergine and daikon in the dressing and serve in a rustic pottery bowl.

This is an extract and recipe taken from Japan: The Cookbook by Nancy Singleton Hachisu, published by Phaidon (£29.95)

The Nose: Barnabé Fillion

Perfumer Barnabé Fillion on about his latest collaboration with Aesop, the influence of photography on his work, and going to work with the flu  

Barnabé Fillion never set out to be a perfumer. Having trained and worked as a photographer, he became interested in exploring other fields and collaborated with architects, poets and botanists before eventually meeting a perfume maker. It would make a huge impression on him. “They became such a strong source of inspiration for me,” Fillion tells me from Paris, where he currently lives and works. “From that point on, my passion has always been to learn more about the olfactory world.”

The process of creating a perfume is deeply personal and intimately connected with memory. As an apprentice under Christine Nagel, the nose for Hermès, Fillion had to learn to identify over 3,000 different scents and says, incredibly – having produced fragrances for a number of different brands – that he can still go to work when he has the flu.

“When I’m in the process of designing a fragrance, I don’t necessarily need to smell at all points,” he explains. “It’s much more important to be able to stimulate memory.” And although he adds the caveat that his job would, of course, be impossible without any sense of smell, interestingly everyone has an inability to smell certain ingredients: “I have some friends who don’t smell cedar, for example, and there are certain musk scents that I don’t smell as much as my colleagues will. It just goes to show how subjective the art of fragrance making can be.”

For Hwyl, his second collaboration with Australian luxury skincare brand Aesop, Fillion drew inspiration from the Koh-do, the Japanese incense ceremony from the Edo period, which he describes as a “sophisticated game that creates a sort of alphabet of smell”. Fillion wished to capture the multi-sensory emotions conjured up by walking in an ancient Japanese forest, “the rich aromas of wood, smoke and moss; the minerality of the water running over stones; the vivid silence of the forest; the inexpressible texture of nature…”

In offering such a description of the fragrance, it is clear that a visual aspect to Fillion’s approach remains from his experience as a photographer. “I’m not sure whether I see an image when I begin making a perfume, or whether that image forms during the process,” he explains. “But most of the time, after I’ve finished, I always have the impression that I have been running after that one particular image.”

Photography (bottle) Robin Broadbent

This is an extract from issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe, click here.

East Meets West End: BEAMS fennica x Harvey Nichols

PORT takes a look at traditional Japanese craftsmanship and modernist design with the buyers at Tokyo-based label BEAMS fennica

Traditional Japanese ornaments.

Cult Japanese fashion and lifestyle brand BEAMS has been an institution in the Harajuku district in Shibuya, Tokyo, since the late 1970s. From up-and-coming labels only available in Japan, to ceramic homeware designed and created by independent regional artisans, BEAMS showcases Japanese craftsmanship from every sphere of design. Among the myriad designers they stock is fennica, an in-house BEAMS label introduced in 2003 to bridge the gap between traditional craft and cutting-edge Japanese design.

Husband-and-wife team Terry Ellis and Keiko Kitamura are veteran London fashion buyers, Kitamura formerly working for Japanese fashion designer Michiko Koshino. After Kitamura introduced Ellis to BEAMS the pair began buying for the brand in 1985, before being awarded a specific buying division in 1993 and branching out to include modern Scandinavian furniture. Their commitment to northern European design aided the Scandinavian furniture boom in 1990s Japan. In 2003, the duo added crafts to their roster, and created their own label at BEAMS, fennica.

BEAMS pop-up store in Harvey Nichols

Encompassing men and women’s wear, furniture, ceramics and accessories, the prominence of lifestyle products, as well as fashion, has always been at the centre of Ellis and Kitamura’s work with fennica. The ethos behind fennica? “Japanese mingei meets Modernism”, explains Ellis.

Mingei’ refers to the Japanese folk art movement that developed in the 1920s and 1930s, with an emphasis on utilitarianism, affordability and the beauty of quotidian objects. Ellis credits his discovery of the movement to an encounter with influential Japanese designer Sori Yanagi, who played a key role in the development of Japanese modern design after the Second World War. As the values of mingei dictate, the homewares at fennica are functional, handmade in great quantities, and reasonably priced.

The BEAMS fennica ‘Okinawa-Japan’ jacket

This autumn, Harvey Nichols has teamed up with BEAMS to showcase Japanese design with TOKYOJIN, a limited collection inspired by the modern Tokyo man comprising of menswear, accessories and homeware. The fennica branch of the collection combines the handmade, folk aesthetic of mingei with a distinctly modern edge. This fusion echoes the carefully curated vibe of their flagship store in Harajuku, a district of Tokyo not only famous for its avant-garde fashion tribes, but also infused with Japanese feudal history. The centerpiece of the collaboration is the Sendai Kiji Seisakujo x fennica Kokeshi doll, an elegant objet d’art that combines the ancient art of Japanese kokeshi dollmaking – the inception of which is credited to Japan’s Edo period – with a distinctly modern, kawaii twist.

The BEAMS x Harvey Nichols TOKYOJIN collection is available here.

Questions of Taste: Alex Craciun

We sit down with Jason Atherton protégé, Alex Craciun, to discuss why he has chosen to focus on Japanese cuisine at his new London venture, Sosharu

alex craciun on own edit

Romanian chef Alex Craciun began his career in a somewhat diverse fashion, trying hairdressing and engineering before ending up in the kitchen. He decided to pursue haute cuisine in full force, becoming an inimitable chef on the London restaurant scene and in spring 2016, he helped open his first restaurant as head chef. Sosharu — a contemporary Japanese eatery located in Farringdon, has been well received by the city’s food critics and had paved the way for the soon-to-be opened Kisetsu, a 10-seater offering a unique ‘chef to table’ experience, where the chef prepares the meal in the same room as his guests.

Having worked as a chef in Romania, the UK, Brazil, and Asia, Craciun has stored away a vast variety of techniques and tricks. Before opening Sosharu, he spent a year in Japan (under strict instructions from Jason Atherton) working in a different restaurant every season. This influence can be seen across the restaurant, from design choices to service style and, of course, the menu. This also extends to the atmosphere the head chef hopes to create in both restaurants. Craciun explains he wants his guests to fully experience the food, and to avoid the lure of everyday distractions; in Kisetsu, a curtain enclosing the room includes pockets for mobile phones, although the plates may be Instagram-worthy.

Here, we meet Craciun to discuss his trips to some of the top international kitchens, working under Gordon Ramsay, and how his love for Japanese cooking started with a Tonkatsu meal in central London.

Pale aubergine, crispy shallots, aka miso glaze, herb salad
Pale aubergine, crispy shallots, aka miso glaze, herb salad

How did you get started in cooking?

For me, it was never, ‘my mum cooks, my father’s a chef’ – it was nothing like that. I studied electronic engineering and then I started to work in a massive factory. I didn’t like it, so I did a hairdressing course. I didn’t like that either, so I did a masseuse course. And then I didn’t like that…

I did a cooking course when I was about 19 or 20, still searching. At first, I didn’t like cooking either, to be honest. But I was lucky to work for someone who was very passionate: he was a young Romanian chef. I stuck with him for a couple of months and everything started from there.

Sea bass sashimi salad with myoga and shiso, apple oroshi, ponzu dressing
Sea bass sashimi salad with myoga and shiso, apple oroshi, ponzu dressing

What kind of food were you cooking with him?

It was very traditional Romanian cuisine – very different from what I do now – all slow roasting and slow cooking. Back home, the majority of cooking is very slow: pigs, stocks, etc.

What happened next?

I left after a year and came to the UK. I started in Newcastle in a small pub, which was quite painful; I didn’t understand the accents, I didn’t speak the language. I wanted to go back home straight away, but I didn’t have the money to do it. So I said to myself that I needed to stay, in order to make enough money to go home. After 10 years, I’m still here!

Open temaki of toro tartare, scallion tobiko, sushi rice, spiced mayonnaise
Open temaki of toro tartare, scallion tobiko, sushi rice, spiced mayonnaise

How did you end up in London?

I worked for Gordon Ramsay first. It was very different from where I worked before, there was much more pressure. Everyone was concentrating on the food, what they can do, what they can bring that’s new, etc. It was a push for me to get better.

On my days off, I started to work at the Maze with Jason Atherton, which is how we got to know each other. I worked there one or two days a week for six or seven months. And then I asked for a job, and they said: ‘Yes, no problem, you know the menu!’ So it was easy. I stayed at the Maze for three years, then went to Brazil for a month, and back to Eastern Europe. Two years ago, I went to work in Japan.

Can you tell us about your time in Japan?

I was there for a year, so I did every season, eadh in a different restaurant. The majority of techniques that we do here at Sosharu, we take from Japan. We concentrate on vegetables. There’s no butter or cream anywhere in the restaurant. Everything is very healthy.

Rhubarb, hibiscus, mochi kakigori
Rhubarb, hibiscus, mochi kakigori

What brought you to Japanese cooking?

I only tried Japanese food for the first time five years ago – it was nothing special, but I still remember it. I wanted to identify the taste, and know how they had done it. It was a Ton Katsu, rice, with a Japanese curry. That was the start.

It’s a massive change from Romanian food, and the UK – a completely different culture. Every recipe is different. I love Japanese cuisine for the taste and the flavours. I love something new, challenging. It was the right moment, at the right time.

What did you learn in Japan?

It opened my eyes, being in Japan, working with local chefs. It’s a different philosophy: they are very clean and they’re not crazy on doing totally ‘different’ flavours.

At Sosharu, we try to use more British produce, and then blend the flavours to make it Japanese.

Ton katsu crumbed pork, seasonal radishes, kombu dressing
Ton katsu crumbed pork, seasonal radishes, kombu dressing

How has your new restaurant been since opening?

It’s been very busy, which is good. We have a lot of work to do, but everyone is positive and supportive. Being a chef, you have your own idea of what is amazing, but you need to listen to your guests. That’s the most important thing – they come in, and we need to make them happy. Not just us in the kitchen.

Alex Craciun’s new restaurant Sosharu is now open. A 10-seater restaurant, Kisetsu, will open soon.

Ikejime: The fish and chip revolution

Yoshinori Ishii, head chef at Mayfair-based Japanese restaurant Umu, tells Conor Mahon why he’s bringing a ‘fish and chip revolution’ to the UK

Yoshinori Ishii in Umu, Mayfair, London
Yoshinori Ishii in Umu, Mayfair, London

In August 1999, Yoshinori Ishii left Kyoto, the former capital of Japan, and boarded a plane heading to Switzerland. Ishiisan was leaving a position as executive chef at Kitcho, one of Japan’s most famous restaurants, where he had spent the last nine years after graduating from Osaka’s TSUJI Culinary Institute. When Ishii landed in Geneva he landed as the official chef at the Japanese embassy to the United Nations, bringing with him fishing rods, kitchen knives and a holistic approach to Kaiseki – the Japanese equivalent to haute cuisine.


During Ishii’s time at Kitcho, he slowly worked his way up to the position of executive chef. “Each year I did the same thing every day, slowly learning how to prepare food with great respect,” Ishii tells me over the phone. “During my first year, I would travel to the local farms in the morning to select the day’s vegetables. These farms grow traditional vegetables that you find only in Kyoto and have been there for thousands of years.” Basic duties soon flourished and began to interest Ishii outside of work hours. “Whenever I had extra time, I would go and stay at these farms and help,” he recalls with pride. “At the Higuchi organic farm in Kyoto, I learned that in truth, all food is connected.”

Today, Ishii acts as executive chef at Umu – a Kyoto-style restaurant in London’s affluent Mayfair neighbourhood – but during the five years Ishii has spent in London, he has also been organising an Ikejime revolution. If successful, Ishii’s movement will drastically change how we treat fish in the UK, from line-caught seabass prepared in Michelin starred-restaurants, right down to the newspaper-wrapped cod sold throughout the nation.


A diverse range of activities have fed into Ishii’s unorthodox approach to food. It’s an approach that has seen him go beyond his station to cultivate mountain land owned by Kitcho, select flowers for dinner services and arrange the “cultural assets” of the restaurant’s interior. The results of this unique professional approach can be seen today in the atmosphere Ishii has helped create at Umu. Entering the dining room, guests will encounter the hundreds of pieces of pottery used throughout the Kaiseki service, each handcrafted by the head chef himself. Accompanying these ceramics are daily floral arrangements, picked and curated by Ishii.

When I ask why he chose to pursue a career in fine dining he speaks frankly, explaining that it is a combination of passion and practicality. “I love using my hands. As a child I would use whatever was closest to hand. I loved drawing, pottery and calligraphy… these were hobbies but my main love was fishing,” says Ishii. “Obviously when I caught a fish I’d need to cook it, so at the end of high school I realised that as a chef I could combine all of my passions.” When I ask if he considers his profession to be an art form, his response is quick and assured. “Yes, exactly that,” he says. “It’s all interpretation… you’re deciding by your fingers as opposed to your eyes.”


It’s 24 years since he became a chef, but Ishii still remains grounded about his craft. “After a year you can do this job, but after a decade you are ten times better,” he says. “Even this morning I was learning; I received a beautiful wild sea trout which had spent its life climbing rivers to spawn, so I presumed the meat would be tough and require quite thin slicing.” He pauses then goes on to add: “Then I tasted the fish and it melted in my mouth. I haven’t prepared the trout, but later on I’m thinking of slicing it thickly because of this fatty quality and I’ve never done that for this type of fish before.”

It seems that everything about Ishii’s character and background merges to affect his cooking. At the epicentre of his method is a passion for good quality fish. “When travelling overseas I will pack my fishing rods in my bags before my kitchen knives,” he tells me proudly. “When I was in Geneva as chef to the Japanese ambassador, I would travel to Lake Geneva and speak with the local fishermen, fish with them and source the meals at the embassy depending on their catches.” After leaving Geneva, he worked for several years in New York before becoming the Omakase chef at Morimoto Restaurant. “I would use a lot of the local ingredients such as live fluke, live blackfish and other fish imported from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market,” he explains. “The fishmongers couldn’t provide me with good fish, but I could fillet live fish the proper way for amazing quality and taste.”


After arriving in London to work at Umu, Ishii was less than impressed by the fish on offer. “There are a lot of boats in the UK who will catch a fish and put it into a container out on the deck, then they pour ice onto the catch. Having taken such a long time to die, the fish experience great amounts of stress. Adrenalin means more oxidisation of the meat and this will ruin the taste and texture,” he explains. “In Japan, good fishermen will kill immediately after taking a fish from the sea, they will also remove all the blood.” What Ishii really wanted to see was fish prepared using a technique called Ikejime. “For Ikejime, the fisherman puts a knife into the neck and tail of a fish then feeds a wire into the spine breaking the nervous system,” he says while demonstrating. “This way, the the brain cannot send a message to the meat and the freshness stays much longer.”

Refusing to accept the standard of fish that was offered by his suppliers, Ishii began to patiently climb the rungs of London’s fish markets: “I kept on complaining to sellers, yet no one could bring me the right type of fish.” He went to Billingsgate, the famous London fish market where “there were some good and some bad fish dotted around the stalls”, but “they couldn’t pick out what they considered to be the superior fish on display” so he decided to take his hunt outside of London and down to England’s southwest coast.

“I focused on Cornwall because it’s a long peninsula,” he tells me. “In Japan I would take the same approach, that’s where the best fish are.” Upon leaving the capital, Ishii’s efforts began to pay off: “I met a fishmonger in St. Ives who maintained a Cornish tradition of carefully handling fish, and so I started to buy from them.” Just like the farms he spent time on back in Kyoto, Ishii became involved with the inner-workings of the Cornwall business he was supporting. “I began to visit their premises and teach their fishermen Ikejime,” he says. “I asked them to use this preparation method for the fish that they supplied us at the restaurant.”


It wasn’t long before Ishii realised that a single Ikejime supplier would not be enough for his needs; as his knowledge of the UK fishing industry grew, so did his aspirations to alter it. In order to do so, he began to contact every Cornish fisherman he could reach. “I made it my project to share this Japanese technique with English fishermen,” he says. “I went to Cornwall to teach those who were interested.” He named the project ‘the fish and chip revolution’, as his ambitions involve the eventual use of Ikejime at all levels of the fishing industry.

The Ikejime uprising is still in its early stages. Ishii travels to the coast to teach on the boats in person and also talks at both conventions and kitchens to spread the message among those at the forefront of fine cuisine. “It’s a long trip to Cornwall from London and if there’s a rough sea then staying upright on the boat is a challenge… let alone teaching,” he says. “But it’s great to see the local fishermen using different techniques to those I have seen in Japan. I learn so much from them.”

Assorted Cornish and Portuguese Ikejime fish sashimi plate
Assorted Cornish and Portuguese Ikejime fish sashimi plate

Ishii’s Ikejime revolution has presented him with highs and lows, and many chefs have been resistant at first to adopting his new techniques. “For some chefs, they will see our fish as damaged because of the cuts in the tail and neck. But for a year I have explained Ikejime to chefs and said to all of them, ‘if you want this quality then we can share’.” Throughout this campaign, Ishii has only bought his fish from certain types of fishermen and is wary of asking people to change how they earn a living. “I only focus on daily fishing, not the big commercial fishermen because I know that whole story,” he adds. “I know it’s how they earn their livelihood and I can’t ask them to change.”

The task that Ishii has set himself and the Cornish fishing industry is a large one, but I hope that with his years of experience, his determination and a lot of patience, this passionate and energetic chef will succeed in changing the flavour of fish in this country for the better.

Photography Jan Klos

Cycling Japan: Tour De Nippon

Papersky magazine founder Lucas Badtke-Berkow speaks with Conor Mahon about his Japan-based cycling club that places local culture at its centre

Bikes are parked against a wall while Tour de Nippon riders take a well-earned rest
Bikes are parked against a wall while Tour de Nippon riders take a well-earned rest

JAPAN WEEK: Lucas Badtke-Berkow came to Japan from the United States in 1993 and three years later he established Knee High Media Japan with his wife, Kaori Berkow. The publishing house was started in order to create a string of innovative print titles including children’s magazine Mammoth, MetroMin (the first free subway paper in Tokyo) and Papersky – a magazine celebrating travel and culture in Japan.

The tour passes through Kagoshima Prefecture in the southwestern tip of Kyushu island
The tour passes through Kagoshima Prefecture in the southwestern tip of Kyushu island

Papersky has built a unique interaction with its readership by hosting a series of activity-based clubs, one of the most popular being the Tour De Nippon – a series of cycle tours through rural Japan, which celebrate the local traditions, cuisine and industries that make up the many prefectures of the island nation. Here, Conor Mahon speaks with Badtke-Berkow to discuss Tour de Nippon, the bicycles you find in Japan and his love for the countryside.

What was your first experience of cycling in Japan?

My first bicycle ride in Japan was on a Mamachari. In Japanese ‘Mama’ means ‘mom’ and ‘chari’ means bicycle – they are ridden by everybody and are very cheap. The easy-to-use low frame, big wheels and capacity to carry loads of groceries or kids are the reason for their popularity. I see them as the bicycle version of a ’70’s Chevy.

Why did you start Tour de Nippon?

I started it as a way to create a ‘real’ community around our magazine, Papersky. I wanted to expand and to create something more than a travel magazine printed on paper. These tours offer a media where the readers can not only enjoy the content but also experience a ‘true’ version of Japan, one that I have come to love. Participants on our tours see this reality through the local people, places and foods that make Japan unique.

Tour de Nippon in Onomichi city
Tour de Nippon in Onomichi city

What benefits are there to seeing Japan by bike as opposed to train or tour bus?

I believe bicycles are the perfect way to travel. A bike will allow you to cover a large area in a single day and yet the place won’t fly past in a blur. You feel great after knowing that all the ground you covered was achieved by using your own energy. You get to feel the ‘air’ of these regions when you pass by small villages and towns as people cry out ‘Konichiwa’.

How would you describe the cycling culture in Japan? Are you experiencing a boom as we are here in the UK?

Yes, people here love their bicycles! We have all the popular road, mountain and cross bikes that you find in the UK, plus we have Keirin bicycles (track/fixed gear) and of course the beloved Mamacharis. For the Tour de Nippon we use mini velos, which are extremely fun to ride and spectacular to look at. The bicycles we use are easy to take on trains and planes but fast enough to easily cover the 40–50 km we cover on our routes.

How do Japan’s prefectures differ in terms of a cycling experience?

There are 47 different prefectures and each has its own local culture, vocabulary, food, customs, festivals and nature. Since the Edo period (1603–1868), each area has taken great pride in their local identity. If you just see Tokyo, it’s easy to miss the diverse local culture that remains in rural Japan. One important role that the Tour de Nippon tours plays, is to offer a window into these local cultures.

As far as natural terrain goes, some prefectures are extremely mountainous and cool, even in the summer. Some offer small seaside towns with stunning beaches and beautiful views of the coast, while others have sand dunes and active volcanoes, as well as tropical forests and quiet inland sea areas, which are mostly found in southern Japan.

“Japan continues to carry on customs dating back hundreds of years and we want to share that knowledge with our riders”

Members of the group sit down for a traditional lunch made of local cuisine during the tour
Members of the group sit down for a traditional lunch made of local cuisine during the tour

What’s the most challenging climb you’ve encountered on a tour and what route would you recommend for the seasoned cyclist?

Our tours in general are not too physically demanding. We spend an entire day taking in the cultures of different regions, so the tours are far from hardcore riding – you won’t see very much spandex.

We do try to offer a few steep hills during each ride, just to leave an impression. Many of the best climbs take us through mountains, the panoramic views are well worth the effort. Experienced cyclists appreciate that our tours offer a unique take on Japan and travel, but an element of physical challenge at the same time.

Sumo wrestler ornaments made by the group during a visit to Takamatsu
Sumo wrestler ornaments made by the group during a visit to Takamatsu

Your trips often include visits to sample local industry and meet craftspeople. Why do you feel this is an important aspect of Tour de Nippon?

Yes, we frequently visit local sake makers, breweries, farmers, artisans, potters, wood workers, and so on. Japan continues to carry on customs dating back hundreds of years and we want to share that knowledge with our riders. It’s extremely important for people to experience the beauty and history of these local industries first-hand. If our members are inspired to return or invest, then hopefully this will help these cultures to continue well into the future.


Click here to see videos of the Tour de Nippon

Photography KaO Nakanaka