On Sunday mornings at Hobart’s Farm Gate Market, the queue for Masaaki Koyama’s sushi is as much a fixture as his truck, airbrushed with fish scales and flowers. To attempt a demography via headwear:
home-knitted beanies and brand-name beanies; a redsequinned beret and something that looks like a repurposed tea-cosy; AFL caps, rugby caps, hardware-chain hats; puffer-jacket hoods and hoodie hoods; and, optimistically, a paper-straw sun visor. All of these bobbing in the unified shuffle of a keep-warm dance.
Among the weekly faithful is a substantial contingent of flight-tagged backpacks, MONA tote bags, bulky digital cameras.
“Keep an eye on your purse, love,” a man stage-whispers to his wife. “We’re in convict country.”
From this far back in the queue, the chef himself cannot be seen. Only his hands are visible, conjuring at his sushi counter, now and again brandishing the orange-blue flame of a blowtorch to sear salmon aburi.
In the time it takes to reach the front, several kinds of weather pass overhead. Innocuous cloud cover gives way to light icy rain that hits with deliberate, minimalist precision before fierce, viscous sunlight scorches through, threatening to wilt the astroturf.
Sometimes people cheer when they reach the front. Masaaki and his market wingman, Allan, cheer back.
Passers-by double-take, bemused. “Must be some bloody good sushi.”
It has all the hallmarks of a feel-good film treatment: Exotic Stranger with world-class culinary expertise moves to small town at the bottom of an island at the bottom of world (ideally for love) and sets about plying the trade he knows best, unfamiliar though it may be to his adopted home. At first, it seems like lunacy. Locals are wary of the foreign fare, and business is agonisingly, heartbreakingly slow. The tables in the modest restaurant stay mostly empty; there’s much leftover rice. But the residents are gradually, steadily, overwhelmingly won over, and fervour trickles out beyond the edges of the town to reach the ears, mouths and hearts of the state, the nation, the world. (Cue photograph of chef beaming, in wetsuit with surfboard tucked under one arm; another of chef beaming, cradling freshly caught tuna.)
Known fondly around Tasmania as the surfing sushi chef, Masaaki did in fact move to Australia for love: his former English teacher in Osaka, a Tasmanian girl. His tiny, eponymous bricks-and-mortar in the Huon Valley town of Geeveston, an hour south of Hobart, is open Friday and Saturday afternoons, and books out weeks in advance. The Farm Gate stall has been great publicity for the restaurant, but there’s also something sweetly egalitarian about it, allowing people the opportunity to try the best sushi in Tasmania in small, affordable doses, without the long drive. Hence the queue.
So, is it worth the wait? Yes, in part for the several minutes spent up close, watching him compose. Between orders, Masaaki sweeps his counter clean. Tabula rasa. He greets new customers graciously, thanking them for waiting, then prepares each sushi roll with deft, unruffled attention. Everything is meticulously, elegantly harmonised: vibrant threads of local wakame, carrot, beetroot and kinshi tamago rest atop rich, dark tuna. A precisely placed mesclun plume, a swipe of freshly ground Tasmanian wasabi. Along with the handling of money, wasabi preparation is a task entrusted to Allan. (Masaaki used to have another helper, but all the wasabi-grating is not kind on the wrists.) The two have a quiet, comfortable rapport, somewhat visually incongruous in that small space: the tall burly Anglo, the fine-framed Japanese chef.
By 3 pm the sky has settled on searing, and the market has been swept up. Masaaki’s sushi truck is now shuttered and parked in the shade on the opposite side of the street. He appears with chef gear swapped out for Tassie civvies: Kathmandu polar fleece. But his geniality remains, despite his having been awake and prepping at 1 am. Masaaki gently proposes coffee and is soon savouring a cappuccino in small sips.
“Lucy wanted to go home, and I wanted to go … somewhere,” he elaborates of the shift to Australia. Somewhere turned out to be Dover (population 958) at the base of the Huon Valley, a world away from Osaka, where Masaaki had worked as a sushi chef. He spent his first year in Tasmania fishing, chopping wood, and doing painting and repair jobs for Lucy’s parents.
“And I enjoyed the environment – it’s beautiful here. The surfing is so great. More sharks, but less people. To be honest, I’m a little bit worried about the sharks, but I always forget.”
Culinarily, Masaaki tested the waters by setting up a sushi stall at the Taste of the Huon festival. Encouraged by its success, he opened Masaaki’s Sushi in 2009, in a holein-the-wall next to his father-in-law’s Geeveston jewellery shop. At that time, many of the residents had never tasted sushi, and Masaaki had little English with which to persuade them.
“For basically two years I couldn’t communicate. But I’m very friendly – I could live anywhere.”
He compensated by smiling a lot, and let his sushi do the rest.
“One day I saw Lucy’s dad, Howard, laughing and taking a picture of my open sign. I went out to see what was so funny. I’d spelled it like this: OPNE. I don’t know how many days it was like that.”
These days it likely wouldn’t matter if the sign read ORANGES; people would still turn out in droves.
Masaaki is curious about the length of this morning’s wait, and on hearing the answer he looks stricken. He has given a lot of thought to this, the perplexing willingness to wait. It’s the impetus behind his pre-made lane: a consolation
slipstream for ready-to-go sashimi, inari and miso soup. It’s all delicious, even if the artistry is not directly witnessed – the miso a heartier broth than expected, enriched by crayfish and stripey trumpeter. The likeness of the latter is painted on a board, mascot-style, inside the truck.
But just as Masaaki exudes patience – in the crafting of each dish, through the restaurant’s lean early years – so too do his customers, new and old, in the weekly queue. And for most, perhaps, the waiting proves its own reward.