I’m so tired of them washing me, or not washing me properly. The grains of rice tend to get stuck between my wooden planks. But when Chef Jiro Sakamoto does it, it’s always different. He gives me proper care and attention, pays heed to the details of my grooves and curves. Maybe I remind him of a loved one in Fukuoka, a woman he used to caress, or a child he used to wash. The restaurant, our restaurant, is getting quieter now that we’re well into our years, floundering in an ocean of its own.
Tonight, the flashes are hurting my eyes and my body. I feel like I’m in a CT scan, the photographers crowding around me with their camera strobes. If I was made of an older, cheaper wood I might have splintered by now. The media previews happen three of four times a year, but they have been going on for years now. They are organised by the hotel to please our manager, Mr. Kalidass. Unsuspecting journalists would be treated to the “freshest of sushi, sashimi and tempura alongside appetizers that include Sakura Bistro’s signature Kumi No.1”. But why does Kumi get to be number one all the time?
“A dome-shaped appetiser glistening with a secret recipe dark sauce,” wrote one journalist a few years back. Another called it “a rich concoction of crabmeat, avocado and white fish to put a smile on your face”. Bah! Only I know the truth, because I’ve been at Chef Sakamoto’s side for eighteen years now. Only I know that Kumi was created at a time when Mr. Kalidass had threatened to replace him with Chef Daniel Magome, a Michelin-star tour de force from Bangkok’s Oriental Hotel. Only I know that after Chef Sakamoto had saved his job did he replace fresh crabmeat with crabmeat-flavoured sticks, the ones made of pulverised fish. Only I know that Kumi is drizzled with a “secret sauce” to mask its low-grade flavours.
The barrage of flashes start again—oh, the absurdity of it all. The lady with the largest camera flash comes up to my sail nose and blasts a big, bright one. My nigiris must be squirming, my tempuras scorched in an instant, medium-rare wagyus turned well done. This lady with the short hair has no style—in both photography and clothing. She wears a flowered shirt, long-sleeved, over loose jeans and a pair of trainers. She’s from the local newspaper and she’s following a younger photographer around, the one from the luxury magazine. I want to say to the newspaper lady, Look here ma’am, I’m not a dead body. I’m not some forensic evidence, not a body thrown off a condominium block, not a front page photo.
The younger photographer with the smaller camera has better style, is more creative. She wears a long drape skirt over a black top that shows her curves, her long hair dancing as she moves around the room. She requests for a photo of Chef Sakamoto at work at his sushi station, and that is how I know she is more creative. She is able to think outside the media room. Younger photographer has an irritating American accent, but I’ll excuse her because she doesn’t flash at me. Instead, she uses natural lighting to her advantage, makes use of the room’s ceiling lights and the semi-translucent shoji doors. I know that her smaller Canon 3000D, paid using her hard-earned money from freelance assignments, will produce great things in her delicate hands.
At the dinner table, they talk over me. The younger girl doesn’t eat beef, doesn’t eat wagyu. The boy next to her cuts a large chunk of salmon shioyaki into half and puts one portion onto her plate. I raise my sails—are they colleagues or are they companions? The girl lets him, while the boy scribbles onto a notepad, beef nigiri is soft. White creamy fish fillet. On the next page he writes: Sushi will knock you off your socks. Rainbow Roll a tribute to Hawaiian rainbows. Older photographer has a companion, too, an equally older lady, stern-looking, critical. And criticise she does, telling her photographer colleague that the hotel has been serving Kumi for nine years now, even noticing the use of crabmeat stick instead of fresh crabmeat. The quality has dropped, she laments. This dish is nothing new.
I sigh. I know this older lady. And while I’m happy that someone has finally caught Kumi out for her bogusness, it’s still bad news for Chef Sakamoto and the rest of us at Sakura Bistro. Older lady is deputy editor at a national newspaper and a personal friend of Mr. Kalidass, and so she is to be pleased at all costs. I turn to face her, inching closer as if to say, Have you sampled my other offerings? There’s bluefin tuna sashimi and soft shell crab roll. Or how about my beef kushiage, cuts of marinated wagyu served with juicy spring onions? I know that she is vegetarian only at home, because I once overheard her saying to Mr. Kalidass how delicious our wagyu was. Over the years I’ve also learnt that writers and photographers come in pairs for media previews, though they are often romantic partners masquerading as one or the other. A photographer could really just be the writer’s boyfriend and vice versa.
At ten o’clock when our “friends of the media” have left, I sigh a big relief. The Public Relations girls from upstairs sit back in their chairs, start to check their messages on WhatsApp. Hosting the media gets easier the more sessions you do, but it still drains your energy having to keep the media happy all night. Mr. Kalidass comes in and they go over the “next steps”—the promise of at least five media clippings over the next month (“but it all depends on their editors”), the push for online as well as print exposure (“again it all depends on their editors”, “well why didn’t you invite the Online Editor?”) and why top magazines like TimeOut and Harper’s Bazaar were not invited (“James declined” and “Aster couldn’t make it”).
In the end, Mr. Kalidass lets them go and it’s not another ten minutes before they whisk me back into the kitchen, where my job of preening and containing is done, and I’m safely back in Chef Sakamoto’s arms where I belong.
Chef Sakamoto looks more haggard now, the lines around his eyes more pronounced, the flesh of his cheeks drooping a little. He picks up an untouched edamame, pop three green beans into his mouth. He shouldn’t have to eat leftovers, I think. He is a well-known Japanese chef in a five-star restaurant in the middle of Kuala Lumpur city centre, next to the famous Suria KLCC shopping mall. Or are they not paying him enough here? I make it a point to confront Mr. Kalidass the next time he steps into the kitchen, which is rarely, if only to send a dish back that a customer thinks is not “hot enough” or “cold enough” or “cooked enough”. It is an unspoken understanding that the kitchen is Chef Sakamoto’s territory, well-guarded by his assistants and a few long-serving waitresses, while anything outside of the “wet floor tiles” is Mr. Kalidass’s jurisdiction. But seeing as he is the restaurant manager, I’m resigned to the fact that he can do as he pleases.
It’s late now and most of the workers have gone home—even Mr. Kalidass himself, who often leaves Chef Sakamoto to lock up because he’s lazy and trusting enough. I smile, because it’s a rare and quiet weekday night where I can be alone with Chef Sakamoto. It’s nights like these when he whistles to me—a Japanese tune? A Japanese rhyme?—because it’s nothing I recognise from my own childhood. It’s nights like these when he takes his time with me, picking on the leftovers from my belly that are still good, then turning me upside down to scrub me with warm water and soap. It’s after hours, and there is no urgency, no high turnover, no unreasonable demands, and most importantly, no one here but us. Chef Sakamoto caresses me with those long fingers, fingers that have bled under the sushi knife, fingers that can withstand pan-seared beef, fingers that have been dipped into Kumi’s secret sauce (which is just butter, mayonnaise and a bit of mustard) before touching his mouth.
He scrubs my bottom, then rinses me with another round of warm water, making sure no soap suds are stuck. Then he leaves me to air dry on the top cabinet—the best way and the right way to dry dishes and sushi boats (never use a dishcloth, all the bacteria live there). He removes his chef hat and starts to grill himself a saba fish. He scoops leftover rice from the pot, still warm because it’s plugged in to the socket. He turns the switch off, and whatever is left is used to make garlic fried rice for tomorrow’s bento set. But he grills two fishes instead of one, scoops two bowls of rice instead of one. My my, our man is hungry tonight!
Water from my body drips slowly onto the kitchen counter as I watch Chef Sakamoto cut the mackerel into fillets, then rinse it under cold water. He pours a half-opened bottle of sake into a bowl. Chef Sakamoto drinks the rest of the sake, shakes his head vigorously like it’s strong medicine. He belches loudly and I stifle a laugh, my body rattling on the cabinet. He dips the fillets into the sake bowl, then does a little dance which I’ve never seen him do. You and I, we’re just the same, I think. When we’re not feeding friends of the media, we’re feeding the rich kids of Petronas money, the twin towers that rise a hundred and ten storeys above our heads even as we work in the basement of an old five-star hotel. I wonder about his hometown in Fukuoka, which I’ve heard him say to his assistant has the world’s best Hakata ramen—simple cloudy soup broth, lots of spring onions and thin noodles that are firm, barikata, never soft. Won’t they have taller skyscrapers there? Will he stay on in KL after all these years, or will he go back to Fukuoka someday? Where are his parents? Does he have siblings? I have never seen any of his friends or visitors come to the restaurant, and he doesn’t mention them to anyone either.
I come from Puchong, but Chef Sakamoto won’t know where that is. I was born in a wood pellet factory along Jalan TPP 5/6. Only I know that he has no qualification, that his stars were made up by the hotel management, his bio written by the Public Relations manager upstairs. Outside Japan, it’s easy to lie about knowing sushi and getting away with it. It’s even easier when he’s the only Japanese in the restaurant. The rest are locals—from Cheras, Kajang, Kelana Jaya, even as far away as Gopeng or Alor Setar. You and I, we’re just the same. We’re both imposters, we are both in the same boat! And I laugh at my wittiness and rattle the cabinet again. I stop, trying not to draw attention to myself, trying not to alarm him.
Chef Sakamoto places the fillets onto a piece of paper towel, patting them dry before salting both sides of the fish and putting them on the grill. He cuts a wedge of lemon, then grates white radish onto the side of both plates. And suddenly I see the cloth that acts as the kitchen door move. A young girl appears, long black hair sweeping her shoulders. She wears a tight blouse and a drape skirt. I gasp. It’s the girl from the media preview tonight—the young photographer who doesn’t eat beef, the one who has her salmon shioyaki cut into half for her by her boyfriend writer.
She fakes a Japanese greeting in a cute voice (“Ohayo gozaimasu!”) and Chef Sakamoto laughs. “That means good morning,” he says. She jingles the keys in her hands, then drops them with a clang onto the kitchen counter. She goes round to give him a hug from behind. Chef Sakamoto is facing the fire, not embracing her back, aware that his hands are dirty from touching fish, salt, lemon and radish. But a wide smile forms on his face. I gasp. How long has this been going on? How do they even know each other before tonight? I inch forward on the cabinet to get a closer look.
“Why are you making food for me?” she asks. “I already ate.”
“This is my special saba. A dish I miss dearly.”
She pouts, then kisses his neck. The pecking noises make me uneasy, and I shut my eyes hoping to shut out the noise, too. I can’t see why, no I can see why Chef Sakamoto is infatuated with her. So who is that boy who cut the salmon shioyaki for her? I must tell him, I must tell him. She is cheating on you, your photographer girlfriend!
“That sushi boat was so odd,” she says in her American accent.
“It was not very creative. And very boring.”
“Well, it’s an old trick. Everybody loves it. Did you like Kumi’s?”
“Oh yes,” she says. “Oishii!”
“Make sure you do a good write-up for us.”
“That all depends on Kenneth. At least I got a good shot of you. My pictures speak for themselves.” She kisses his neck again, and Chef Sakamoto says, “Don’t leave any marks.”
I am on the cabinet’s edge. I am beside myself, beyond myself. The words ‘darling’ and ‘not creative’ are burning me. Chef Sakamoto has betrayed us all, given a set of keys to an outsider. What would Mr. Kalidass think of this? And what is she even doing here? Why can’t they meet outside like normal couples do? If I could pick up the phone to ring Mr. Kalidass, I would. If I could pick up a kitchen knife, I would.
I try to make out their whispering, my body hanging halfway off the cabinet, the tip of my sailboat nose poking out. I don’t like this girl anymore. I regret saying that she’s young and creative, that she has better style than the older photographer. That she will go far with her photos, that she is a hard worker who bought her own Canon camera. Maybe Chef Sakamoto bought it for her? Unthinkable. I feel my shoulders trembling as though I’m coming down with a fever. I smell burnt mackerel, because Chef Sakamoto has turned his back on the fire. The girl is sitting on the kitchen counter, a pair of legs wrapped around his waist.
You little bitch! I think. Get your hands off Chef Sakamoto!
The sake bowl smashes to the floor, then fits of giggles and shhhh! shhhh!
I am fuming, I am filled with rage. Chef Sakamoto is pushing her skirt up, and I’m about to be sick. To say that I’m an old boat, that I’m odd. I have been here longer than any of his staff, than any of these young girls. I may not be a main dish, but I am a vessel, a carrier. Without me, aburi, nigiri and tempura would not be so delightfully presented to diners, who relish the idea of eating off a boat. They could have been placed instead on Daiso dishes, bought at RM5.90 a piece, made in China not Japan—inferior to say the least. I may have been born in Puchong, but at least I was lovingly cut and fashioned into a sailboat, a local item, Made in Malaysia. And look how far I’ve come, from a little-known industrial site to a five-star hotel right next to Suria KLCC and the Petronas Twin Towers. I’m not just a boat, I’m a vessel, like your mother’s womb, like your womb.
I see the flames grow on the stove, but Chef Sakamoto’s back is still turned. The girl’s eyes are closed, her mouth gaping like a fish desperate for feed, the metal of the kitchen counter clanging as they rock back and forth. I scream but no one can hear me. So I take a leap of faith. To save this kitchen, to save his career and to save us all, I give myself one last push, crashing onto the counter and breaking up their reverie.
Jonathan Katz Illustration www.katse-illustrations.com
Wan Phing Lim
Wan Phing Lim was born to Malaysian parents in 1986 in Butterworth, Penang. Her short stories have appeared in Catapult.co (USA), Ricepaper Magazine (Canada) and anthologies by Ethos Books (Singapore), Monsoon Books (Singapore/UK) and Fixi Novo (Malaysia). She is currently based in Kuala Lumpur.
Illustration by Jonathan Katz. Jonathan hails from Tel Aviv, and after having spent a few years in Kyoto he is now undertaking his Masters at the Royal College of Art.