Kenichi Arimura displays his talents at Sushi Shin, which offers a Japanese kaiseki-style fine dining experience of course menus in Zurich, Switzerland. For three years from 2004, he worked at Kozantei Ubuya in Yamanashi prefecture, Japan, and he worked in Switzerland from 2007 to 2011. Since winning his first Michelin star in 2011, he traversed all over China, from northernmost Harbin to southernmost Hainan Island, honing his craft wherever he went. At Sushi Shin, Arimura explores menus that are embraced in Switzerland while also maintaining the delicate technique and aesthetics of Japanese cuisine. The restaurant was awarded a star in the 2021 Michelin guide. He shares his thoughts and passions with us in this interview.
Aspiring to Become a Professional Chef
Arimura says he grew up in an average, ordinary family of five. Ever since he was little, he loved to eat; sometimes, he even had stomachaches from eating too much of his favourite foods.
“When I was in senior high school, I often packed my own bentō lunch,” he recalls. “I already liked cooking then.”
What first drew him to the world of professional cooking was his experience at his aunt’s izakaya pub, where he had been helping out since senior high.
“I still remember how delighted I was to hear that comment from the patrons: ‘Thanks, that was delicious.’ That’s when I decided I want to become a chef.”
However, his parents were against this idea, and he entered the Self-Defence Forces of Japan after graduating from senior high. Nevertheless, his passion for cooking was revived when he was assigned to the catering department for three months. After two years of work, he found a new job at a wedding hall. Finally, he was on his way to becoming a chef.
A Unique Service Focused on Communication, in a Style that Values Japanese Culture
In the landlocked country of Switzerland, it is no easy feat to maintain a regular stock of fresh, high-quality fish. About a decade ago, when Arimura first arrived in Switzerland, it was also a challenge to procure other necessary ingredients of Japanese cuisine.
“Back then, I couldn’t even find tofu or konnyaku (a chewy jelly made from the devil’s tongue plant), so I had to make it all from scratch. What’s more, the water in Switzerland is hard, so you can’t make dashi (Japanese soup stock) from it. I actually used to go all the way to the mountains just to bring back spring water.”
Sushi Shin’s menu is called Omakase, and each guest is welcomed with a course set designed by the chef. Using Japanese dishes and bowls, each course appears in the kaiseki style of Japanese fine dining. Arimura is incredibly attentive, so that every visitor, even those who aren’t familiar with Japanese food culture, can relax and enjoy their meals.
“For example,” he says, “if you don’t explain to them beforehand, they might think the decorative leaves laid underneath the food is for eating, or they might drink the dipping soup that comes with tempura. I make sure to carefully instruct the service staff about the timing of serving and explaining each dish.”
What Arimura emphasises in the restaurant’s service is communication. He pays attention to the reactions of each guest to see whether they aren’t puzzled by the manner of arrangements peculiar to Japanese cuisine, and, if they are, he reaches out to them. His goal is to create a space where anyone can dine at ease.
Exploring New Styles of Japanese Cuisine in Switzerland
Sushi Shin offers a bespoke, thoughtful service across the counter. Arimura puts this setting—where the chef is at work behind the counter, right across from the patrons—to good use, constantly exploring the kind of menus that would be welcomed by Swiss people.
“At first, I was hesitant to break the traditional style of Japanese cuisine,” he recalls. “But there’s no point in serving food that we think is good, if nobody comes to eat them.”
Although he wavered between preserving tradition and making innovations, he was keenly aware of the need to adapt flavours to each country or region. At one point, he realised, “Even within Japan, tastes vary between different regions. Switzerland is just an extension of that.”
After this discovery, he began to undo the framework of the menus that he had developed over time, within the limits of what he could allow himself. He tried incorporating ingredients that are familiar in Swiss, such as using mascarpone and milk in goma-dofu (a kind of tofu made of sesame seeds).
There are no right answers in the world of cooking. Even now, when Swiss people have already embraced his creations, Arimura continues to improve his menus by observing the guests’ reactions, always challenging himself to discover new heights of flavour.
The Wonders of Japanese Cuisine Cross Borders
Arimura continues to explore new styles while also preserving the fundamental elements of Japanese cuisine. He will never forget the words of his master during his days as an apprentice: “He taught me that ‘Food is something to be enjoyed by seeing, by smelling, and by eating.’ I always take great care to strike a good balance of colours in how the dish is arranged.”
“The world of cooking is intriguing and profound: even if chefs continue to evolve, there is no end to our exploration and discoveries. I want to treasure my master’s teaching and keep moving forward,” says Arimura. Speaking from his experience of evolving his own cooking through interactions with Swiss people, he is confident that “The wonders of Japanese cuisine, which makes the most of quality ingredients, gets through to people regardless of nationality or culture.”
“Edible wild plants are often considered to be ingredients specific to Japanese food,” he continues, “but plants like warabi (eagle fern), fuki-no-tō (sweet-coltsfoot), and gyōjya-nin’niku (wild onion) can be harvested in the Swiss mountainous as well. When I’m picking fuki-no-tō in a mountain, people sometimes ask me, ‘What’s that? Is that edible?’ And I tell them that we eat it as tempura or in a stewed dish in Japan. I feel that I’m able to spread Japanese food culture when I’m outside my restaurant, too.”
His aspiration for the future is to establish a Japanese izakaya-style pub, where anyone can just pop in and enjoy themselves. Always finding joy in the communications that occur through and over food, Arimura continues to explore new avenues of drawing out the limitless possibilities of Japanese cuisine.